How Women Can Get Ahead in the Workplace

Charlotte Beers spent the better part of two decades at the upper echelon of the advertising world, including stints as CEO of Tatham-Laird & Kudner, chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide and chairman of J. Walter Thompson. Now, the female pioneer has written a book about her time in corporate America where she often found herself being the only woman in the boardroom. I’d Rather Be in Charge: A Legendary Business Leader’s Roadmap for Achieving Pride, Power, and Joy at Work advises women how to advance their career in the corporate world and gain the leadership positions they want. Beers discusses how she broke through the glass ceiling, and her biggest piece of advice: Don’t feel the need to be serious all of the time.

As one of the female pioneers in the advertising industry, how did you break through the so-called glass ceiling?
The key to success in advertising and marketing is ideas. Ideas tend to be gender neutral. I was good at idea generation and helping people get their ideas out. The other thing that matters in an agency is understanding and motivating clients. I came from the client side so I had comfort there. I think those two things kept me from being classified as “the girl.”

But equally important was the way I presented myself and built relationships. I was often the only woman in the room and the men would give me direct feedback — some of it not polite. But I would immediately take it in and understand what they meant. In today’s workplace, I think that women have a hard time getting that type of direct and open feedback. We are so politically correct. Most women managers tend to be distant from the men at the top. That’s something we have to overcome.

Did you meet much resistance as you continued to ascend the leadership ladder?
My way was to be more disarming, to use as much humor as possible right up to the moment I weighed in with serious and fierce conviction. Plus, mild flirting was a Southern style I used to remind us all that this is not brain surgery!

Has the business world changed for women since you first took over boardrooms in the ’80s and ’90s? What do you think accounts for those changes (or lack of changes)?
For one thing, women are competing with many more women and we’re still working out how to do that. But beyond that, it’s harder for women because there’s a subtle, even hidden discrimination they face at work today. For me, it was blatant and obvious that those in charge were apt to see me as inferior and incapable, and I knew the nature of that battle and that I had to fight it every day. Now it’s all gone underground in the politically correct environment and it’s hard to know what you have to prove and to whom. You may think you’re considered on an equal par with an equal shot for advancement because nobody’s obviously shutting you out or telling you that you just don’t seem to be management material — or giving you the honest feedback you need to improve when you do.

You recently published I’d Rather Be in Charge, a book that helps women develop their personal leadership style. Why do you think women still find it difficult to gain leadership positions in the workplace?
In the realm of tasks, reports and projects, women do an excellent job. But that ceases to be the point at any manager’s level. The work then becomes about propelling projects forward, getting your ideas heard, even imposing them on a reluctant group. That’s a very different skill set, one which women have had less opportunity to develop. Women, for all their verbal excellence, are uneasy with “guts ball” — putting it all out there, exposing their commitment and passion, pushing their audience. Even in the daily presentations, this is needed to project real authority. Some women try to do this by being severe, looking tailored and buttoned up. This may project “I mean business,” but it doesn’t communicate the kind of fervor and persuasion skills needed to be seen as a leader. Authority, or taking charge, is messy, uncomfortable, edgy, challenging. It can feel foolish, daring or pushy. This is the nature of leadership, and women have to get ready for it and comfortable with it.

Part of the problem for women you identify in your book is not being able to communicate their abilities and willingness to lead. How can aspiring leaders show executives they’re interested in a larger role at their company?
I think the most important thing to do, if you are stuck and want to grow, is to be an ambassador for your own brand. Get out of your own department. Go and meet, relate to and ask questions of colleagues in other departments — even the ones you don’t normally have access to. You should ignore the limitations imposed by the company culture. You should take on unexpected projects. Volunteer for things. Show genuine interest in the work that goes beyond your normal territory. You have to take responsibility for your career to break out.

I’m sure women — and aspiring leaders, in general — come up to you all the time looking for advice. Is there one go-to nugget you offer?
Women think being taken seriously as leaders means they have to be serious all the time. That’s not true. You don’t have to be serious all the time. But you should behave like a leader, which means replacing modesty with bravery. Women must accept the seriousness of their leadership roles, but they should lighten up.

Jeffrey Cattel is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.