How Women Can Get Ahead in the Workplace
Female advertising pioneer Charlotte Beers says women leaders need to trade modesty for bravery to get C-suite positions.
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.