Once named “the most powerful woman in advertising,” Charlotte Beers is a business legend who shattered the glass ceiling as she rocketed to the top. She was the first female senior vice president at J. Walter Thompson Advertising, the first female CEO of the multi-billion-dollar advertising company Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, and served as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy & Public Affairs, reporting to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Beers has since led the charge in helping career women realize their potential and lead on their own terms.
She now adds author to her credits, and her current book “I’d Rather Be in Charge” is a guide for women looking to shatter glass ceilings, reach the corner office and develop their highest self in the workplace and beyond. Beers is the keynote speaker WWPR’s Washington Women of the Year Award Luncheon on November 15.
Why have you taken up this mission of helping women find themselves in the work place? What does this mean to you?
I was originally asked to write a memoir. But it turned into a book. I was fascinated with the question women would frequently ask during speaking engagements. They would ask “how did you do it?” To me they were really asking “how can I do it?” And I wanted to answer that as well as I could.
When I left Ogilvy I had the thrill of handing the baton to another woman CEO and I went to government where there is a very wide dispersion of women and men in the key spots, although there is still a lot to be gained there. But when I came back to the private sector I was astonished to look around and find out that the readiness, the education and the willingness had still not translated into even a proportion of the share of not only the titles but the prizes and the influence. And I just thought we can’t accept it. I just cannot accept it. Especially when I became convinced that companies aren’t going to change and the environment is not going to modify enough. So women have to change themselves and if they choose to do that, it will be fabulous.
In your book you talk about the progress of women in the workplace having gone from a period of revolution to a period of evolution. What does this era of evolution look like?
Women are graduating with as much skill set and as much motivation as men. So that means there’s no question women are intending to and must take a role in providing stimulus to our country, but also support for their family.
I had a group of women that I was teaching and they were stunned to discover that 19 out of 20 of them were the primary wage earners in their family. So we women are really holding up society in an important way. That’s evolutionary, the sheer earning power and responsibility in women.
The following quote taken from your book discusses being leaderly vs. womanly. “We must not sacrifice the bolder, bigger, braver sides of ourselves; we need to know when to choose leaderly over womanly.” What’s the difference?
When I would speak to executive women they often defended themselves, saying they were nice. This came from childhood. Children are taught by their mothers that the girls should be nice and the guys can be rugged, and I couldn’t believe that stereotype was still influential. I just got quite impatient with it. The difficulty is what does bravery look like in us women? And that’s where you have these amazingly resilient, fiercely involved brave women. But they don’t have the vocabulary and the means to make that very clear. There are some few women, like there are some few men, who can speak it or who live it in such a way. But men have many more options in that area.
Once you’ve nailed down what you’re about and what you know to be true about yourself, then you have to find your ability to express that to other people. And that means if you want to interrupt a meeting, if you want to send something in a different way, you’re going to have to do it on your terms and you are going to have to do it so that you know you’ve communicated well even though they don’t like it. Womanly is an idea that gives me a rash.
Women like Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer and Anne Marie Slaughter have gotten a lot of attention lately for being very vocal about how they manage the roles of executive, wife and mother. Do you think this emphasis on being able to have it all or not, is a step forward or backward for women leaders?
I think it’s unsophisticated to say we’re all alike on that. No man would sign up for being exactly like the guy down the hall. In some of the women I’ve met, their children and their relationship with their children is A1 first. And you can’t say to them that this is not the right system for them, so they are going to make some compromises that other women wouldn’t make.
I can’t be an expert in that sense, but the one thing I think is true is that you have to give the person you are at work, and the way you tend to that work, a place of significant honor in your life. And that’s what women have trouble doing. Because they don’t quite know how valuable work is to them personally. That’s why I advocate doing this self-inventory. And then once you realize where it fits into your life you have to support and honor that every chance you get. I think that helps you make choices that you feel good about and those choices are going to be different for each of us.
This year’s presidential election has put women’s issues front and center, especially when it comes to women’s health and fair pay. Why do you think this is so? Is it simply a power grab for the female vote or would you characterize it as a shift in attitudes toward women?
I don’t consider myself an expert in this area, but I believe the world is collecting groups who have extreme feelings. The more extreme attitudes about women’s health, and about child care and abortion has fired up a relatively small group of people and they are very dominant. Almost any country you go to, the people who care the most have the most power in the dialogue because they’re willing to stage, be outrageous and dig in. So I don’t think these are new issues about women as much as they are newly fired up.
If I were talking to women politicians, whom I don’t think are as much on the platform as we are on the subject, then I would say you’ve got to become very sophisticated when communicating to men about what you are doing when you discuss my body, my well-being, my attitude, my potential and hope for myself.
As a career woman climbing the corporate ladder, did you have a mentor?
The best mentors I had were when I got in trouble or when people criticized or pulled me up short. I considered that my highest learning curve. I didn’t have any women around me. I actually had a wonderful chance to learn by watching the men. And because they thought I was a one-off they didn’t bother to do any hiding or equivocate. Now I do say to women its tougher for you in some ways than it was for me because I got it all raw, frontal and direct. I was pushed around a lot, but always got the truth, so I could learn what was actually effective and how to move in the territory to which I’d been thrown.
Now it’s so politically correct — which is necessary — that I find when men talk about the women under them they are vague about who they are and what they want from them and women are equally puzzled. So I don’t know that we need mentors as much as we need to fight for clarity between ourselves and those who are critiquing us.
But if I had to give one, Colin Powell would be considered for me a mentor because I always learned something new from him. He wasn’t trying to teach me anything, he was just trying to shove me into the front lines. But I’ll never forget those lessons.
Would you rather wear high heels or flats?
I have to confess, I’ve just fallen back in love with heels. And that is because I’m spending more time in New York and you just can’t stand it. You see this women walking down the street and you think oh no. So I’ve learned to carry shoes in my bag, and I will pull out a heel. I refuse to go flat into the world.
Are you usually the first person at work or the last soul to leave?
I’m much more likely to be the first person at work, because I have a lot more personal energy in the morning. And I can’t wait to get out of there.
Hear More From Charlotte
Join us on November 15 at the 2012 WWPR Washington Woman of the Year luncheon to hear more from Charlotte and our Woman of the Year finalists who have reached a pinnacle in their respective careers. Registration is now open. Discounted rates for WWPR and PRSA members.