Charlotte Beers, former chairwoman and C.E.O. of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, now runs seminars called “The X Factor” for female leaders. She says it’s vital to make self-assessments, and to include “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Q. Tell me about your early management roles.
A. I was in my early 30s, and I was the first management supervisor at J. Walter Thompson who was female. I had been an account supervisor, but management supervisor was more people, more levels. I thought I was really doing well, and I certainly was comfortable with the business. But then a friend of mine told me that one of our colleagues described my management style as menacing. I thought of myself as a friendly, gentle Southern belle. But I began to watch myself — something I think we all have to do — and I realized that I did end meetings on a threatening note. I created urgency when there was none. I was taking on the persona of “I really mean business” that I had learned from an earlier boss.
So I learned to watch myself more. I had to self-correct about talking too much and interrupting other people. Now that trait can be very helpful when you have to make a decision, but I also interrupted the process and discussion in meetings.
Q. Was this something that you became aware of yourself, or was it explicit feedback?
A. That comment from one of my peers about me coming off as menacing was devastating. It was exactly the opposite of the way I pictured myself. Nothing’s more helpful than finding out how others see you. If you can conduct that exercise in an impersonal way, you have information you can’t get any other way. It’s like doing consumer research. I did mine inadvertently, but I’ll never forget how helpful it was.
Q. In your experience, do managers do that, or do they avoid it?
A. When you do have some power, you can lose the sense of how you’re behaving and who you are, and you don’t want to do that. It’s dangerous. It’s very addictive to be given some power. One of the things I watch in other people is how they use the power they are given. It’s very important to me when I’m assessing someone.
Q. Tell me more about that.
A. I’m trying to understand how they used the power to hire and fire and promote and make those kinds of invisible choices that really affect other people’s lives. If they don’t have some generosity of spirit and some quality of teaching, I worry that they’re not going to bring along a strong culture.
Q. And how do you tell whether somebody has those qualities?
A. I would probably ask them, “What do you think is the most important thing in deciding to fire someone?” They might go through some business-school buzzwords, and then I say, “Well, then, how do you actually do it?” If they send a note, or they delegate it or they arrange three people in the room with them, I know that they’re not prepared to take full, personal responsibility. When I had to fire someone, I did it one-on-one.
Q. So what is an answer you like to hear in that context?
A. What I’m looking for is whether they are able to assess the whole person, not just some failing of theirs at work, because sometimes a person can be in the wrong slot. We are all inferior people to work with in some way, including ourselves. The trick is to match your failings with somebody’s strengths. That’s the game. These are very important moments of leadership.
Q. You mentioned earlier the importance of doing a self-assessment. Can you elaborate on that?
A. I have made that a big part of my teaching for women in the executive world. Don’t let someone tell you who you are. Keep your own scorecard, and it has to include the good, the bad and the ugly.
Q. What other lessons do you pass along?
A. For most of us, it’s a mistake to just let the quality of our work speak for itself, because sooner or later the quality of your relationships will prevail over the work. That was a watershed insight for me.
You have to recognize there will be a moment in time when you will not be able to be represented by the quality of your work but rather by the relationships you have. If you’re in a crisis, what matters is what you’re made of and what you believe and how well you can express that. What I say to people is to get ready for those moments by practicing every chance you get to take the lead, to step out in front of the work. Don’t hide behind it.
When those moments come along and you need to draw on resources that are internal and your personal belief system, if you don’t know what they are, others will tell you what they are. People can then come to you and say, “Well, you just don’t know how to lead from the front,” a critique I’ve never understood
Self-knowledge is so obvious-sounding that I hate to use it like that, but in fact you can be masterful at doing the work and you can be good in team relationships, but one day you will be called on to have difficult, complex relationships and a different part of you has to be used for that.
Q. How did you get that self-knowledge?
A. In my case, I was forced into it because I hit a wall, so sometimes the most useful way is just to get blown apart and have to step back and say, “What can I learn?” A lot of times it’s something you can learn, and I think that mistakes are great teachers. Sometimes a company’s culture is a big influencer in how you see yourself, and you have to sift through that and see if it’s a fit. Part of it is knowing yourself so well that you know where you fit, and knowing yourself so well that you know why you work.
Q. What about lessons from your childhood and teenage years?
A. I don’t recommend it, but I think adversity in childhood is pretty useful. I had two brothers who were a bit older than me, and my sister’s 10 years younger. The three of us grew up feeling like our back was always against the wall. We grew up too young. My father was an alcoholic, and he was volatile. You learn coping mechanisms. You keep your expectations real, and you learn what you’re made of.
My mother was not a cuddly woman. They never knew what my grades were. They assumed I did fine, so we had a kind of a take-care-of-yourself game. It wasn’t so bad, but at one key time, my mother said: “Anyone can get married. What are you going to do?” And I remember thinking, “You mean I can do almost anything?” I was influenced by the fact that it looked like we would have to do a lot on our own. It all helped me develop emotional self-sufficiency.
Q. Other management lessons?
A. This is an art form, but you have to understand that the more diverse people are, and the more uncomfortable they make you, the more likely you are to create something new together. Entertaining a certain amount of discomfort is a very important management tool.
Q. Can you elaborate?
A. In the digital age, people put too much stock in logic, data, the facts. But all the excitement and innovation is in the illogical, and the interpretation of this data by someone who’s still breaking the rules. So you as a manager have to be able to entertain chaos. Otherwise, you’ll never get close to the creative process. I worry that more and more today we lean toward that which is provable, when all the excitement is in the hard-to-prove.
Q. Other thoughts about culture?
A. I remember being on a panel, and the moderator asked all of us to complete the sentence, “The hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do is … .” Every single person said, “Change the culture.” It’s an illusion that you can really change a culture in a highly dramatic way in any hurry, and the strongest companies are those that have deeply layered cultures, unless of course they’re driving them into the ground. Then what you can do is change the edges and the top and keep the stuff that matters and strip away the rest.
It’s like a brand. There are some things about a brand that you can’t afford to change. So culture is about how we do things around here, and I have found that most of the time the culture is informal and interpreted by instinct. The most dangerous thing is a company with no culture, where one guy speaks of it one way and one woman speaks of it another. Then you’ve got a company that’s rudderless. So there are worse things than a deeply entrenched culture.
Q. Let’s shift to hiring. What do you look for?
A. Well, I think as a C.E.O., one-third of my time was spent on hiring the one right person, because that hire could shift the future of the agency. It’s time-consuming and it’s courtship. What am I looking for? I think it’s very hard to measure the weaknesses in people. They’re hidden, and sometimes they’re hidden from themselves. If you don’t know the weaknesses, you can’t allow for them. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to hire them. We’ve all got weaknesses. I can tell you mine in 3-D, but I want to know theirs, and I have to stay with them until we both discover it, so I know that it’s not a killer if they come work for us.
Q. How do you do that?
A. I say to them, “Here’s a time when I made this kind of mistake and what I learned about it,” and then I say, “I want one like that from you.” And they really try, they reach back, and most people say, “Well, I work too hard and everybody got mad at me.” If that’s all they’re going to say to me, then we’re not going very far in the interview. I’m asking for a real sense of revelation and personal understanding of their capacities, because then they won’t be blindsided.
I’m always reaching for the intangible and the invisible. I really don’t look at résumés about sales increases and that sort of thing, although I’m happy they had some productive results. I’m trying to find out if they have confidence about the things that matter, their own ability to think and to get to the true center of things.
So you try to learn things about them. Let’s say somebody has a very short fuse. They’re not going to discuss this with you, so what you do is you keep asking about their experiences, and say: “Give me an example. What’s an example of that?” That will lead you to understanding more about them.
Q. Sum it up for me.
A. I’m looking for something that allows me to see all of you, the interior tensile strength — which I know you have — and then how that can trap you sometimes, because I know it will. What you’re looking for is the ability to deal with the unknown, and the other thing you’re looking for is some kind of longer-term potential. I’m trying to understand emotional and intangible assets. How is their tenacity? What’s their energy like? What’s their optimism and belief system? For instance, I have quite a bias against people who are naturally cynical. It can be amusing in certain situations, but in fact it’s very derailing. I once gave a speech at the Association of National Advertisers and said, “The way I see things at many companies is there are one or two people originating and the rest are sitting in a semicircle, critiquing.” Boy, were they insulted.