Former ad exec Charlotte Beers

The history-making former ad exec and author of I’d Rather Be in Charge explains why she doesn’t believe there’s a conspiracy by men to hold women back in the workplace and shares how women navigate relationships at home versus work.

After starting her advertising career as an account exec, Charlotte Beers became the world’s highest-ranked woman in her highly competitive field. She’s the only industry executive to helm two of the top-10 worldwide agencies and was featured on the cover of Fortune and Business Week magazines as one of the most powerful women in America. She also held the post of undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, reporting to Secretary of State Colin Powell. A member of the Advertising Hall of Fame, Beers chronicles her successes and mistakes in the text I’d Rather Be in Charge.


Tavis: Charlotte Beers began her career in advertising at J. Walter Thompson, rising to become the first female senior vice president in the ad giant’s history. She later became CEO of Ogilvy & Mather before going into public service as Colin Powell’s undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs.

She’s out now with a new text called “I’d Rather Be in Charge: A Legendary Business Leader’s Roadmap for Achieving Pride, Power and Joy at Work.” Charlotte Beers, an honor to have you on this program.

Charlotte Beers: Thank you. That’s the most succinct introduction I’ve ever had.

Tavis: Yeah, well, you know what they say – the shorter the introduction, the more important you are.

Beers: Oh, I’m glad to hear it.

Tavis: “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.” (Laughter)

Beers: That’s fast.

Tavis: “Ladies and gentlemen, the pope.” The shorter it is, the more important you are.

Beers: My husband – that’ll do it.

Tavis: When I go speak somewhere and they give a long introduction, I say, “I got a lot more work to do. That introduction was way too long.”

Beers: I know, I know, slow that baby down.

Tavis: Slow it down, yeah.

Beers: Sometimes it sounds your obituary if they go too long. (Laughter)

Tavis: I’m glad to have you here, though. Let me start by asking two questions. One, what is the ultimate purpose of this text for women. Then I want to ask about men.

Beers: Good, I like both questions, potentially. I think what I’m trying to do is get women past this threshold that we’ve now established that keeps them from moving more and more in groups and circles of influence, and that drove me crazy.

When I came out of the State Department I assumed all the women that were in the ready lane would be taking their natural partnership role, and a lot of them didn’t make it, and the mystery just puzzled me.

So I’ve solved that, I feel, to some extent, by writing this – by putting my thinking about that into this book.

Tavis: When you say, “Their natural partnership role,” unpack that for me.

Beers: Well, that is confusing.

Tavis: No, it’s not, I just –

Beers: I mean not every woman is meant to be in the corner office, and very few men make it. But they should be partners with men in circles of influence everywhere.

Tavis: Okay.

Beers: We’ll have a far better country. They’re not necessarily getting – the data’s everywhere that they’re not necessarily taking those roles.

Tavis: Okay, I get it now. So my second question – what, to your point now, since women have to work with men in the workplace –

Beers: Definitely.

Tavis: – what is the message, the takeaway for men who will read this text?

Beers: Well, I have two messages for men. I don’t want to terrify them by saying it’s a book for them too, but I think it’s very important for men to read through what the obstacle course is that women have to follow.

There is no conspiracy that I’ve seen from men to block women. It’s just that they’re continuing on a course that’s familiar, and men have always thought of themselves as going to work, and they’re very keen on achieving something there.

The other thing I want men to understand is not only what women face, so they can deal better with opportunities for women, but the second half of the book is all about learning to say what you mean and to say it persuasively. I know many men who would benefit from that, so I find it a real message for them too.

Tavis: When you said a moment ago you didn’t think it was a conspiracy, I thought of one of my favorite shows, “Sanford and Son,” and Fred Sanford always said, “It’s a C-O-N-spiracy,” and I think Fred might be on to something about this, because I know when this mail comes in, and it will come, I’m going to send it to you.

Because I thought I heard you suggest that you don’t think there is a conspiracy on the part of men to keep women back, and I know a bunch of women watching right now who will say you’re naïve if you think that men in this patriarchal, sexist world, want women to succeed and to get that corner office over them. You can’t be serious.

Beers: Actually, I’m many things, but I am not naïve. I’ve been in the field way too long and often, I was the only woman in the room. I don’t think there’s – a conspiracy to me implies a very large group of people lobbying against a certain outcome. I think men will do everything they can to win.

Not every man, not every man is ruthless, and they’ll certainly run over the closest-standing woman to do that. Part of it is is they think they have the ball, they’re supposed to cross the goal. So some of it is instinctive and intuitive.

But you know what happens in this threshold that I’ve kind of invented in my mind and put in the book is that there’s a point in time when the performance of the work is not the issue, but the relationships that show you’re a leader become paramount.

Men are much better and more aggressive at expressing that than women, and so in that sense they’re constantly running past the women candidates. But that’s not going to change with men.

What interests me is not railing against that, but preparing the women to compete on their terms.

Tavis: If there isn’t a C-O-N-spiracy, to your mind, to keep women back, then why and how do you argue in the text, as you do, that it’s even harder now? You argue, than at some previous point for women to get to the top level.

Beers: Yeah.

Tavis: Only 12 of 50 –

Beers: I know.

Tavis: Twelve of 500 of the top CEOs are women.

Beers: Right.

Tavis: So you can call it conspiracy or you can call it a whole bunch of coincidence –

Beers: Well, it’s not working.

Tavis: – a whole bunch of coincidences, but something is amiss here.

Beers: Well, I don’t mean to underestimate that, but I’d like to talk about what’s actionable.

Tavis: Please tell me.

Beers: Instead of defining the problem I’d like to try to solve it. So I have read many intelligent, inspiring books about what’s keeping women back, and some of it is this sense of being just lined up against the losing wall.

I think what’s actionable, though, is to accept the fact that you will run across some very negative powers that keep you from playing, and the answer is you outplay them. You outmaneuver them and you present your credentials over and over until you win one.

I think women have a hard time understanding that in that threshold, when the work ceases to be important and the relationships, which are different from your relationships at home, become crucial, she can get ready, and when she gets ready you can’t stop a woman like that.

Tavis: But why is it harder now? You would think that as our society advances –

Beers: Oh, why it’s harder now.

Tavis: Why is it harder now?

Beers: Well, because – this is my theory, I haven’t proven this one, because I didn’t live this life but I think it’s harder now because there’s such a politically correct environment, which has been very helpful in many other ways, but men at the top don’t actually know the women. They haven’t had that hangout time. They haven’t necessarily felt free to ask them personal questions. The woman hasn’t necessarily been in the game with them.

So when he’s got two men and one woman to choose from, he goes for what’s most familiar. He can estimate the capacity of that guy, but he’s not too clear what she’s done.

Another underpinning of that is that women are applauded for being communal, collaborative, modest – I’d like to hang that word out to dry – instead of fierce and brave and competitive in her way.

So the men look easier to read for leadership than the women do, because we’ve encouraged women to be the opposite of that.

Tavis: I want to go back, Charlotte, inside the text in just a second, but when I first saw the book come across my desk, this subtitle, “A Legendary Business Leader’s Roadmap for Achieving Pride, Power and Joy at Work,” I believe it’s possible, perhaps, to get some pride in your work.

Beers: Yeah.

Tavis: Power at work is possible for some, although it’s relative. But joy at work?

Beers: Yeah.

Tavis: Male or female, who experiences joy at work these days?

Beers: Tavis, it’s so much fun to work well. It’s so easy to be exhilarated and be used up in a positive way at work.

Tavis: But all the data that I’ve read, Charlotte, suggests that ain’t nobody, pardon my English, happy at work these days in the American workplace?

Beers: Well, I think it’s the roughest time ever, because you have twice as much – for instance, all the guys that interviewed me from newspapers, they have their day job, then they have their blog job.

So it’s typical of what’s happening. Everybody’s doing twice as much work with half the people, et cetera.

Every single woman that I’ve been teaching in my executive classes starts off by saying, “I love my work. I love my work.” When you have that, there’s potential for joy. Now, they go on to tell you the 30 things that are wrong, but I think the underpinning, especially for women, who might have more opportunity for joy than men, is discovering that you can work and use these other aspects of yourself is pretty thrilling to women. But they need to feel that they’re using it, not being muffled.

Tavis: You intimated – or not intimated, started to hit on something earlier that I want to go back to; namely, that the kinds of relationships that women have at home and how they navigate those relationships is very different, vastly different from how they will successfully navigate relationships in the workplace. Tell me more.

Beers: I wish I’d used your word “navigate.” That’s the word. Well, I think what – it’s kind of a symptom of the issue and it’s become large in my mind. Women seek to be liked and to be popular because that’s their relationship pattern, and we love our women for that.

But when you’re at office you strip away like whether they like you is fairly irrelevant, but are we going to make good work together, and are we going to follow one another.

So the ultimate test of a leader isn’t what you’ve been told in the business books. The ultimate test of a leader is how persuasive are you, and the components of persuasiveness are surprising. They are first. You’re grounded in your own personal understanding of who you are.

You don’t believe someone if they’re not authentic about what they’re saying. The second thing is to set about mastering artful communication. This doesn’t come to you in the ether. This is something you study. You’ve got it, but you didn’t probably have it day one. You work and you try and you practice and you actually study it, and I really think there are ways to learn that. I drew that from many people I’ve worked with.

Tavis: How do you women – since you liked the word navigate, let me reprise it.

Beers: I did.

Tavis: How do women navigate this line between being confident and being seen by men as being too aggressive? Being confident or being called the B-word. How do women, particularly in a patriarchal society, navigate that fine line?

Beers: Yeah. Well, I’m sure I was called that from time to time. I didn’t care.

Tavis: Not you.

Beers: Huh?

Tavis: Not you.

Beers: No, not me, darling. (Laughter) Well, I was so Southern they’d have a hard time figuring out which way to turn that word, but a man once said of me, “You don’t know you’ve lost your leg in Charlotte’s office until you leave,” so I thought it was a great compliment, but I didn’t know what it meant. I’m sure it was another version of the B-word. (Laughter)

I think one thing you have to do is not care so much. But the other thing you have to do as a woman is when you say, “I won’t do this,” or “This doesn’t work,” I don’t think you take it on like a man would. I think it’s uncomfortable to see a woman “being tough and steely like a man,” unless it’s her natural habitat, and for some women, it is.

But for instance, when women don’t like other women in business, chances are that woman has only learned one way to do it, which is this kind of harsh, not like her, “I mean business” stuff. So I think you could earn that title by being someone you’re not, or you could earn that title because you’re really going to get something done and you’ve got some flak.

I had people who simply didn’t agree with what I was doing, and I accepted the fact. It hurts, though. Once at Ogilvy I had a group formed to oust me. This is pretty personal. I’m not even into my first year, so I’m much more vulnerable than I look. I think, Tavis, what we all do when we’re up against an emotional conundrum like that, you think, what’s this doing at work? It feels so personal.

Then you learn to put it on the shelf and extrapolate out of that what matters about this. What I chose to do in that experience, I didn’t think it through until the whole night, and I went back to the person who was my informer and I said, “Don’t tell me who they are. I can’t afford to be diverted.”

So if you ask most men, they would say, “I’ll hammer them.” So I think it was okay, because we won the thing that I was handing my energy toward, a company vision. I considered that much primary. I also did an arithmetic. If we did the vision I was fine, and if we didn’t, I was cooked anyway. Then I took on the “evil cabal,” as I called it, after that.

Tavis: You keep opening up these doors, and I’m going to keep following you through.

Beers: I know, sorry. (Laughs) I’m probably off the subject, too.

Tavis: No, no, you talked about this in the text as well, so I wanted to get to it, so I’m glad you raised it, and that is the difference between women trying to work their way around men versus women trying to work their way around women in the workplace. The difference is what?

Beers: Well, here’s the thing. I don’t know as much about the women-to-women thing, because so much of the time I was trying to interpret and decode men and manage men.

So then as more and more women came it was easy to feel like I could bring them along. It was very rewarding. What the women tell me that I’ve been working with is that there are always some notoriously difficult women bosses, and what I think it comes from is that time when they’re really in the world of men and they have to be downright ruthless to even be heard.

Then there’s another quality. It’s kind of like scarcity. If there’s going to be someone chose and there are two women, they’re only going to pick one woman. They may pick five men. So you all of a sudden, and I notice them doing it, they see the woman as a competitor instead of the five men.

This is something I really work on in the book. It’s not even interesting to focus on your competition. You need to focus on you and what you have to present about yourself. It takes you away from that narrow world.

Tavis: “Mad Men.” Very successful TV program.

Beers: Yeah, I know, it’s fun.

Tavis: You grew up in the ad world.

Beers: Right.

Tavis: In the age of “Mad Men.”

Beers: I was 10 years later. There wasn’t that much smoke around. (Laughter)

Tavis: So you’re a decade later –

Beers: I’m sure I didn’t see all that sex. I don’t know where that was.

Tavis: It was there, trust me.

Beers: I know. My secretary said, “You’re the dumbest woman on the floor,” because I didn’t know.

Tavis: So you’re at the tail end of that era but you got some of that.

Beers: I did, I did.

Tavis: I raise that to ask, Charlotte, how it is that you – I was going to say how you survived that, but in your case it’s not just surviving, it’s thriving. How did you manage that?

Beers: Well, I did communicate that I like men. I have two really adorable brothers who just beat me into the ground day in and day out, so teasing, heavy teasing, was part of my history. I think it was a huge advantage, because once the guys started teasing me at the office, I’ve seen real teasing, so they were just amateurs, and I had a sense of humor about that.

So that allowed me to take more lightly some of the things that women feel umbrage about, and I think it’s an advantage. I do encourage women to not be so serious. The men are laughing it up down the hall, and they’re being serious because they think that’s how people will take them seriously.

I believe the group of women together make that mistake, because also they’re serious about competing and so on. So I had that advantage in that I was – and the men thought I was a one-off and they didn’t have to worry about the subject too broadly, so I had a lot of freedom, oddly enough, to invent myself.

Tavis: Where’s the line, though, between yukking it up with the guys and sexual harassment?

Beers: Well, that line is so subtle that I would occasionally be fooled.

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Beers: I would think I was talking to my friend and I was talking with a potential seducer. That is very distressing. But I had all kinds of safety nets that are not – I find from the women, they’re not necessary today. For instance, I would never go out with my client and say past 10:00.

I always had somebody with me, and I slipped away. Those are the times when things spin out of hand and I was very defensive and smart about it, I think. Occasionally I got trapped. There’s a story in the book about me getting trapped in this hotel, and I’ve only known this man two hours. It’s preposterous.

What I learned about that is we’re all vulnerable, and I thought I was a big, fat CEO and therefore unscalable, but that wasn’t true.

Tavis: You said something again a moment ago that I want to go back to. How do you – because I love the way you phrased it, and I’m going to mess it up now. But how do you signal to men that you like them but not that you “like” them.

Beers: Right.

Tavis: Because I am a man I can speak as a man. Sometimes, you know –

Beers: What’s the signal, yeah?

Tavis: Yeah, you’re like, “Does she really like me or is she just being nice?” I was on a plane the other day and I couldn’t tell whether this flight attendant just liked me or recognized me, or whether she really liked me. (Laughter)

Beers: What were you hoping?

Tavis: Well, that’s another conversation for another time. (Laughter) I will tell you this – I stayed to myself and I got off that plane without trying to pursue anything.

Beers: I understand.

Tavis: Because I don’t want to misread signals, and that’s not who I am –

Beers: And you don’t want to misrepresent yourself.

Tavis: Exactly, exactly. But I say that because I know how men are. So a woman gives a signal and you’re trying to figure out is that a signal or is that a signal. So how do you say to men that I like you, because you want to get along in the workplace, but I don’t like you like that, fool.

Beers: Well, I guess it’s a constant calibration. Southern women are a little bit flirtatious, but our whole point is this is for fun, and I think a man can enjoy that and not take it home.

So if I felt like it was getting misinterpreted then I would immediately start talking about my daughter. I would ground myself in my home life. When it was very difficult for me, honestly, Tavis, is when I was divorced, because that signal suggests open sesame kind of on dates and flirtation and so on, and I developed a very careful way of watching when the line crossed over.

I think women usually know ahead of the men where the inclination is going and you can make a move. Sometimes you get trapped, but – and that’s why I told my one story about harassment, not because – the women tell me today that it’s more subtle and they have to be alert, and there’s a great deal less of it in the sense that anything goes.

But you can still get blindsided, and my warning in there was about that. I ended up in a company apartment inadvertently. I would have had – no one would have understood my story because it was so stupid of me to go up. But I wasn’t thinking like that then.

Tavis: You’ve referenced two or three times in this conversation family life, home life, and there are a number of questions, and I won’t go through all of them because I know you want to sell the book. (Laughter) But there are some powerful questions you suggest in the text that women have to ask themselves.

One of them that comes to mind immediately is what did you learn from your siblings. What did you learn from your siblings? Why is that an important question?

Beers: Well, the proposition there is that I hit a wall early enough in my career to have it work for me. I actually was in despair, and I realized that I knew how to work but I didn’t know myself. The reason I had to learn in a hurry about myself is because I was really frightened every night about the job I had in front of me the next day, and it was because all emotions were all around – drugs and booze and a debt, a huge debt in the company and angry clients, not just unhappy.

So the idea that I could know how to handle those didn’t seem to be possible, so I began to learn who I was. At the same time, I began to try to help the agency steer itself.

As I look back on that process, because I couldn’t articulate that to anyone else, I ended up drafting these questions. I only learned those questions after the fact. When I went through, and you go back and see what messages and habits and motives you’re carrying forward, because we’re all born of those things, and the siblings, if you had them, or you had the equivalent sometimes, they teach you what life is like.

I will never forget realizing that men have more fun, that men have the right to earn money and therefore have control over their lives, and I didn’t seem to have that. So I ended up taking math and physics in college just to make sure I had a shot at their world. That was a powerful lesson.

The other lesson my two brothers taught me is that bravery is good and failure is inevitable. Those aren’t bad lessons, but my brother, the closest one to me, ran away from home all the time, and he got a licking every time he came home, and he never quit running away. (Laughter)

I thought, this guy is really tough. Now, I wouldn’t run away if I lived to be 100, but I thought I can find my way to bravery.

Tavis: Before my time runs out, let me ask you what all of this, all these lessons, that is to say, inside of corporate America, how that in any way aided and abetted you engaging in public diplomacy inside the State Department?

Beers: Well, I grew dumb again. You think you know something to do, and I will say to you, every new job you get can drop you to your knees. When I was being interviewed at the White House, at my last interview, it was a token interview, I happened to turn to a woman who hadn’t been spoken to and said, “Do you have any advice for me?”

She said, “Just remember this – 50 percent of the people you meet hope you fail.” I thought – I reverted back to the fifth grade. I thought, well, they don’t even know me. That’s a childlike response. In fact, I knew a lot about communication and I certainly knew the charter, which was to create mutual understanding between the American people, and the Congress moved me strictly to Muslim communities.

I didn’t do as good a job at understanding the powerful play of politics, where if you don’t share my ideology, I don’t like you. I’m not going to work with you and I’m not going to help you.

I had this naïve idea that we would all have this common goal for brand America, and I had to course-correct all along the way. In that sense, it’s the toughest job I’ve ever had. But I’d never trade it for another.

Tavis: Charlotte Beers was undersecretary for Colin Powell at the State Department, as we were just discussing, and prior to that had a wonderful and long and distinguished career in corporate America as the CEO at one point of Ogilvy & Mather.

Her new text is called, “I’d Rather Be in Charge.” The title needs no explanation.

Beers: (Laughter) I’m afraid it does.

Tavis: “I’d Rather Be in Charge: A Legendary Business Leader’s Roadmap for Achieving Pride, Power and Joy at Work.” Charlotte Beers, I’m honored to have you on the program. I enjoyed the conversation immensely.

Beers: Thank you very much.

Tavis: Thank you for your time.

Beers: It was delightful.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: February 21, 2012 at 4:54 pm