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I'd rather be in charge: The Charlotte Beers school of female leadership

A pioneering woman in a male-dominated world, Charlotte Beers is sharing a lifetime of leadership knowledge with today's female managers.

I'd rather be in charge: The Charlotte Beers school of female leadership

Charlotte Beers, one of the most trailblazing women in advertising, is focused on tapping one of the industry’s most potent and under-used resources – female talent. According to Beers, a common trait among rising female leaders in adland is that they "are not communicating their own potential". It is a status quo that Beers is dedicated to challenging.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Beers as a role model for women in the creative industries. She began her advertising career as an account executive at J Walter Thompson in the US, where she rose to become the first female senior vice-president in the company’s history. 

But she made her biggest impact at Ogilvy & Mather, where she was chairman and chief executive. There is a reason why Harvard Business School still presents a case study on leadership entitled "Charlotte Beers at Ogilvy" – and that is Beers’ legendarily fearless management style.

At WPP, Beers’ X Factor senior mentoring and development programme (the X represents women’s potential) has helped progress the careers of leaders across the network. When Beers asked Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, what he thought of the women who had taken part in X Factor, he paused before succinctly declaring: "Terrifying." Now Beers is seeking to bring her message to the next generation of leaders by partnering Mindshare to launch Community X, an initiative that will bring together senior women in marketing from brands and agencies.

Lost in translation

It would seem few industries are as enamoured of masculine rhetoric as advertising where, judging by some of the language used, pitches appear to take place on battlefields rather than in conference rooms. In the "war for talent", women are accused of "dropping out" as if they are schoolgirls rather than professionals unable or unwilling to endure outdated working practices or settle for frustrated ambitions. In such a situation, what constitutes female leadership and the conditions needed for it to thrive are in danger of getting lost in translation. "Men don’t understand what constitutes female bravery," Beers explains. "The nature of having a relentless drive does not have to be combative." 

"I have had more men crying across the table from me than women. It’s about knowing how much of yourself to give"

Talking about her own career progression, Beers confides that she got "bumped around" on her way to the top. Ultimately, when your boss is a man seeking to hire the "surest thing", he will often appoint staff in his image to mitigate the perceived, if imagined, risk. In this situation, men need to be given the tools to recognise that talent takes diverse forms. Beers explains: "Men defined what constitutes bravery years ago but I can’t imagine anything more brave or fierce than the women leaders who have taken part in X Factor." 

Of course, there remain challenges for women seeking to break down the barriers they encounter on their way to the top – not least, as Beers jokes, the fact that "men take that long walk around the world also known as golf". 

But in an era when leaders are being encouraged increasingly to bring their "whole self" to work, do women really need to adopt an alpha-male broadcast model of leadership to thrive? Or will the promise of authentic leadership deflate the industry’s ego bubble? Beers says taking your whole self to work is an "artform to learn" and knowing how much to give of yourself is a challenge that defies gender stereotypes. "This is why I have had more men crying across the table from me than women. It is about knowing how much of yourself you need to give," she says.

Beers shares an interesting insight, gleaned during her management career and her current chapter as a leadership mentor: the women she has worked with tend to enjoy their work more than men do. She explains: "Women have roles to play as mothers and daughters – the nurturing roles – and when they get to the office, they change course. Men don’t need to correct their course in this same way." 

For Beers, while being an "authentic" leader is crucial, this does not mean you should play out the soap opera of your life in your office on a daily basis. "Being authentic doesn’t mean you don’t need to have many faces," she asserts.

Communicating potential

Nor does she advocate reappraising the importance of traditionally "feminine traits" in business. Beers explains: "Acquisitions can be hostile but a woman can be talented in that area. We have to be careful with what we define as ‘feminine’ skills."

While Beers asserts that women fall down when it comes to communicating their own potential, she does not believe that the solution starts with simply shouting louder about how good you are. "I discourage women from seeking applause," she says.

But this does not mean that women should believe they will get to the top simply by producing good work. Nor should they hang on in there at all costs. Beers claims she can quickly spot a person who is out of sync with the work they want to do: "A woman will say ‘I am in the wrong job but I keep being told how valuable I am’, which is code for ‘don’t rock the boat’."

And what about the generation of women who look at the top of business and don’t aspire to be there? For Beers, there is more than one track to success. "Sometimes people want to use their influence widely instead of vertically. But they need to master the communication of that to others," she explains.

Articulate what you do

What is clear is that the next generation of women leaders are not simply seeking the next step up the ladder or viewing an important-sounding job title as a status symbol. Beers explains: "It really doesn’t matter what the job title is – it is about influence. We have such a matrix of job titles, it’s become difficult to articulate what you do."

"You don’t want to look back on a long period of your life and see you had no influence. That looks like a frustrating life"

But articulating what you want – and communicating what you do well – is crucial, she says: "The end game is you are going to spend a lot of time at work. You don’t want to work all these years and not define what it is that gives your day meaning." 

According to Beers, a lot of the time it is influence that lies at the heart of finding meaning in work. She explains: "You don’t want to look back on a long period of your life and see you had no influence. That looks like a frustrating life."

A life perhaps beyond the comprehension of a woman who has wielded such influence, not only on WPP’s infrastructure but on the individuals who have been privileged enough to have had their leadership skills honed by her. 

Yet Beers is aware of her privilege. She recounts a tale from her time as under secretary of state in the George W Bush administration when she met three Moroccan women who had been funded through university in the US. As one of the women left, she turned to Beers and said: "You do realise we will never get to use this education at home." It was an encounter that has stayed with her.

Transfer of power

For Beers, it is ultimately women who have the power to help their peers succeed in the industry. She explains: "I appreciate you can force senior men to sponsor women in their organisations but I don’t believe this works." Beers says it is often the case that if these men then exit the organisation, women can be left floating in unsuitable positions. In fact, even though the industry lacks senior women, Beers does not believe in papering over the cracks by giving leadership jobs to women too soon. "I worry that women will be picked [for senior positions] and they won’t be ready for them. This is why I want everyone to share the learning," she says.

When she started out in her career, Beers was concerned she would remain in a silo but all it takes is one woman to break the mould. Not only has she done this but Beers has helped the next generation of leaders, such as Maxus global chief executive Lindsay Pattison, remodel the archetype of what constitutes a leader – perhaps the ultimate signal of success. 

As the interview draws to a close, Beers is keen to highlight the generosity of the X Factor mentors in devoting their time to coaching the women on the programme. But the ultimate generosity is hers. Women seeking a seat at advertising’s top table should pause to thank this 81-year-old trailblazer, who is still pulling out all the stops to empower women’s biggest champion – themselves.

The marketer’s view

Gail Tifford, Vice-President of Media and Digital Engagement Unilever North America Gail Tifford has just completed her first Community X session, an experience she says taught her the importance of being able to show vulnerability as a leader. She talked to Campaign about the changing style of female leadership.

How do you feel about the current state of gender equality in marketing?

I have been in media and marketing for most of my career. I believe our industry has made great strides and continues to put thought and resources into creating a gender-equal environment. I am particularly proud of the industry’s commitment to recognising unconscious bias. One way Unilever committed to this is through supporting the #SeeHer campaign with the Association of National Advertisers Alliance for Family Entertainment. The #SeeHer mission is to portray all girls and women accurately in the media so that, by 2020, they will see themselves reflected as they truly are.

How are leadership styles changing?

I am finally starting to see an appreciation of leaders who truly embrace inclusivity. There is an emphasis on valuing diverse opinions and perspectives. At Unilever, our leadership walks the talk. One example of this is our #Unstereotype initiative. 

It aims to advance the advertising for our 400 brands away from stereotypical portrayals of gender and to empower and inspire women and girls.

Is a new, more inclusive form of creative leadership emerging?

I believe it is. I co-founded the Unilever US GALvanize business resource group, which is committed to providing a workplace that is supportive of women’s growth, satisfaction and success. We work closely with male leadership throughout the organisation to help mentor and foster the growth of women within the business. At the moment, I am proud to say Unilever US is gender balanced for managers and above – which is exciting progress.

How do you define gender equality within our industry?

Gender equality is the belief that everyone should receive equal treatment and not be discriminated against based on their gender, regardless of what industry they are in. Unilever is committed to gender equality. One example of how we are supporting this in the US is by signing the White House Equal Pay Pledge in 2016. By doing this, Unilever US committed to conducting an annual, company-wide gender pay analysis, reviewing hiring and promotion practices to remove unconscious bias and embedding equal pay efforts into broader equity initiatives. The pledge reaffirms the advancement of women’s economic inclusion as a business priority for Unilever.

Why do you think initiatives such as Community X are important? 

Bringing like-minded women in the industry together is extremely important to foster personal and professional growth. Being able to share my story and gain different insights and perspectives has helped me to fine-tune my personal purpose. The session broke down walls, which allowed us to dig deeper and understand the impact of nature-versus-nurture experiences in our lives – not only how they helped me get to where I am, but also how they may hold me back as I look to progress.