Beyond Leaning In: What I Learned on the Way to the C-Suite

Lessons That Will Help Your Career No Matter Your Gender

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It was in San Francisco in the 1990s, and my boss took me to lunch to ask if I was interested in becoming CEO of the agency office there. I replied that I had never thought of myself as a CEO of an agency and needed a day to consider it.

Can you imagine?

Here I was, at the agency for a year and a half, and not once had it occurred to me that I was capable of running the place. So when the offer came, it came from left field. I have to believe that reaction stemmed from being a female executive in a sea of not so many; a man in my position would likely have been expecting the top job since day one and when it was offered, taken it as his due.

Luckily, my boss gave me that time to think. So I ran Goldberg, Moser O'Neill for four years. But the memory of my hesitation came back to me amid the reactions surrounding the publication of Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" and Marissa Mayer's get-your-ass-to-the-office directive.

Sandberg and Mayer notwithstanding, ambitious women tend to think of themselves as the potential No. 2 in an organization instead of the No. 1.

There are general barriers to the C-suite that every woman faces in business.

The advertising industry, like many others, has long hours and some serious travel requirements, making it particularly hard to sustain personal relationships of any kind. But even in socially "advanced" industrialized nations, the expectation is for wives to handle any family's personal matters and social engagements even if she works full-time.

Last year, some female ad executives publicly lamented the dearth of female speakers at a 4A's event. We didn't ignore or dismiss having female speakers. We looked, believe me. But so many female professionals who are married and/or have children expressed not wanting to give up that one free day with their families to go speak at a conference.

I felt validated while reading "Lean In," especially the part where Sandberg declares that picking a supportive partner is key to helping a woman stay on the executive track. You step in for him, he steps in for you.

However, even Sandberg admits that some of the obstacles for women getting to the executive suite are self-made.

In a recent Harvard Business Review interview about "Lean In," she said, "[Women] also face barriers that exist within ourselves, sometimes as the result of our socialization. For most of my professional life, no one ever talked to me about the ways I held myself back."

While some factors are out of one's personal control on the way to the executive suite, the following tips will put you on the path to a leadership role, no matter what your gender.

Take on what nobody else wants to. My first major promotion came when I agreed to run a $4 million piece of business nobody else at the agency was interested in. That account was Bell Atlantic Mobile, now known as Verizon Wireless, and it gave me a toehold into tech before anyone knew just how important that vertical would become. The business just kept growing and growing, and I grew along with it -- and was promoted several times on that account.

Be willing to relocate. I wanted other experiences, but it was tough to get off the Bell Atlantic business, so I took a job in St. Louis, then Los Angeles, then San Francisco and finally, New York. Each time I said to myself "That looks like an interesting opportunity," it reflected the "Lean In" mind-set.

Be authentic to yourself by telling the truth. Early in my career, someone told me I would not be successful in advertising because I was too honest, but that quality has served me well.

Find passion in everything you do. That's sometimes hard, but if you are being paid to be focused on a task, you have to be passionate about it.

Be gracious to people no matter their rank. Anything you do or say follows you for the rest of your career. Especially in the ad business, which is very small. People have long memories. Somebody who's working for you today could be your client tomorrow. That includes people in the mailroom.

Always be curious. To me, that statement is a riff on the line "always be closing" from "Glengarry Glen Ross." Curiosity is what keeps you current and relevant. Curiosity is what allows you to connect the dots across all forms of content. If you're not a curious person by nature, then you're probably in the wrong business.

In any business environment, you must constantly be learning and be willing to learn. As Alec Baldwin's character said in "Glengarry": "Have I got your attention now?"

Nancy Hill is CEO of the 4A's.
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