One of the most profound, defining moments of my career was when I worked as a Special Assitant to Charlotte Beers during her tenure as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy & Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. If you've seen the film The Devil Wears Prada , you would have a sense of what working for her was like: She was the driven, sharp, take-no-prisoners diva, and I the lowly, unstylish staffer who had no idea what I was up against. Over time, I grew to appreciate and relish her toughness and tenacity. She seemed hardest on those who were closest to her, in an effort not to admonish, but to make you better. She was always about pushing people to excel and find their own potential even if it meant long days and nights, some of which ended in tears from exasperation and exhaustion.
So much of what Beers tried to accomplish at State post 9/11 has been misunderstood, distorted and often inaccuratley reported. Her distinguished advertising career -- where she shattered one glass ceiling after the other -- is often reduced by the media (by male journalists in particular) to simply being the spinmaster behind Uncle Ben's Rice and Head & Shoulders. Really. Is that the best they can do when encapsulating a lifetime of leadership, taking risks and performance in the corproate world over decades in traditionally male dominated industries?
I always wondered why she never fought back openly against her critics, but then she had bigger fish to fry, as we say in Texas. Which was why I was eager to read her recently published book, I'd Rather be in Charge.. The book is unique in that it takes the reader into her world, the world of "Mad Men" and women, and shares story after story of growing up in the advertising industry. Intermingled with her memories are lessons learned and practical insights for women mapping their careers and navigating leadership roles in business. She also shares some exceptional, useful communications advice on how to be persuasive, engaging and strategically influential. Beers also spends considerable amounts of time guiding readers on the process of building a road-map for self-knowledge, which far too many of us spend too little time on. The book is geared towards mid-career women who are transitioning into or aspiring to leadership roles. The benefits are much broader, however, and I would recommend this to women at every career stage -- even my graduate students who are just beginning their careers -- as there are several critical insights we can all take to heart and utilize.
If there is one word to describe Beers -- at least from my time working with her -- it is fearless, a term I wish more women embodied and would wear proudly. I remember one example of this distinctly when I worked for her at State. The White House called prior to a press conference with Beers, asking me to kindly ask the Under Secretary not to say certain things and then not to wear her trademark short leather mini-skirt and form-fitting sweaters. Beers was never shy about speaking her mind -- which, more often than not, threw many of the straight-laced career foreign service officers and poltical appointees off-kilter. She was also never shy about being feminine and wearing exactly what she wanted to at Main State -- a land where there is very little color, form-fitting attire and creativity. I remember not even taking a pause and saying, "The Under Secretary will not be scripted, she will speak her mind and share her opinions. If the White House has a problem with this they can take it up with her directly. And on the point of the mini-skirt, if I had the Under Secretary's legs I'd be wearing one myself."
There are endless lessons I learned from my time working for Beers which have made all the difference in my career. I am thankful she has now made these lessons available for others to benefit from her wisdom, experience and candor.
Cari E. Guittard, MPA is Adjunct Faculty for the Hult International Business School Dubai and the University of Southern California. Guittard specializes and teaches graduate courses in Women's Leadership, Corporate Diplomacy, Global Engagement, International Negotiations and Managing Geopolitical Risk. Guittard resides in San Francisco, CA.
The reality of being a woman — by the numbers. Learn more