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Christie Hefner: You Get What You Can Negotiate

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Christie Hefner is executive chairman of Tucson-based Canyon Ranch Enterprises, a company promoting health and wellness through a number of channels. She joined Playboy Enterprises -- founded by her father, Hugh Hefner -- in 1975 and severed as the company's Chairman and CEO from 1988 to 2009. Forbes, in naming Hefner one of the "100 Most Powerful Women" in 2005, writing:

Faced with sliding sales and mounting competition, [she] made the innovative decision to steer the company onto the Internet in 1994, making it the first national magazine on the Web. Following the successful online venture, Hefner continued to build the brand, exporting it overseas and growing it at home with the creation of videogames, concept stores and plans for new entertainment venues in Las Vegas and Shanghai next year.

In 2008, Christie Hefner announced that the election of Barack Obama as president convinced her to step down from Playboy in order to pursue more charitable work. She sat down with us to talk about her current goals and the landscape for women in the workplace.

Are you more encouraged that women continue to fight against workplace inequalities or more discouraged that the battle still needs to be waged?
There are visibly more women in positions of leadership, whether that's CEOs of large companies or in the executive suites. But if you look at the statistics from the large company perspective, we've been mired for quite a while at roughly 15% of board seats and 15% of executives. When I left Playboy as CEO, more than 40% of its executives were women, so clearly, there are exceptions to those averages, but they are the averages.

Additionally, I think one of the most dynamic parts of the economy that doesn't get captured in what we're talking about is the entrepreneurial side. I was one of the people who worked to start a group called the Committee of 200, which is celebrating its 32nd anniversary this year and grew up as a support for the National Association of Business Owners. Principally, it is made up of successful female entrepreneurs who ran multi-million-dollar companies with the minority being corporate women. That, and being the first woman in the Chicago chapter of the Young Presidents Organization has given me the good fortune of being exposed to a lot of women entrepreneurs. I think in part because of the glass ceiling and in part because of issues of flexible scheduling there are a significant number of women who opt out of the corporate path.

Last I saw, there are more people employed by women-owned companies than there were people employed by the Fortune 500. So, I've always felt when you talk about opportunities and barriers an challenges for women, it's important that we look across the range of opportunities that exist and not just at the largest companies.

Do you think that whole corporate landscape for women has improved measurably since you first became CEO at Playboy?
Oh, unquestionably.

What has contributed most to the improvement?
I think the pipeline. I joined Playboy in 1975. I think we saw a real explosion through the '80s and '90s of women graduating with MBAs, law degrees and so on. This year we've reached a tipping point where more than half of the labor force is female.

But I also think there has been a generational shift. The men who were running companies when I went to work in corporate life in the main were of a generation where their wives had not worked outside the home, nor had their sisters or mothers. If they had gotten a higher degree, they probably had few female classmates. So, the transformation of a generation who hadn't grown up expecting women to be pursuing with equal interest professional and executive careers to men in comparison with today's generation where you have parity at graduate schools of business.

If you talk to young men, their girlfriend is pursuing a career, their sister is pursuing a career and there's a good chance their mother did as well. That makes a huge difference, especially in board positions. There still is a tendency to put on board people the CEO knows and that then makes it critically important that the CEO's circle includes professionally successful women and not just executive men.

Many women say they have been helped in their careers through mentoring by other women, or in some cases, male colleagues. Do you see that as an important influence and have you had mentors in your career?
I didn't really. There was one gentleman who joined Playboy before I did who had an organizational development and human resources background. That background, coupled with his experience at other companies and just the type of person that he is, contributed to his being a kind of coach. It was helpful, but candidly, one of the things that made my career development easier was that I didn't join Playboy expecting to stay and run the company some day. I didn't have that added pressure when people are brought in as a so-called "heir apparent."

But he definitely was a coach. He helped me choose programs in finance, marketing strategies and human resources to take to augment my liberal arts education. But in the main, I didn't have a mentor. Partly because of that and partly because I think it's not easy to find a great mentor, I've always advocated is to build a network. If you can find the right mentor, great, by all means listen. But if not or in addition to, a network allows you to have many advisors, a sort of kitchen cabinet you can draw upon.

I think that's helpful because the person who might be the best source of advice on whether or not to take a promotion is maybe not the same person you want to discuss a challenging problem with a colleague or a business problem. If you have a wider circle of people in your network you have a greater diversity of experience and talents to draw upon. It goes without saying, too, that it means you're not going to be putting too much of a burden on any one person.

Can women create those circles more easily than can men?
I think women often have some very close friendships with other women. What I urge young women is to not give that up. Those girlfriend relationships are life-support relationships. But I also say go broad as well as deep so you have the benefit of a lot of different people who you can reach out to for coaching and counsel.

Some think that women coming into the work force today may be less prepared to deal with glass ceiling limitations than were their mothers because they no expect gender restrictions. Do you agree?
It's an interesting question. I do see this: I've been active in politics for decades in support of women candidates and various issues and in the arena of women issues -- pay equity, contraceptive rights, etc. -- one of the things that people who have been active for a while worry about is that younger women take all of that for granted, assume that rights always will be there and so don't feel any need or obligation to get engaged to protect those rights. So I can imagine that in a similar vein, the generations post my Baby Boom generation are going to be more confident of their opportunities and rights, as we want, but therefore a little less prepared for what they encounter.

What other advice do you give to young women beginning careers with their sights set on getting to the top of their fields?
In addition to networking, I believe that it's important to learn to see situations not just through your eyes but also through others'. One way in which that plays itself out is that when they're advocating for a promotion or a salary increase, people often make a case based on how they've worked hard and on why they deserve it. In my experience, the truth is that even in a good, people-oriented culture, that's not the lens through which decisions are weighed.

The real questions always are what have you done to help my company, my division, my department be successful. You need to understand what those drivers are, because they can change over time. Your company may move from a growth mode to a cost-control phase or into an expansion period. So you need to understand that your boss is not wondering can be done to make Jane happy. Your boss is wondering what Jane can do to make him or her successful.

And, as an extension of that point, I'm a big believer in learning how to negotiate effectively. I do believe you can learn that skill. The simple rule of thumb is that you are not going to get what you deserve in life; you're going to get what you can negotiate for. Whatever field you go into, you need to learn how to negotiate.

The other thing is that I encourage young people -- if they at all have the opportunity -- to take a foreign posting. I don't think you can overestimate the importance of globalization over the next decade-plus. Whatever field you're in is global. I think that's a big opportunity, but the research I've seen concludes that young women are less willing to do that than are young men. Obviously once you get to the point where you're married and have children, it's harder, though not impossible. So I encourage young women to take that opportunity if it's there.

Overall, are you optimistic about the prospects for women in business?
I am basically an optimist, a glass half full person, so I see a lot of reasons for optimism. On the other hand, I think that it won't happen automatically. It will be the result of actions being taken, including what GlassCeiling.com is doing, to make a difference in that regard.