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How women CEOs overcame bad jobs, bad bosses

November 11, 2016
Diversity & Inclusion

Anne Mulcahy eventually ran Xerox Corp., the giant copier and printer company. But she started out as a Xerox sales representative in 1976. “Sales has the purity of quantitative results,” Mulcahy remembered, amid the noisy lunchtime clatter of a Manhattan restaurant.

At the outset, however, Mulcahy got little pleasure from selling Xerox products. “A lot of cold calling, a lot of rejection,” she recalled. “I don’t think I was a naturally gifted sales rep,” she said.

One of two Xerox saleswomen in the Boston area, Mulcahy harbored a deep fear of failure. She forced herself to work harder and longer than anyone else. She performed well. After selling for almost six years, the rep raised her hand to be a Xerox sales manager. Repeatedly.

She interviewed for about a half-dozen sales management jobs, but always without success. Being a woman, especially an unmarried one, represented a disadvantage in those days. “I wondered whether there was a priority around men with families,” she said in recounting her frustrations.

At one point, Mulcahy applied for the open position of sales manager in Maine, a state she had never even visited. “It was a loser assignment,” she observed. With its far-flung and largely rural population, Maine consistently ranked among Xerox’s worst regions.

Although no one else had wanted the job, the Boston branch manager initially resisted committing himself when Mulcahy interviewed for the position. “Do you even know where Maine is?” he barked at the young woman sitting opposite his desk. “Why do you want this job?”

“I want a challenge,” Mulcahy replied.

Taking the position in Maine turned into a smart career move for the novice sales manager. By Mulcahy’s second year on the job, Maine ranked among Xerox’s top-performing regions in the Northeast. “We did spectacularly well, something that had never happened before,” she recalled.

But the branch manager, who was now her supervisor, refused to recognize her part in the state’s impressive sales figures. And when the man left Xerox to launch a rival business, Mulcahy said, “he took all of the sales managers in Boston with him with the exception of me.” She landed her next promotion only after he resigned.

Mulcahy gleaned a crucial career lesson about jerk bosses, an all-too-common species back then and still today. “Learning to work for assholes is a really important thing to do. And surviving them.”

Carol Bartz’s Experience

Some women assigned to a bad boss took advantage of the arrangement to figure out how to be better bosses. Among them was Carol Bartz, the former CEO of Autodesk Inc. and Yahoo Inc. The sharp-tongued woman once worked for a man who insisted that she stay silent during the meetings he conducted.

“He didn’t want to hear what I had to say because I was probably right,” Bartz recalled. In response, she vowed, “ ‘I am not going to do this, I am going to remember how this felt.’ That’s when you really advance in your personal style.”

Geraldine “Geri” Laybourne, one of a handful of early staffers at Nickelodeon, the cable TV network for children that she later ran, thrived despite an equally daunting experience with a bad boss. Laybourne was recruited as the network’s program manager in 1980, based on her experience as a teacher. At Nickelodeon, she initially reported to a veteran of the advertising industry.

“He was very much a command-and-control patriarchal manager,” Laybourne said. “He was the very best teacher I ever had because I kept a notebook of ‘what I will never do when I am a boss.’ ”

She especially resented his insistence on hoarding critical information. “His idea of managing was, ‘If I had all the information, people will have to come to me and I will be important,’ ” she said. The experience taught her that a good boss should not terrorize employees or make them feel inadequate.

Laybourne scribbled numerous pointers in her notebook, which she accumulated during four years of observing the shortcomings of her Nickelodeon supervisor. They included:

  • Bullying is not attractive.
  • Getting angry with people doesn’t work.
  • Sharing mistakes is better than covering them up.

Tactics to Gain Acceptance

Several female leaders devised clever tactics to get accepted by male peers during the early days of their careers, laying a foundation for their later success.

That’s what Mary Barra did in 1983, three decades before General Motors Co. selected her as its first female CEO. The daughter of a veteran GM die maker, she grew up in a household where neither parent had earned a four-year college degree.

In her first full-time job after she finished her college degree in electrical engineering from the company-owned General Motors Institute, Barra worked as a controls engineer for a GM plant in Pontiac, Mich. The facility made a sporty car called the Fiero. It used innovative production methods, such as breaking down barriers between salaried managers and hourly line workers.

But every time the young engineer walked past one corner of the factory floor, an assembly worker directed a shrill wolf whistle in her direction. She finally stopped and stared at him. “What are you doing?” she asked.

Trying to attract your attention, he replied.

She suggested that he do so by simply saying, “Hi.” “And I will say ‘Hi’ instead of me walking quickly and ignoring you,” she promised. The man stopped his wolf whistles. The two began to greet each other with a wave or a hello…Noisy catcalls from other male workers dwindled, too.

The former wolf whistler helped shape Barra’s future leadership style, a key aspect of which consists of trying to look at the world through other people’s eyes. “I have this fundamental belief that everybody is pretty rational,” she told me. “If you can understand what is motivating them or change what is motivating them, you can accomplish things.”

From the book “EARNING IT: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World” by Joann S. Lublin to be published by HarperBusiness on Oct. 18.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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