The wOw Conversation: The Secrets of Career Success

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These days, holding down a job is more important than ever. Joni Evans, Liz Smith, Lesley Stahl, and Mary Wells Lawrence share their personal formulas for making it in the business world

JONI: This conversation is about careers — the best advice we’ve received or want to give out.

LIZ: I was mentored by all the great men I’ve worked for – about six famous, fabulous men, in my youth. And they all helped and encouraged me and were great to me. I was a dumb, green kid and they kind of liked my nerve. But I evolved from working as a lowly assistant to being an actual writer and producer. And in television I’d get these impossible tasks to produce a show from someplace where you couldn’t even get a signal out, or to book a VIP guest. And one day I found out that I was enjoying going back to these important bosses at times, saying to them, “We can’t do it.” And I realized I was actually taking pleasure from telling them that what they wanted was impossible. As soon as I got onto that, onto myself, I didn’t need more mentoring. I realized I needed to start thinking like a boss; I had to become the boss. You’ve got to do the best job you can for management or the head guy. Your boss has to become your life work as you dedicate yourself to his point of view, the welfare of the show or project or whatever. And when you do that, everything changes for you. And so that’s the advice I give to those who ask me how to succeed. Don’t go and lay a bunch of dead kittens at the foot of your dynamic boss, even if he’s a fascist and you don’t like him. You’ve got to do the best you can.

LESLEY: Liz, that’s brilliant advice.

LIZ: His problem has to become your problem. And you have to become part of the solution – or you are part of the problem. I was making a problem.

MARY: All my life I worked for women. But I honestly can’t say that they mentored me. They gave me jobs and they counted on me. And yet it seems to me that I’ve been mentoring people all my life. When I had my own agency I was mentoring hundreds. And I’m still mentoring. I think it’s something that I enjoy doing, so I guess I probably go out of my way to do it.

LESLEY: Mary, what do you look for when you’re looking at the people who’ve worked for you? What qualities or style do you like?

MARY: I look for people who are willing to stand on their head, work 26 hours a day, who are very talented, and who use everything they’ve got and who do more than what is expected; people who know that they’re living in a big world. For example, in the advertising business you never know from day to day who might come around as a client. So you really have to know what’s going on everywhere, so that you will be intelligent when that person comes to you, and show them how smart you are. You have to spend a lot of time learning about what’s going on in the world, even though it has nothing to do with what you’re doing today. So I am always looking for people who would stretch, who would do much, much more than is expected.

JONI: What about you, Lesley?

LESLEY: The best advice I can give a young person would be to really start at the very bottom and learn everything there is to learn about journalism by doing it, taking the lowest job and then taking every baby step. Don’t try to jump ahead and don’t try to become the anchorman in three weeks and don’t be discouraged if you’re not. I love what Mary said because I agree. You want to see in somebody someone who just loves to be there and work hard. You want to see energy devoted to learning the skills. Because so many jobs involve skill – not talent, but skill. You learn because you do it over and over and over. That’s the way to get good at almost anything, including painting and including sports. I mean just do it, do it, do it. And I loved also what Mary said about being up on things that may not be related to the job itself. And that just means reading. Reading the paper, reading magazines. Just staying up on things generally.

LIZ: People write to me all the time to ask, “How can I get this book published?” Or movie script. Will I read it? Will I help them? And so forth. I always try to answer and be helpful. But you know when you’re dealing with an amateur, when they’re just dreaming big dreams and that’s not what’s important for them to be doing. So I always say, you’ve got to start with the basics. First, if you’re going to write, and you’re going to be a journalist or anything in that area – advertising, whatever – you need a good liberal arts education, with a lot of emphasis on English literature and history. And you need to learn to use the Internet. And you’ve just got to make, honestly, every boss’s problem your problem.

JONI: I have a different reaction to mentoring from the rest of you. And mine is sort of more crude.

LIZ: It’s no more than we expect from you.

JONI: For me, it’s always about the bottom line. I don’t know why I always knew this from the very beginning. But I remember having a boss, she was very Holly Golightly in style, when I was at my first job at McCall’s magazine, in the fiction department. And she would go out to lunch, glamorous lunches. And they drank martinis in those days. Come back at three or four in the afternoon. And then she’d go out shopping at Buccellati and buy herself something. You know, she was just amazing. And I wondered how she could survive in this world. I mean, I was making $70 a week, I remember that paycheck. I was so proud of it. And what she knew was how to bring in the bacon. She brought in James Michener to write the Christmas story. Or she would discover the perfect author to serialize that no one on the staff could ever have imagined – Ken Kesey or Joyce Carol Oates. And her lesson was that when you were the one who could pull it off, the one who could bring up the bottom line, you could have fun. And that was great mentoring.

LIZ: So she didn’t actually give it to you. You observed it.

JONI: No, I’ve observed it in many different forms. Another very specific mentoring lesson I got from a male boss, when I was just taking on larger administration positions in publishing, was this: make the decision. I don’t care if it’s wrong. I don’t care if it’s right. But say yes or no and get it done. And I’ve always benefited from doing just that.

LIZ: You’re still doing it. You’re the only person I’ve ever met who, when there’s a problem at the end of the day, you’ve usually solved it. While I’m still waiting how to formulate my problem to you, you’ve already done it.

JONI: It may be the wrong solution, but it’s a solution.

MARY: The only person who ever really gave me an idea that I’ve found extremely useful was Carl Gustav Jung.

LESLEY: From Jung himself?

MARY: No, no, no. Reading his books. At one point in my life I think I read every book he ever wrote. He used to say, to people who were having problems, something that I thought was extremely useful: “Focus.” The most important thing you can do in your life about anything is focus. Because the problem is that people get diverted, they get confused, they try to do five things, they try to do 20 things, or their minds amble or meander. And he would say, “Focus. Focus on what it is you were trying to accomplish and don’t think about anything else until you accomplish that.” I took that seriously and I started to teach myself to focus early on. I can still do that today.

LESLEY: I agree, you can’t really accomplish anything excellent if you don’t do what Mary just said – put your blinders on and do nothing but what the project is in front of you. I don’t know how anybody who does three, four things at the same time really accomplishes anything.

LIZ: I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings here who’s the advocate of the psychology of Jung. But you know he was an enormous anti-Semite and a Nazi.

JONI: But he was focused!

MARY: He had a lot of good ideas.

LESLEY: Was he an anti-Semite? Wasn’t he really close to Freud?

JONI: He was a friend of Freud’s.

LESLEY: They were very close. I’d love to read that biography.

LIZ: Another thing I want to say is that when you enter into jobs where you interact with people, you need to bring your ethics to bear. You need to be loyal, so they can rely on you, and I would say it’s a good idea in offices to avoid the water cooler and all that gossip and back biting.

JONI: Well then I’m not going.

LIZ: This is pretty sad. You’ve put 100 books on the bestseller list but you are a gossip maven.

JONI: You know, the other thing, along with the morality, is telling the truth. And telling the truth fast. “This isn’t going to work.” “You’re not good.” “This isn’t going to make it.” Telling the truth really helps.

LESLEY: But also being brave enough to say, “I don’t think that’s the right thing to do and I can’t do it.” That’s really hard. But you have to be strong enough, if you’re having sinking feelings, to say no.

MARY: There is nothing wrong with having ambition. If you’re ambitious, it does tend to sharpen your thinking; it does get you up in the morning; it does make you stay later in the evening; it does make you look for more than maybe what others are looking for.

JONI: It helps more when you’re ruthless!

27 comments so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    The most important things – the things that have gotten me ahead in the business world – are things I have learned from observing men – men in important places – men who cut to the chase, dispensing with small talk in business situations.  From them I learned that I must be prepared – fully prepared – to be responsive at meetings . . . which meant doing my homework and then some. 

    I learned that, try as I might, I could not have an opinion or an idea on everything that was thrown out.  If possible, you pick and choose, showing yourself in the best light when you do speak.  If I were to say, as Lesley has, “this isn’t going to work”, I would never ever leave it at that.  To me, the next statement you make after that statement is the most important.  IF it isn’t going to work, I come out with other options.  But taking that a step further, I have the rationale for a change that hopefully makes sense or makes the other person have to stop and think. .  . and hopefully, either understand and agree OR throw out some other options.  What YOU have effectively done – HOPEFULLY – is avoided an absolute NO – and with a masters in psychology, I know full well that nothing works every time.  But you try.   

    I work better if I have a time table.  Sure, I may have to work into the nights but deadlines challenge me, almost always making what I produce better.  I look at it as knowing that success builds confidence.  With confidence there, I notice that when you speak, people truly listen.  At the same time, if you carefully listen – not speaking all the time – it is then that you learn.  And grow.

    As to Joni’s last statement:  It helps more if you’re ruthless, I think I would not like to be at either end of that statement.  I am more of the person that tends to treat others as I would like to be treated in that situation.  I have to live with myself.  I HATE confrontation, but if I must deal with problems, I have already thought it out.  I will be firm and I will have rationale well thought out, but I take pride in the manner I say it.  After saying that, each of us has her own style, and over time each of us knows what works the best for her.

     

        

    • avatar KarenR says:

      Joan, sometimes I think there are huge regional/business sector differences that go unrecognized. What works one place won’t work in another. Image has more pull in some places, reasoning and hard facts in another. It all depends upon the organizational mission. Some industries exist to achieve sales, draw ratings, produce large bottom lines while others take on more clear cut tasks like designing bridges or buildings that don’t fall down. You can BS your way through some fields but not all.

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        Karen . . . indeed you are correct when you say that image is far more important in some fields, and reasoning has more pull in another.  As we become more seasoned in life, hopefully we find the mileau that we are the most comfortable in and provides a good fit.
        I certainly understand the difference.  However, in a personal sense, we can only talk to the original question here, one that comes from our own experience.  And so I did.  I found my niche, loved it, stayed with it, and took pride in being with the organization.  I learned there, I grew there, and – as I look at it – I like how I grew as a person in the larger sense.  What I learned has helped me immeasurably in the outside world as well. 

  2. avatar Linda Myers says:

    Thank you ladies! I have been waiting for so long for this column to appear.

    I have never taken, or left a job because of the money, maybe that is one of my errors?? I give 110% to whatever challenge I take on, though it seems when the challenge is no longer there – that is when I exit to something else.

    I was told many years ago, and I am not going to say by who – “Focus is the power of intent!” Working hand in hand, the power seems to grow from the intent behind the focus of what you are trying to do. On a personal level, that is where I build from.

    I won’t compromise my own truths and beliefs in trying to jump steps in meeting the marks I give myself. I worked for almost 13 years as a systems analyst, following four years of convincing a corporation I would learn the job without having an education for the field. In 2002, I was designated as having the highest metrics for the job for the Eastern region of the US, and truthfully I had no idea I was being watched. In the end I as one of the last standing from the original company after five mergers, and then chose to leave a job I no longer felt was part of my life.

    I had a manager 25 years ago, when I was hired she simply said “leave your personal life at the door and pick it up when you leave at night.” Since that day, I have always done just that. Regardless of how I was feeling, then or now – I would just kick up the energy into magnet level without hesitation and get it done. Even now, doing so acts like a breather between personal and being on the job, by not mixing the two.

    Have I reached my intended goal yet? No, though the challenge is my motivation. I am the same person whether in my physical world or via my net venues – one person regardless of being seen or unseen. A junior high principal many years ago, when moving from a country life to city gave me a piece of advice I have always remembered – choose your friends, don’t let your friends choose you.My inner circle remains smaller and tighter even when reaching across this planet. But the inner circle are the ones I know I can call on day or night without a worry about the response. And they have been there for decades on the canvas of my life, even when the picture altered for one reason or another.

  3. avatar Manuel Da Silva says:

    I do agree 100% with Mary, I knew her for several years and she always focus on things that she wants to accomplish and never stop until it was done. She is the greatest person I ever had the pleasure to meet, to know and to work for. She always compensate people for their efforts and motivate, them to the hightest levels, encourage everyone on her staff to do better and starving for the ultimate, no matter how high, how far or how deep it would be, just go for it and the joy will bless you. She was our mentor at La Fiorentina and she used to say to me, LIFE is a stage, like Broadway, everyone plays a role for the benefit of his own but more over for the pleasure to the other at the receiving end.Whatever you do just give all you have, focus at the light at the end of the tunnel, it will get you out of the tunnel, to a bright sunny day. Mary is engraved in my heart forever and ever. WHAT A GREAT LADY Mary IS!!!!!! There is no words in any language that can compliment her for the great life she made for herself and the well being of so many others. GOD BLESS YOU. With love Manuel and Teresa

  4. avatar Lila says:

    Re: Mary’s comment on mentoring: this was something the Army was struggling with at one time – they wanted everyone (ideally) to have a mentor, but there was never a formal “program” because it’s just not something that can be assigned or directed. Some leaders / supervisors are just not natural mentors, and some senior-subordinate relationships just don’t lend themselves to it for various reasons. It seems to be something that has to arise naturally, and often occurs between people who are not in the same chain of command or even in the same branch.

    Kudos to you, Mary, you seem to be one of the natural mentors out there.

    For Joni: wow, that was so familiar: “Make a decision, any decision!” Or… “The 80% solution on time is better than the 90% solution too late.” And you rarely if ever find a 100% solution.

  5. avatar Linda Myers says:

    I have always been one who tends to observe and analyze rather than getting caught up in the emotional side of issues. If a kid got cut, rather than screaming at the blood – i stopped the bleeding and had if fixed. Working with operating systems, my job was being the quick on the feet resolver. I filled a number of notebooks with research and resolutions which might have taken long periods of looking at code to find the core of the problem and turned the work into reference material to repeating the resolution in minutes compared to others who would redo the process over and over.

    Finding resolution is done from a space of stepping outside of the right and wrong or good and bad of the emotions to finding an answer aligned to the problem at the time. It might seem cold or ruthless to some in pulling together the pieces without becoming part of the emotions of others, but it works and for the most part and seems more natural, to myself anyway.

  6. avatar Laurie Deer says:

    Thank you to the woman of WOWOWOW for the splendid banter. I leave this morning for an interview for a lowly job. I am 45 years old and recently laid off. I spent the last ten years working for family before realizing not to work for family. Prior to that I owned my own small business and prior to that I worked here and there.
    Being a boss for the past twenty years thought me a whole load of things. One: don’t take anything or anyone for granted. Two: Like Lesley said, start at the bottom; learn everything there is to learn about the company and its inner workings. Three: Stay far away from the water cooler talk. Four: Support the guy who is paying you.
    Life is unpredictable at times and you really don’t know when the tides will turn but do make the best of every upturn in your life. Make it work for you.

    • avatar LandofLove says:

      Best wishes on your job search, Laurie. A year ago I was laid off from an editorial position when the communication-arts business I worked for went belly up, due to the recession. Luckily I was able to freelance for 9 months before being hired full time by the company I was freelancing for. What I realized out of all this is that networking with contacts is critical. I’m now working with people I’ve known for years, who came to the rescue when I needed them.

  7. avatar KarenR says:

    The biggest mistake I ever made was sticking with an employer for far, far too long. I assumed he knew what he was doing and cared. It was soul destroying to finally realize he didn’t care about the company (of which he was principal owner) as long as it kept his pockets lined and he had absolutely no interest in the future of his employees.

    I wasted a lot of time and passion on that place. It’s a bitter disappointment.

    • avatar Linda Myers says:

      Karen,

      I can understand how your feeling. The company I worked for was 15,000 strong in employees when I left. The realization that the motivation of “caring” for employees in incentives and morale boosting is to keep the bottom line of the company profitable in happy employees can feel like a huge ouch. I think you really have to focus more on what you profited from as a person.

      My daughter now is dealing with these feelings after 10 of working for a small employer who the owner became very much of a surrogate father figure for her and was always there. He is now terminal, has no desire in the future of the company and still spending thousands of dollars a month of company money while the company struggles. Getting her to refocus on his goodness for many years and accept his life choices now in keeping that part of him which was so special for so long has not been easy. Though I think it is important for her, when his time is over and being able to keep a space for him of the goodness she did know. It’s really about the focus of what is chosen personally to take away from a part of our life, personally or professionally. We still matter.

      • avatar KarenR says:

        If it had been a large company the behavior wouldn’t have been such a big deal. Large companies aren’t personal. But when it’s a small company and the owners keep giving praise and promises that turn out to be nothing more than empty lip service it’s hard not to take it personally and, really, as a betrayal of trust. After you get kicked hard enough it difficult to trust others in small business, close employment situations going forward.

      • avatar Linda Myers says:

        Large or small, when agreements are not kept it stings. For four years, I worked under a verbal agreement of a severance package. 60 days before the agreed end time, changes were made and and the job was now seen as on going with the six month clause of working in Chicago – my loss 24,000.00. I still worked and fulfilled the time and finished as agreed.

  8. avatar Linda Myers says:

    This I am writing for hopefully some input by the readers.

    Two weeks ago, I picked up a voice mail on my phone from a part owner of a local company. He said my resume had crossed his path three times, and he decided to make a phone call himself. Would I please call back?

    For myself, anything that flows in from left field I flow with it – I called him back and agreed to a phone interview the next week. Although being a start up company in 2003, they have prospered even during the recession and I really liked his views and ethics he talked about. Between first calling him and the phone interview I did my research into what the company was about, financials, people, etc. Absolutely, nothing negative came into the search. I agreed to meet him and his partners next week for a face to face interview. The job in simplicity aligns too what I have done in the past, so the learning curve would be minimal.

    I guess my reservation is returning to the field of work I had left in the past. The money, would definitely be sweet – though I have never left or taken a job for money in the past and wonder by doing so, if I would be letting go of the direction I have chosen now. I am not of the business mindset which leaves this all a bit undone in going ahead.

    Any advice from those who do have the mindset for business, I would love your opinion. Tomorrow I agreed to call him back again and validate next week. I give it my all to whatever I undertake, so I guess my real hesitation is if I would be going forward or defeating myself in returning. I know in the end my own core feelings will either make it or break it for myself.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Linda, “I know in the end my own core feelings will either make it or break it for myself.” I think you are already answering your own question… so keep that uppermost in your mind as you think about how to proceed. Money is very nice, but it’s not everything.

      Also ask yourself:
      Why did you leave your past field of work? Would it bother you to return to it, or not? Do you enjoy your current direction more? Can you take the job and still stay up-to-date in activity related to your current direction (freelance, part time etc)?

      As for the money angle: are your current financial needs covered, with a safety cushion? If you are financially secure, you can make your decision based just on your desires. If not, the money may play a larger role in the decision, if you can count on staying with the new job for a good, stable period of time.

      And the business angle: it’s really all about the bottom line. The part owner sees you as a potential asset to his company. You can turn that around and ask yourself how the company can be an asset to you… more than just salary and benefits… also reputation, resume-building, chance for advancement to higher positions etc.

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        Lila, I read Linda’s writing and was planning to answer her but you have — so well written and complete – said everything I would have . . . only you said it better. You are a deep thinker and thoughtful writer always — so I believe Linda will listen to you.

        But Linda, too, always has her act together and thinks things out well on any subject.  In this case, as she is at a crossroads, she does want to hopefully NOT make an error.  Sometimes, it is an outsider looking in – like you, Lila – who can lay all the angles out.  Each one makes her think.  But Linda is one smart lady so I have the feeling that her choice will be a good one.

      • avatar Linda Myers says:

        Lila,

        I really needed to refocus on this and you gave me some outstanding points of consideration today! Bless you!!

        When I left this field before I also was standing at a crossroads. I no longer felt a challenge and became bored and burned out. Staying, would have meant accepting a new job assignment which included living in Chicago six months a year and home six months in a span of time over each year. Chicago was fine for a couple weeks at a time, though I could not see myself there for long periods.

        The decision now includes commitment in the new job. The part owner I talked to is a person who really has the values you would dream of finding on a job. One statement he made was acknowledging since they started the company, no one has quit. I would not want to be the first. :-) Reviewing all the aspects today – the job quite possibly could take me further in what I love to do, by providing the finances for more freedom in exploring my own dreams now. Hours per week would really not differ since I work part-time at almost a full time schedule, the only difference being the job I work now is truly non-committed in my life, I just show up and do my job and leave. A repeating cycle which just absorbs time and provides enough to get by. Thinking about that today, it seemed like a wasteful existence of time also. Enhancing who I am while providing what the future could bring will have to become a merge.

        There has to be a reason I have not realized yet why somebody would contact me like he did, when I can find no evidence of ever applying to his company. For me, that has always been the signal spirit was moving and rearranging for some reason. Though at this time, my own intuition seems to be drawing blanks.

        The best way to proceed I think is too just keep the mind open without trying to relate the past or predict the future until I meet with him and his partners, which that in itself seems on the strange side instead of HR. As far as I know, it is not a job in management, which usually indicates that type of meeting.

        Thank you and your thoughts have been very much appreciated!

      • avatar Lila says:

        Linda, sounds like the new company has a great work atmosphere, which is a big deal to me. More income on top of that, and security… icing on the cake. All the best for your future happiness and success!

    • avatar LandofLove says:

      Linda, I vote for going into it with an open mind to see where it leads you. Every job situation is different, and the positives you’ve come up with so far would indicate that this could be a worthwhile business for you to be part of. Let us know what happens!

      • avatar Linda Myers says:

        I agree, I am just going to stay open through the next phase and see where this path is leading!

        Thank you!

      • avatar Joni Evans says:

        Linda, good luck and keep us posted! JONI

      • avatar Linda Myers says:

        Thank you Joni! I will be glad when the next few days are over, all this nervous energy is gone and time to party in Kansas!

        Linda

      • avatar Linda Myers says:

        It’s official this morning! I got the job. Not sure I remember what it is like to have a job which includes a chair. :-) I think for the time being I will try to do both jobs, and see how long I can tolerate it. The part time has always been great exercise, so I will have to transition the exercise into my life outside of a job.

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        Congratulations — though I am not surprised, Linda . . . as anyone would be missing a bet not to have you on board.  Just go with it day by day instead of looking ahead at all, and other decisions that were difficult just may well be easier.

        Look to today – with praise and thanks — and know you had a whole world here rooting for you.

        You have made them very happy!!

      • avatar Linda Myers says:

        Thank you Joan! You are symbolic of the heart being much larger than physical. My first side goal is getting my grandson to NYC for the Lion King before it closes. He has memorized all the dialogue and music and even gone as far as creating his own animated version of the show, so he will see it now. All else I am just going to take a day at a time without the rush and a lot less worry! :-)

      • avatar Lila says:

        Linda, congrats, I am so glad for you!! I hope this is the start of another happy and fulfilling chapter in your life!

      • avatar Linda Myers says:

        Lila,

        Thank you! This really feels like a good fit. Short commute (6 miles), no interstates, back in a field I excelled at before – though a small enough company you do not feel lost at a corporate level. And they have done quite well in spite of a recession. For some reason, this job came and found me, rather than searching for them. And I do give thanks for the new venture. At the same time, I no longer define myself by the job I have and that is a first.