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Q&A

Charlotte Beers a keynote speaker at ‘Conference for Women’

Charlotte Beers believes that years ago, women “weren’t as willing to say, I would like to be in a position of influence,’ and that is something I really love about women now.”

Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Charlotte Beers believes that years ago, women “weren’t as willing to say, I would like to be in a position of influence,’ and that is something I really love about women now.”

Charlotte Beers says she doesn’t come up to the Boston area much — usually when a Harvard Business School class is examining her case study on leadership, “Charlotte Beers at Ogilvy.” On Thursday, she will be one of the keynote speakers at the eighth annual Massachusetts Conference for Women, where nearly 10,000 people are expected to come to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center for a day of talks, networking, and business opportunities. Beers, 77, former chairman and CEO of the advertising and marketing firm Ogilvy & Mather, was undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs after the 9/11 attacks, and is the author of the new book “I’d Rather Be In Charge.” She spoke with the Globe last week by phone.

Q. How is a women’s conference different from any other type of conference?

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A. There is an ethereal thing going on in terms of the energy. There is something going on when women get together on behalf of work. We’re not used to being in huge numbers and having the energy that comes from seeing one another and beginning to discuss and share and explain and teach, so it’s a thrill really.

Q. Do you see that as something that wasn’t there 10 or 15 years ago?

A. I think 10 or 15 years ago, there weren’t as many women coming together, so there’s been a lot more formal organization of teaching women, bringing them together and talking about leadership, specifically for women. . . . And the other thing is — I don’t know the proper number of years — we weren’t as willing to say, “I would like to be in a position of influence,” and that is something I really love about women now. I teach that myself, because I think you have to decide you can be influential before you will be.

Q. It seems that what you talk about in terms of leadership is color neutral, gender neutral, and age neutral.

A. It is. You caught me [laughs]. Well I have to admit that my publisher loved the idea that this would be directed toward women, but as you’ve caught on, I mostly had men working for me and with me all my years. So what I learned about leadership, I learned from my men bosses, and I learned in the process of having us all teach one another as we turn around these companies, so much of what I’m talking about is gender neutral. The one exception is women at work. Women wear — like a veil, or a fog, or a filter — some expectations, and I really want to sweep that away.

Q. Do you mean women have to change the politics of the workplace, or just how they act day-to-day?

A. [It’s] the difference between being womanly and leader-ly, and women sometimes [choose one or the other] because of the script they were given at home or because of the way men treat them at the office. . . . If you can’t step out of the team and say, “Follow me,” you’re not going to be chosen for a very controversial and difficult job, which is where all the influence is felt. So women have to cross that threshold from “womanly” to “leader-ly.”

Q. When you’re at work doing your job, whether it’s writing ad copy or changing oil, you hope to do well and move up the ladder. But just because you do your task well doesn’t mean you can run the shop. There’s an element of workplace politics in that conversation, so how do you teach that?

A. What you are calling politics I would call relationships, and I know it’s too big a word, but so is yours [laughs]. But what I’m talking about is the ability to step out of the team and the group, and point to a new direction, which is what leaders do. And when you point to this new direction, this new idea, this new territory — you have to persuade others to follow you. And the secret ingredient to that is what I have [labeled] artful communication — that you have personal clarity, that you can speak in a memorable way, and that you have enough personal conviction and commitment that you have high persuasiveness about your communication. And if you don’t have those three things – clarity, memorability, and persuasiveness – you’re not leading, anyway. I mean, if it’s self-evident, it’s not leading, it’s management. But, in fact, if somebody looks at you and says, “God, I think people would follow her anywhere,” then you’ve got some qualities that associate themselves with leadership.

For information about the
Massachusetts Conference
for Women, go to www.ma
conferenceforwomen.org

Interview was edited and
condensed. John Vitti can be reached at jvitti@globe.com.
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