What Would Dolly Do?

What Would Dolly Do?

In a hotel room at the Sheraton-Nashville, I was surrounded by beautiful photos of musical instruments–Gibson guitars, mandolins, close-ups of frets, strings and Fender guitar picks–all reminders that Nashville is the home of country music. I’ve been in love with country music since I was a girl and I saw Dolly Parton on the “Porter Wagoner Show.” I’ll never forget being in the basement of our home in Bangor, Maine, watching our black-and-white TV and seeing the image of Dolly in rhinestone cowgirl attire, fringe swinging, her hair out to here, her bust not quite as prounounced as it would become later but still, she was a sight to behold. And that voice. So although I was brought up in a household filled with classical music and Broadway hits, I became a C&W fan thanks to Dolly.

What Would Dolly DoNow, decades later, I looked up above my bed in that hotel room in Nashville to a framed print that said, “What Would Dolly Do?” This was, of course, a parody of the popular “WWJD?” bracelets and paraphernalia popular in Christian circles, “What Would Jesus Do?” With no disrespect intended and without any hint of blasphemy, I nodded solemnly to myself. What would Dolly do, indeed? [Read more…]

A Seat at the Table

A Seat at the Table

Years ago I was a cub reporter for a daily newspaper in Oklahoma, covering the health care beat. As part of my responsibilities I attended the board meetings of the local United Way, a group comprised of business leaders from around town. These experienced and mature business folks would meet monthly in a large board room around a big, shiny table. As the reporter covering the meeting I would sit in a chair against the wall, taking notes.

One day during a meeting a question came up about another local business leader who had changed jobs. Where had he gone? someone asked, and there was some speculation about where he now worked. I knew the gentleman they were referring to so I blurted out the answer from my chair against the wall. The conversation stopped and heads swiveled toward me as if I suddenly appeared from the ether or uttered an expletive into the air. I blushed deeply and understood for the first time that as a reporter, I was there only to observe and not to participate.

Something in me shifted–you could even say, crackled. I knew in that moment that this job as a reporter was a bad fit for me. I needed to be in a job where I had an active, vital role, where my voice could be heard, valued and acknowledged. In short, I needed a seat at the table.

I just finished reading a book called The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance–What Women Should Know by New York Times bestselling authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. [Full disclosure: I “read” the book while driving, listening to the audio version on CD.] This book contains startling details about our gender’s collective lack of confidence, some genetic, some learned, along with amazing insights from high-level business women as impressive as Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as basketball stars from the WNBA. Propped up by the results of studies from social scientists, deep research and a broad range of interviews, the book provides guidelines for women to actively exercise their confidence skills. Somewhere in the book they admonish us as women to take our seats at the table, to participate and be heard.

While The Confidence Code is written for women, it’s a good reminder to all of us–women and men–that in order to make a difference we have to communicate our point-of-view. I learned that lesson long ago in that boardroom in Lawton, OK. Before long I quit my job as a reporter and jumped into the business world as a communications professional, moving from spectator to an on-the-court participant. Now I’m thrilled to be in a role where I can express myself and influence others through the written and spoken word. I’ve not only found my seat at the table but in my role as a board member I’ve even found myself at the head of the table!

Where are you? Are you seated against the wall, observing, or have you taken your rightful place at the table?

[Photo: Boardroom table at OfficeLinks, my Chicago office in the Willis (Formerly-Known-as-Sears) Tower]

An Homage to Mothers

An Homage to Mothers

This Sunday is Mother’s Day, and like many women of my generation, I’ll be missing my own mom on this invented holiday. My mom, Geri Axford, passed away in 2009 and not a day goes by that I don’t think of her. She left me with a wealth of memories, a valued practical streak that offsets the idealism I inherited from my dad, and a treasure trove of “Momisms.” (One of my favorites: “Anything’s good if it’s deep-fat fried.”).

I was startled to learn that as the tradition of Mother’s Day turns 100 years old, the founder–Anna Jarvis–was vehemently against the commercialism of the day. Originally, Mothers’ Day (then plural) was intended to inspire mothers who were mourning the loss of their soldier sons to fight for peace. According to an article in National Geographic Daily News by Brian Handwerk, Anna’s own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, was her inspiration: Mrs. Jarvis rallied other mothers to work for sanitary conditions and later cared for wounded soldiers from the Civil War. In 1914, Mother’s Day (now singular) was hijacked by U.S. President Herbert Hoover and, in spite of Ms. Jarvis’ protestations, some of which got her thrown in jail, the holiday prevailed as an opportunity to up the profits of restaurants, flower shops and boutiques. According to Mr. Handwerk, Mother’s Day spending this year may top $19.9 billion.

A lot has changed since I became a mother back in 1979. When I entered the work world in earnest in 1981 as a hospital communications specialist, women were just starting to make inroads in the business world. We underplayed our roles as wives and mothers, hoping that we could fly under the radar so that the badge of motherhood wouldn’t handicap us. Even if it meant working that “second shift,” handling all our housework and domestic affairs between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., we didn’t want to be stereotyped. Our suits of armor–the ubiquitous navy blue suit and the ridiculous maroon bow tie–were a reflection of our desperate desire to fit into a man’s world. There was no maternity pay, no family leave law, no flex-time, no telecommuting. We hid our commitments to soccer games and school plays from our bosses lest they impede our climb up the career ladder. Now, of course, the rules have changed–thank God. Moms can be moms, fully integrated as workers committed to families and their jobs and careers.

Geri AxfordSo here’s to mothers, all of them–those who stay home and work the relentless cycle of childcare and homemaking, those who work outside the home in order to make a living and provide for their families and those who set an example in the workplace that we could, indeed, do both. I thank my own mother who, although sometimes befuddled by my relentless ambition, supported me all the way. And I thank my children, Kitty and William, who made me a mother, subject to all the joys, heartaches and satisfaction that role brings. I celebrate my sister and sisters-in-law who shared in those early years, providing maternity clothes, hand-me-downs for the kids and the trade secrets of motherhood that kept me sane. I’m grateful to have been on the receiving end of the many women in business who inspired me along the way, and thrilled that there are now so many more choices for our daughters.

Happy Mother’s day, Mom.

 

[Masthead photo: www.jewelryhottopics.blogspot.com]

Everything I Need to Know in Business I Can Learn from Liz Lemon

Everything I Need to Know in Business I Can Learn from Liz Lemon

Thanks to my Netflix addiction, I’ve had the pleasure of watching all seven seasons of “30 Rock.” The show stars Tina Fey as the creator and head writer of a TV show that highlights bad talent and fart jokes, and I admit that “30 Rock” is an acquired taste. But the development of its ensemble cast of characters has me smitten with the writing and, more specifically, with the character of Liz Lemon.

Watching Liz grow into her role as a manager, squeezing scripts out of her insubordinate writers and wrangling her wayward actors, has me thinking: Everything I need to know in business, I can learn from Liz Lemon.

Leadership. There’s an episode where Liz is reliving her college days and revels in the memory of her first two weeks. She was inadvertently assigned a spacious dorm room with handicap accessibility and for those blissful two weeks, her room was Party Central. She became intoxicated with her new-found popularity. But then the dorm room mistake was discovered, and she settled into a smaller room and ultimately into her role as R.A. (resident adviser), reviled by her peers. In the same way, Liz learns she can’t lead the cast & crew of her TV show and always be popular. She has to make tough decisions that may compromise her friendships. The role of a leader is sometimes lonely, and there are boundaries.

Mentoring. Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin, is Liz’s boss, an ambitious but lovable executive who takes Liz under his wing. Their relationship evolves and grows into a friendship, and Liz learns to appreciate Jack’s guidance. She also asserts herself, with mixed results. Jack allows her to fail, teaches her the art of negotiation and continues to mentor her along the way–even if his advice is sometimes warped and often Scotch-induced. A mentor provides the space for his protégée to succeed and to fail, asking “What did you learn?”

Authenticity. Liz Lemon is, above all things, authentic. She admits to her weaknesses (food, a lack of fashion sense and a fondness for scatological humor) and doesn’t try to be someone she’s not. When she writes a best-selling book called “Deal Breakers” that has a chance of evolving into her own talk show, Liz has a complete melt-down after an ill-fated make-over. The talk show is scrapped and Liz goes back to doing what she does best–being head writer and creator of TGS. Successful people know who they are and show up that way, consistently over time.

Some of the things I love most about Liz Lemon are the endearing way in which she calls her writers “dummies,” her crooked walk and, above all, her willingness to admit her nerdiness. She isn’t a glamour-puss and she doesn’t wear designer clothes and stiletto heels. Her pedigree isn’t from Harvard: she got most of her training at Second City in Chicago. If a woman like Liz (and her real-life counterpart Tina Fey) can make it in a nearly all-male world wearing glasses and flat shoes, then maybe there’s hope for other aspiring business women. Maybe it’s all about being ourselves.

 

(photo credit: www.nbc.com)

Running with the Big Dogs

Running with the Big Dogs

Muriel Siebert was quite a dame.

Before last week I’d never heard of Muriel “Mickie” Siebert, who passed away on August 24 at the age of 84. Ms. Siebert was the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. She often appeared in public holding one of her long-haired Chihuahuas, Monster Girl and Monster Girl 2, saying that neither she nor her Chihuahuas were “intimidated by the big dogs.” For someone who worked in an all-male domain as the only woman working with 1,375 men, that was saying something.

After reading various versions of her obituary, I became more and more inspired by this pioneer who was described as “scrappy,” a woman who didn’t take no for an answer. As the story goes, Ms. Siebert was a college drop-out from Ohio who came to New York in a Studebaker with $500 and a dream of working on Wall Street. She was hired as a trainee and worked her way up the ranks of several brokerage firms. But she was increasingly frustrated because she knew she was getting paid half of what the men earned. In a 2003 interview by Susan Tomchin in Jewish Woman MagazineMs. Siebert shared how she came up with the idea of breaking into the all-boys club of the NYSE:

“The idea came from a client, Gerry Tsai, a well-known Chinese fund manager. I asked Gerry which large firm I could go to and get credit for the business I was doing. ‘None,’ he said, suggesting that I buy a seat on the Stock Exchange and work for myself. So I took the constitution of the New York Stock Exchange home and studied it and realized there was no law against it. There were problems buying the seat, but I got the seat and he was right.”

All she wanted, according to Ms. Siebert, was to be paid equally. Getting there, however, took some time and perseverance. She couldn’t buy her $445,000 seat on the Exchange without obtaining a bank loan of $300,000, something no other applicant had ever been required to do. “There would be no loan until I was accepted and I couldn’t be accepted without the loan,” she’s quoted as saying in an August 25, 2013, story in the New York Times.  Although it took nearly two years, she obtained a loan from Chase Manhattan Bank and was elected to the New York Stock Exchange on December 28, 1967. It would be nearly ten years before another woman was elected.

She founded her own company, Muriel Siebert & Company, in 1969, becoming the first woman to own and operate a brokerage firm that was a member of the NYSE. When the federal government did away with fixed commissions in 1975, she became one of the first discount brokerage firms.

Muriel Siebert

Muriel “Mickie” Siebert’s funeral service program (Photo: Philip Lewis/Bloomberg)

Among Ms. Siebert’s other achievements was her appointment by then-Governor Hugh Carey to become the first woman Superintendent of Banks (‘S.O.B.’s,” as she liked to say) in the state of New York. She also created a financial literacy program for high-school students and funded philanthropies and start-ups, supporting other women in the world of work. She ran for the United States Senate but lost in the primary to Assemblywoman Florence Sullivan, who ultimately lost the race to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In 1996 she took her firm public.

It’s hard to imagine a time when women weren’t allowed into the luncheon clubs where deals are cut and businesses are built. Not only was she not allowed in the clubs, but Ms. Siebert wasn’t even allowed on the elevators to the clubs. In 1987 she won a fight to have a ladies’ room installed on the seventh floor of the stock exchange after threatening to have a porta-potty installed. At a luncheon where she was being honored, she warned working women not to rest on our laurels but to “just keep fighting.”

On this Labor Day weekend when we celebrate the social and economic contributions of workers, I lift my glass to Mickie Siebert, a woman who taught us that some things like equal opportunity and equal pay are worth fighting for.