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!