10 Power Women on Getting Ahead

I've had terrific male and female mentors, some of whom surprised me by taking an interest in me and my work. Some people think that mentors are people who sit down and give you advice on how to succeed. I don't think that's the way the best mentors work. The best mentors are people who are talent scouts and show you how to succeed by modeling it themselves and being supportive of very talented people.

I was a university professor for two decades, and I have former graduate students who are now professors at major universities all over the world. It gives me great satisfaction to have helped launch these amazingly accomplished people.

At Penn, half of my executive team and deans are women—not because I set out to have women, but because I hired the most talented, hardworking people. So many women in these jobs would not have been conceivable when I started out in academia. I have women running my computer operation, my budget operation, my police force. My deans of the veterinary school, arts and sciences, and nursing are all women. That's a revolution in academic life.

I always joke that I came from a human-rights background because I was the only girl wedged between four brothers.

For seven years I served as president of Ireland, and after that I became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. In 1996, when I was president, during a summit of world leaders in Stockholm, we formed the Council of Women World Leaders. There are currently 36 members—past or present prime ministers and presidents—including Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chile's President Michelle Bachelet and Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

In November we are bringing 75 women leaders to a summit on issues that affect women, focusing especially on human security.

I am also involved in the Elders, working with people like Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and Graca Marchel. We are all senior statesmen trying to tackle issues like climate change, AIDS and global conflict. There are 13 members of the Elders; we have a symbolic seat left open for Aung San Suu Kyi.

When I was the High Commissioner I had to stand up to bullies—warlords and corrupt leaders—and look them in the eye and tell them what they were doing was wrong. It was not a disadvantage to be a woman, standing up to them. My husband and I would notice when I was president and he would come on trips with me, that women in some countries were astounded that I was the leader and my husband was in the second-place role. It was very interesting to see their reactions. I think it is good for the world to have both men and women leading it. But we still very much need those voices of women to be amplified.

We need to make leadership for women more visible. Next year we are making a huge initiative behind President Johnson-Sirleaf to support what she is trying to do for Liberia. This is a new form of collective leadership and support. We see there is appalling savagery toward women across the globe, and women tend to suffer most during wars. But now is the time: women have the power, we have the jobs in government and in business and we can really tackle some of these global issues. But we must start by helping our sisters at the bottom of the heap. It is important to enable leadership that plays to women's strengths like being good negotiators, communicators and networkers to encourage women to be more ambitious.

I grew up in a small village in Guyana, and when I was 9 my family moved to Britain. I think the experience of migration always has a huge impact no matter what your age. I grew up as an international person, in part because I had a strong sense of who I was and where I came from.

As a young woman I was quite academic, always interested in what was happening in the world. I had a strong sense of fairness and the need for equality. In university I very quickly became involved in women's and ethnic minority organizations. I remember that when I was in my late teens, if you ever asked me what I wanted to do I would blithely say, "Change the world."

After university I was involved in setting up one of the first black women's organizations in Birmingham. [Later] I found a job as a race-relations adviser in South London, and that started my career in local government. In 1989 I was headhunted to become the chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), which moved me from local into national politics.

When I left the EOC in 1994, I went to South Africa after Nelson Mandela came into office. It was a whole society that needed to be transformed, and that started my long-term love affair with South Africa. I worked there pretty consistently until 1998, consulting for the national and local governments. When Labour won in 1997, I was asked if I wanted to become a member of the House of Lords as a working Labour peer. Then in June 1998 I got a phone call from Prime Minister Tony Blair asking me to become a government whip in the House of Lords. In 2003, I became the cabinet minister responsible for the Department for International Development. It was my dream job.

When Lord Williams, the leader of the House of Lords,?died unexpectedly during the summer of 2003, Parliament was on recess. When I rang to find out who was going to be our new leader, I was told, "Actually, the P.M. wants to see you." So again I went to see Tony, and he said, "It's a senior job; I want you to do it." And I said, "Prime minister, if this is what you want, I will do it." I have now been nominated by Gordon Brown to become the European Union special representative to the African Union.

My advice to women is to know what you want to achieve. Understand you need help and support and learn from your mistakes, have fun and be flexible. I think it is really important not to box yourself in and say, "I am on this particular career path" because you lose opportunities that way. I think a lot of women constrain themselves because they look at their experiences and expertise in quite a narrow light. We need to be more open to opportunities and what we are prepared to think about. Women need to have more confidence in their experience and their skill. I've never been hung up thinking, "Can I actually do it?"

Find something you really love and make it your career. Don't let anyone discourage you or tell you it's not practical. I have loved the Middle East since I was a little girl. I read my first book about ancient Egypt when I was 10, and I've been hooked ever since. My career has taken lots of turns, but the Middle East has been a constant. When I was in law school at the University of Chicago, I spent every spare moment taking classes on Middle East history at the Oriental Institute. When I was practicing law, I focused on projects in the Middle East. For the last five years, I've been working on U.S. Middle East policy, women's empowerment and democratic reform in the Arab world.

I have been blessed to have had great, strong women mentors, beginning with my mother. I have also met incredibly impressive women in the Arab world. They are demonstrating enormous courage as they work to expand women's rights and human freedom in their countries. I am inspired to work harder every time I spend time with them.

My mother and father taught my sister and me that we could be anything we dreamed of if we were willing to work hard enough. That was a tremendous gift. Now I have three daughters and two young sons of my own. When I think of my girls playing soccer or field hockey, or riding horses across the Wyoming plains, I am just in awe of them. If someone told them they were less able than boys, they would laugh at the absurdity of such a claim.

I don't agree with Senator [Hillary] Clinton's views on the issues, but I think it's terrific that she is a credible presidential candidate. It's a measure of progress in this country that she will be judged not on her gender, but on whether she is right or wrong on the issues, whether she is up to the task of being president. That says a lot about us as a nation. It's about time we got to that point.

No one is going to invite you to the table; you have to take the initiative. That means you have to have a thick skin. Ninety-nine percent of the time it isn't personal. People aren't sitting around thinking how they can exclude you.

Do your homework. Know your issues. Know them better than anyone else. Study. Listen. Show up on time—preferably early. Don't think you know everything. No one knows everything. Don't act like you know everything. Don't be afraid to ask questions and to be comfortable with what you don't know. Get experts to brief you and guide you on what you don't know. Your ability to get things done in any organization is all about relationships. Our reputations follow us throughout our lives, so how you treat others will be remembered.

Erskine Bowles, who was my boss at the White House when he was deputy chief of staff, told me two things that helped shape my ideas about leadership. The first is that it's important to know what you're good at, but it's more important to know what you're not good at. Surround yourself with people who know more than you. The second thing is, don't think you need to be in every meeting.?People make the mistake of thinking that if they're not in a meeting, they're not important or they're going to miss something. But if you go to every meeting, you don't get any work done.

There are two types of people in the world: people who create chaos and unnecessary work, and people who eliminate chaos and get the job done.?Every organization has people who will attempt to waste your time with the downward-spiral conversation about the negative aspects of the organization.?It's energy-draining to talk about the things that aren't working.

Don't talk in a meeting unless you have something to add. A lot of people think if they sit in a meeting and say nothing, people will think they don't know anything. And then they say something that's not relevant just to participate.

Don't send long, flowery e-mails. To be taken seriously as a woman, you have to understand how men's brains work. Be very succinct in your response and very clear about what you are asking in the e-mail.

And lastly, thanks and gratitude are sadly underrated. Your team will be significantly more productive and happier if they feel appreciated.

My philosophy is that business is one big fun game; it's all about strategy and facts and logic. If emotion gets in the way, it can color judgment. I also believe attitude is everything: you always have to keep perspective and bring a sense of humor to your job. I often say to people, "Hey, look. You know, no children have died here. There's always tomorrow. At the end of the day, it's only a job."

I'm a believer in connecting with people personally and knowing them as human beings. I guess some people might say that's more of a feminine quality than a male one, but I feel it's important not to lose your identity just because you're in a very male culture or an engineering culture.

You can see a mile off a woman who has confidence, who carries herself well. Confidence breeds success. It's imperative that you go into meetings prepared, know the three or four facts that add value and show you are really on top of stuff. Exude confidence and people will look at you and say, "Wow! I have faith in this person. I have trust that they're going to do a really good job. Wow! I'm going to give them the promotion."

I decided about four or five years ago that I should do a lot more to help build women leaders at the company. I've seen the impact on people who didn't have the confidence or weren't thinking about the game in the right way; they didn't have the right advocates; they didn't have the right network. It's inspiring to see these women who have now gone on to get promoted and run big parts of our business. They spread it to other women, and the ripple effect is powerful.

My parents migrated from Karachi to India as refugees during partition and started rebuilding life from scratch. My father was a civil engineer who later became principal of an engineering college in Rajasthan, where I grew up. There was an academic atmosphere at home and strong and equal emphasis on education for all of us—two sisters and a brother.

One of the most sobering lessons I learned early on when my father passed away after a heart attack at 51. I realized life could change any time. And you have to adapt to a totally different situation. As a teenager in a small town where everybody knew me as the principal's daughter, I was a little celebrity. After my father's death, when I shifted to Bombay, nobody knew me. I was taking the crowded local trains to college, whereas in Rajasthan I had not stepped out of the house without a chauffeur and a car.

I always thought that I would join the civil service. But when I came to Bombay I saw the commercial world, and nobody seemed to give so much importance to the civil service as a career. So I got an M.B.A. and joined the world of finance. In 1984, I joined the ICICI Bank at age 22 and climbed through the ranks to my current position: looking after corporate and international banking at India's largest private-sector bank.

I have not stopped learning lessons. First, don't have fixed notions. Bankers are always typed as corporate or investment, but I have grown with the bank and helped set up every new business: infrastructure financing, commercial banking, retail credit. When I was offered retail credit, it was a totally unknown area in India. I knew as long as I was willing to learn I would be able to do it. Accept challenges; don't run away from them.

There is no substitute for hard work. You can't think that things will work out of some brilliant, fantastic analysis or some lucky break. My work required long hours: so be it. It has required that I travel so much: so be it. It has meant less sleep: so be it. You can't say "I want to be successful" yet "I will work only five days a week because the other two days I will have to be with my family." For women especially, if they really want to prosper, they have to prosper on a level playing field, not by asking for special treatment. At this level I don't think I am working for ICICI. I am ICICI, and ICICI is me. It is an immense sense of responsibility that I bring to my work.

I have learned that if things go right, as a leader you should share credit with others. If something has gone wrong, then as a leader I must own up to it. Instead of brooding, start a course correction and provide a broad shoulder to your team. That reduces the damage to morale and energy, and brings you back into action. I believe the shoulder of a leader should become broader and stronger when there is a challenge. I also make it a point when traveling abroad to wear only saris, because I don't feel the need to change my personality if I am entering someone else's boardroom. Also, if you wear a sari you stand out and get noticed. So I am not only comfortable in a sari in the World Economic Forum meeting in snowy Davos, I am proud of it as a dignified Indian outfit.

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I was president of the board when we had to redesign the largest modern-art museum in the country. It cost more than $800 million, which we had to raise mostly from individuals or their foundations. We needed to choose an architect who would design a good home for a super collection, not merely a building that was its own work of art. The most important thing for me during this process was working with every department of MoMA. It is a lot of work to get everyone to agree.

It's important to get everyone on the same page. My role was making them see that we all agreed even if we didn't start out with the same thoughts. I had to develop skills to persuade people to understand my point of view and to accept what I thought would work best.

I grew up in a family of six kids born a year apart. I'm used to never being listened to, so I don't always listen so well on my own—though I'm learning. I wasn't always flexible. If I thought I had an idea that I wanted to pursue, I would think, Oh, this matters so much. I had to learn to listen to other people and take in their perspective.

It's hard to make people understand the inclusive nature of working with a board. People don't always get what they want. I've learned to bring the ball down gently, and make things palatable.

When I studied World War II, I always wondered about the policymakers sitting behind their big mahogany desks as Hitler overran Europe. Then, during the Bosnian war, I was the U.S. ambassador in Vienna. Suddenly I was behind a big mahogany desk, hearing horrifying reports from embassy personnel who were interviewing the refugees pouring into Austria. The responsibility was awesome. I couldn't sleep at night. I wondered if I should resign my position to protest the fact that my country was not intervening. I decided I could do more by working inside than I could by leaving, but it was a terrible moral dilemma for me. I used every bit of connection I had to try to convince the president to intervene. And when Clinton finally intervened, the war was over very quickly. Meanwhile, 200,000 people died needlessly.

What I learned is that women in every conflict are trying to prevent war, are trying to stop it once it starts and are trying to stabilize after the peace agreement is signed because they don't want their kids getting killed. So we would be so much smarter at a foreign-policy level to support their work, and for the most part, Washington is clueless and the U.N. is clueless about that.

Women tend to be less corrupt, and when you're talking about developing countries, that is enormous. What they tell me is, "We know that any money we put into our own pockets is not going to hospitals and schools that will help the children in this country." They think of the whole country as their family.

All over the world, women leaders struggle to balance the responsibilities of their families and their jobs. We need to pass on to the next generation the idea that your family is more than your own children. This will allow women to let other people help raise their kids, for one thing. You don't have to be the sole influence on your kids. That will allow more women to be out in the world, working with their passions, shaping the future of many, many, many, many more kids.

When I was growing up, I loved to get lost in the movies. I saw that they could affect your emotions and could actually change lives or social legislation. At that time, women really had two options: teaching or nursing. Those are great careers, but my passion was to make movies. When I told people that was what I wanted to do, they laughed and said, "Who do you think you are?" It was like telling someone you wanted to go to the moon before anybody had gone to the moon. So I learned to keep my dreams a secret.

The day I graduated from college, I packed my bags and came out here to Los Angeles. Eventually I got a job for $5 an hour reading scripts and worked my way up. By the time I was 35, I was running Fox. But I don't think I ever felt powerful. I felt the power resided in the director, the writer, the actor—the real creative people. My job was to give them the chance to fulfill their creative vision. So I didn't walk around saying, "Look at me, I got all this power." All I thought was, "Look at me, I got all this work to do!"

Eventually I left and formed a partnership with a man named Stanley Jaffe to make great movies ourselves because I felt that's where my creative heart was. We were lucky. We made "Fatal Attraction" and "The Accused"—movies that really affected the culture. But that wasn't the only reason I wanted a change. I woke up one day when I was 38 years old and working 900 hours a day, and I felt that I didn't have the quality of life that I wanted. I felt that if I produced movies, I would have a more balanced life. And I don't just mean a boyfriend, which is where I was at that time. I mean travel. If Stanley and I had a successful movie, I could take off for a few weeks and he could cover the office. Then Stanley became the head of Paramount. I took over our productions and met my husband, William Friedkin, who is a director. At the same time, Stanley asked me to run Paramount. I thought the job would have more regular hours so I could be home for dinner with my husband and my stepchildren. And I said to Stanley, "I can do this, but don't expect me to be out every night on the town."

My life is a search to find balance. I just got so lucky at 47 years of age to meet my husband. And to get two wonderful stepchildren on top of it all and to really, with their mothers, help raise them. And so I took this big job, which I loved. I loved it for 12 years. I was home for dinner—maybe not as much as I sometimes wanted to be. But in my mid-50s, I started to say, "Well, I want my life to be more than just making money. I want my life to have some social relevance to it." I wanted more balance now that there was no need to be home for the kids. They were gone, out of college. I wanted to do good.

I quit and I started this foundation, which is dedicated to cancer research and to health. I want this third chapter to be a chapter of relationships and intimacy and the work of the foundation. It's the payoff for all those years.

I loved my old life then and I love my new life now. I don't want to be in my old life, but I wouldn't have wanted my new life then. There's not one thing I miss.

I still have old friends I had in the movie business. I see them all the time. Only my world has expanded because I am meeting scientists who are doing work in stem cells, scientists in cancer research. I'm starting a movement now called Prime Time, which takes people who are retired and creates a Peace Corps so that they can give back. I've got this Encore teaching program, where I made a partnership with private corporations that are funding their retirees to go back to school to get their teaching credentials. Every day is filled with something new.