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Published: October 11, 2002

 
 

Best Business Books 2002: Women Leaders

Yet Siebert and Lawrence share some traits that go a long way toward explaining why they were able to persevere and triumph. These are obvious qualities, yet they are often overlooked in accounts of successful careers, and they also are qualities of which businesswomen, and men, for that matter, might be mindful.

First, what shines through in these narratives is the passion — no other word for it — that Siebert and Lawrence have for their jobs. They found professions that perfectly matched their talents and temperaments, no small thing. “From the beginning the recondite world of figures seemed like second nature to me,” remembers Siebert. “I could look at a page of numbers and they lit up like a Broadway marquee.” Lawrence thought of the dresses and shoes she was touting at Macy’s as “transcendent offerings.” She felt the same way later about Alka-Seltzer and Midas mufflers. “The unvarnished truth,” she says of the nature of her ambition, “is that I wasn’t looking for the man of my dreams, I was looking for the job of my dreams, I was in love with advertising.” Siebert goes to the heart of the matter when she notes that “a risk–reward ratio is important, but so is an aggravation–satisfaction ratio.” Satisfaction with their jobs far outweighed the aggravation. Both of them, happy as sparrows in a birdbath.

Next, Siebert and Lawrence readily acknowledge the role luck played in their careers. They were lucky to land in the right career, but lucky also to be in their industries at a time of upheaval. Mickie Siebert was able to take advantage of Wall Street’s May Day — May 1, 1975, when brokerages were ordered to stop fixing the commissions on trades and instead offer competitive rates. She saw a future in discount brokerage — not as obvious then as it is now — and ran with it. For her part, Mary Lawrence came to Madison Avenue just as television advertising was coming into its own. In that medium, she was able to fully utilize a special talent for giving theatrical shape to people’s dreams.

As shrewd and quick as they were intelligent, Siebert and Lawrence turned luck into opportunity. They were able to see the earth was shifting. Historically, it’s in periods of change that women make gains; men are too distracted, or not able to discern the direction that the change is taking. For example, at the beginning of her career, Siebert was given aviation to cover because the senior analyst thought there was no future in it; he was a railway man. This was serendipity, but, again, she ran with it, making it her specialty and later becoming the first woman to belong to the prestigious Wings Club. The aviation industry, entering a golden age and ripe with opportunity, was also pivotal in Mary Lawrence’s career. Some of the largest airlines were her clients at one time or another, and she married Harding Lawrence, the charismatic head of Braniff International.

Last, both women are blessed with sunny temperaments. Mickie Siebert describes herself, with winning simplicity, as “smart, happy, and lucky.” We tend to think of driven people as moody, dark, but Siebert and Lawrence, while intensely focused, don’t make heavy weather of an obstacle. They puzzle it through, tough it out, keep on going. No climb to the top is a cakewalk; the secret, if the careers of Siebert and Lawrence can teach us anything, is not to be corroded by bitterness, consumed by festering rage, even when the odds are stacked against you, as the 6.2 percent statistic suggests is the case for women.

 
 
 
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