Nice Girls Can Finish First!
Beat the mean girls without sacrificing your authentic self
Getting ahead in the workplace means you have to check your altruistic self at your office door. Right? Ummm. Maybe not.
Fran Hauser, former President of Digital at Time, Inc., Angel Investor, and author of The Myth of the Nice Girl: Achieving a Career You Love Without Becoming a Person You Hate (out April 17) believes being nice is a “superpower,” that one can be assertive without being pushy, and that it’s possible to set boundaries while still being caring. She believes in negotiating effectively by leveraging your empathetic “she-nature.”
The Myth of the Nice Girl wants to embolden women and girls to be confident, strong and decisive by cultivating kindness, compassion, and empathy, and using those qualities as the secret sauce of success in the workplace and in their personal lives.
CoveyClub: What inspired you to write this book?
Fran Hauser: The idea came to me back in 2009. I was President of Digital for People Magazine and I was doing a lot of mentoring, especially of younger women. And the most common question I got asked was, “How can you be so nice and still be successful?”
I looked around to see if there was a book written on the topic and all I could find was, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office [by Lois P. Frankel in 2004] so I thought, ok, there is definitely white space here and this book needs to be written.
But then life got in the way. I had my first son in 2010 and my second in 2011. My job at Time, Inc. just kept getting bigger as I oversaw digital for six brands–so the book project got shelved.
And then two years ago I wrote a short blog post for Forbes.com titled Nice Women Finish First, When They Ask the Right Questions which was about how kind women CAN get the corner office. And [it became one of the top three out of 50 blogs].
A lot of people reached out to me on social media and through email, and I knew it really struck a chord. I’d been working on a playbook about how to launch your career, and I was actually 80 pages into the proposal. When my agent saw the response to the nice girl post she said, “This is the book you should be writing,” which is really ironic because that’s the book I initially wanted to write back in 2009!
CoveyClub: You say that the strongest, most effective leaders use kindness to inspire their co-workers and create powerfully positive workplace environments. How do you handle the inevitable Negative Nellys that might stifle this process?
Fran Hauser: If I see that someone is really negative, I try to figure out why, because sometimes it’s a situational thing that can be addressed. I have a story in the book about this young woman, Jackie, a graphic designer, who would [come to] meetings and I would see her rolling her eyes. She was always negative. One day I called her out on it and asked her if everything was ok, that I was noticing how her energy was off.
She admitted to me that she felt she was being asked to do a lot of tedious things and being taken advantage of by the team. So, I said, “take me through that,” and literally had her list all the things that were bothering her.
There were some things that I told her [she was] just going to have to do, like make [photo] copies for the team, because [she was] the junior person. [I told her that] I had to do that when I was the junior person, too. She was also getting coffee and snacks every day for the team, so I encouraged her to talk to her boss about that and it got fixed. And guess what? Her attitude changed!
But there are other people [for whom being negative] is just their nature. As a leader, [I know] those people are going to bring the whole team down. So, I try to [find] a way that they can contribute on an individual level.
CoveyClub: Why do you think the myth persists that you can’t be nice and get ahead in 2018?
Fran Hauser: Look at the book, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. That phrase has been around for a long time. People believe that you can’t be both kind and strong. But I think the most effective leaders are both. They are not mutually exclusive.
Managers and bosses perpetuate the myth. I’ve had many young women tell me, “I had my performance review and my boss told me that I’m too nice and that’s going to hurt me.”
What I say to a woman in that situation is to go back to your boss and ask specifically: “In what way is being nice hurting me [or my progress]?” Maybe the boss has some constructive feedback. They might say “you are always getting buy-ins from everybody else [but] you’re incapable of making a decision.”
That is a very specific [problem] that you can work on. If they [offer no specifics but] say being nice is not their leadership style, then you have to have a productive conversation about how much power [comes from] being “nice” and how it has served you well.
At the end of the day, business is about influencing people, getting the best out of your team, and knowing how to have a constructive conversation with someone when you have really difficult news to deliver.
When you are kind, compassionate and empathetic, it makes all that stuff so much easier. You develop relationships based on trust and you can get so much more done.
CoveyClub: You make a strong case for the importance of networking and mentorship. What do women who can’t find a mentor do? Should you just go up to someone and ask?
Fran Hauser: Start by being really intentional about what you want to get out of a mentoring relationship. It could be that you are looking to advance within your company or it could be that you want to lead the industry that you are in, or do something altogether different. Or it could be that maybe you are looking for somebody who has a specific area of expertise that you want to hone and develop.
Being really thoughtful and intentional about what is it that you are looking for is very important. When I was in media for all those years, I really felt like I needed to start hanging out with people who didn’t look and sound like me, because we were all saying the same things and we all had the same challenges. What was really important was finding somebody who could open up new worlds for me.
Soraya Darabi is a great example, by the way. [She] was much younger than me. I was her mentor, but she ended up being hugely helpful to me because she opened me up to the New York tech scene. She said to me, “Fran, there are so many women who are looking to launch businesses and when they look up, they don’t have any female role models or mentors, and you could be that,” and that’s what got me into angel investing.
[If] you love the company that you work for and can see yourself there for another 5-10 years and you want to keep working your way up, then it’s really important to have somebody powerful within the company as a mentor because they are the ones who are going to know about the opportunities and be your champion.
And then it’s about how you connect with these people. LinkedIn is your friend in a big way because it’s all about the warm introduction, especially if you are looking to get to somebody outside of your company. It’s who we have in common and having somebody help you get to that person.
I’ve had women be really resourceful about getting to me. I had one woman who emailed me and we just didn’t connect so she went to my website and looked at my speaking schedule and came to one of the conferences I was speaking at.
Another woman was having a hard time finding mentors outside of her organization and she started a women’s resource group within her company and as part of that, it was her job to find outside speakers. She ended up developing very organic relationships with these women and some of them became her mentors.
I would also ask your peers who their mentors are and who has been helpful to them; [that person] might be willing to be a mentor to you as well.
It’s shocking to me that only 1 out of 5 women have mentors.
CoveyClub: Many women find it difficult to juggle the work/life balance. Are there any techniques that helped you to balance your high-powered career with motherhood?
Fran Hauser: After our second child, I was drowning, and was totally in transactional mode, just doing the easy things so I could check them off the list and all the big things were just falling. So I created this Four-Square Model (draw two lines, one vertical and one horizontal) of the four big areas that were important in my life. They are Me, Family, Career, and World.
In each one of those areas, I identified the two or three things that I really need to focus on. When I first put this together and compared it with my calendar, what I found was that there was no alignment. The stuff I was spending my time on wasn’t [what] I had said was really important to me.
So, I ripped up my calendar. I was sitting in all these recurring meetings that were just useless. I had no time for thinking or creativity.
When I was at Time, Inc. I created filters for myself. I had a sales team that wanted me to go out on every sales call, and I said I’m only going to go if it’s over a certain amount of revenue, or if it’s a strategic partnership. That’s it.
Or on the technology side, I had all these startups that wanted to meet, but I said only if it’s the CEO will I take the meeting. I delegated the others to someone on my team. Creating those filters empowers the people who work for you.
In the World quadrant, [I listed] all the non-profit stuff that I do. I was really struggling with this because I always want to say yes.
But I decided my focus was going to be on women and girls, and once I decided that it became really easy to say no, this isn’t aligned.
CoveyClub: What was your biggest career misstep and how did you recover?
Fran Hauser: When I left Time, Inc. I decided that I wanted to do investing and I thought about it in two different ways. I continued angel investing (basically, investing my own personal money which I started as a side hustle) and I also joined a venture capital fund as a venture partner part-time.
I was thinking venture capital was going to be my next career, but I wanted to keep doing angel investing on the side, which by the way was the best thing I could have done.
But what I realized was that I didn’t love venture capital. I was spending a lot of time in San Francisco in Silicon Valley and I loved a lot of the people I worked with at the fund, but the industry in general just wasn’t for me. I didn’t feel it was aligned with what brings me joy.
So, I decided to go 100 percent in on my own personal angel investing, which was scary, because it’s always so much easier to be attached to a platform. But I loved the idea of making my own decisions and not having to worry about an investment committee.
There is also a different sense of fiduciary responsibility since, in venture capital, you’re investing other people’s money. I had gotten to a place where (angel investing) brought me more joy and more flexibility to spend more time with my boys.
By the way, when you have those situations, where it doesn’t quite go the way you expect it to go, it sucks. And when you fail at something, it feels horrible.
But I think the most important thing to do is ‘re-frame’ [the experience] from the standpoint of, what did I get out of this? I met amazing people; I grew my network in really powerful ways.
I love that I took the risk to angel invest–that’s something I’m still doing today and have 20 companies that are in my portfolio and 18 of them are female-founded.
CoveyClub: What was that one defining moment where you knew that you were a success because of your true persona as a “nice girl” coupled with your talent and ambition?
Fran Hauser: It was when I was at Coca-Cola enterprises and I was promoted to Director of Finance when I was 29 years old and had 140 people reporting to me.
I remember asking the head of the division why I got this promotion over all the other people that they could have promoted and he said, “Fran, it’s because not only are you smart, but it’s because you make my life easier.”
And that’s true because I am so hugely empathetic.
I would look at how I could be helpful by taking some meetings off his calendar or taking a first pass on a report that he needed. It’s just a natural empathy of really wanting to be helpful but combining that with being smart, ambitious and driven – it’s the secret sauce!
CoveyClub: If you were to throw the dinner party of your dreams, who would be present at your table?
Fran Hauser: Oh, this is fun! I would have Oprah, for her inspiration, Steve Jobs for his vision, and Mother Teresa for her compassion. It would be great to understand their stories and how they became the people they became as they have each had such an incredible impact on the world. It would also be really fun to watch the three of them interact too!
CoveyClub: What is the last thing on your mind before you go to sleep at night and how do you decompress to start fresh for the next day?
Fran Hauser: I find that my mind is always wandering to my to-do list when I’m in bed. I’m always thinking about the stuff I didn’t get to or what I need to do the next day. So usually to get my mind off of that I just focus on something that will put a smile on my face and calm me down, and it’s usually a moment I had with my kids that makes me laugh or calms me.
In the morning, my kids jump into bed and we cuddle and talk about our dreams and the day ahead. It’s such a beautiful way to start the day.
But then when I come downstairs to my office where my phone is, I literally just glance at the home screen, but I don’t go through my emails or texts.
I just do a quick swipe to make sure there is nothing urgent. Then I put it back face down in my office and it stays there while I have breakfast with the boys.
It’s something that I started doing a few years ago because I was finding that I just wasn’t as present for them as I wanted to be in the morning (always checking my phone) and it’s been such a life-changer!