Shelley Lazarus: Ogilvy & Mather

Shelley Lazarus, chairman

Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide chairman Shelly Lazarus has been working, as she would say, ‘In the business I love,’ for more than three decades, almost all of that time at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.

Joining the organisation at the tail end of the fabled Mad Men era in advertising on Madison Avenue, New York and rising through the ranks of account service, Shelly has held positions of increasing responsibility in the management of the company, including president of O&M Direct North America and Ogilvy & Mather New York; chief operating officer of Ogilvy North America; and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.

Shelly serves on the boards of several corporate, philanthropic and academic institutions: General Electric; Merck; New York Presbyterian Hospital; the American Museum of Natural History; the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy; the World Wildlife Fund; and the Board of Overseers of Columbia Business School, where she received her MBA in 1970. Shelly is the wife of Dr George Lazarus, a New York paediatrician, and mother to their three grown children.

Significant milestones in the industry

‘I think the thing that strikes me about the era portrayed in Mad Men is the role of women,’ she says. ‘The fact that women were only present in those days as housewives, help maids, secretaries and sex objects is striking when you contrast it to today, where I’d say most marketing and advertising organisations are probably 50% male and 50% female. There has been an extraordinary change that has happened over the last 20 years.’

The paucity of women CEOs at Fortune 500 / FTSE 100 companies

With regards to the lack of women serving as CEOs at Fortune 500 / FTSE 100 companies, Shelly states: ‘Of course you have to be concerned when you just look at the figures but I think it’s also fair to keep some perspective. When I first came into the business world in the early 1970s I used to be the only woman in the room – a long way away from conversations about women CEOs!

‘The amount of progress that I have seen just in my professional lifetime has been remarkable. But you still have the issue of low women leader numbers so I think it’s good to be impatient as well. Keep life in perspective – but continue to be impatient.’

What can be done?

She feels that for things to improve further more talented women must be prepared to fight hard for the opportunities to rise through the ranks. ‘It is a bit of a numbers game and you have to have a big enough pool of women who are willing to stay in, play the game, fight the fight and put in the time and the travel, etc, but we have to get the numbers up,’ she says. ‘If there is anything that concerns me it’s the number of extremely talented and capable women in their 30s who are choosing by their own will, and happily, to leave the workforce to go home.

‘It’s wonderful women take a break
but the more go home the smaller the talent pool’

‘On one hand I think it’s wonderful that women feel free enough to make these choices because that’s the ultimate freedom, to say: ‘I understand that I could be a CEO, but what I’d prefer to do is to go home and take a break now in my professional career and spend time with my children.’ I think it’s wonderful that women feel free to do that.

‘On the other hand the more women who opt to go home the smaller the pool is going to be. When you are thinking of a pool of potential CEO candidates it’s not that large so we have just got to figure a way of getting women to want to stay in the game.’

Balance between work and family life

Balance between the two great priorities of work and family life is, Shelley, believes, something not easy to attain, but she states: ‘I don’t think boards should be sympathetic to balance. That’s not a board issue. The board issue is retaining talent and making sure that the environment in which the talent works is as conducive to success as possible.’

‘I’m positive that unless you are passionate about the work that you do, you’re never going to achieve balance’, she continues. ‘You have to find something that you love to do, that you can be passionate about. You’re going to love your children, you just know that, so professionally, if what you do is anything less than scintillating, exciting, fulfilling, your life is never going to be in balance. If, in fact, it’s frustrating, tedious and not engaging then the balance will never be right and you’ll resent every minute that you’re away from what you love: your children.

‘You need to trust people to do
what is necessary to deliver’

‘One of the things I have found is that you can fit into your life all those things that you love to do, but you can’t fit in so easily what you find tedious. If you love your children and you love your job it all becomes do-able, you just have to figure out the balance day to day. I think many people who are challenged in finding balance and who are unhappy with how their work-life balance pans out don’t like their work life particularly.’

Employer policies to support female advancement

Shelley believes in creating a meritocracy in the workplace, judging people by the results that they achieve and by the contribution they make. ‘It’s not a question of hours, it’s not a question of ‘did you work last night and tonight’ or ‘are you free to work on the weekends?’ she says. ‘I think if you want women to be successful you have to trust the person to be able to figure it out for herself.

‘I think you need to continue to trust people to do what is necessary to deliver what you need from them and stop paying attention to things like how many hours people are in the office for or whether they are available for a 7am conference call. If you start to introduce these, what I think are extraneous evaluation criteria, it’s going to make it hard for people who are trying to juggle a lot of things.’

Being a role model for businesswomen: a burden?

She may be held up a role model for businesswomen everywhere, but Shelley modestly states she is ‘pretty non-plussed’ by the fact.

‘One of the things that made it easy for me was that there were no role models. When I came into the business I just had to make it up! So there was a self-conscious aspect to what I was doing because I was never trying to live up to what anybody else was doing. Everything I do just kind of comes naturally and right out of what I value and what is important to me.

‘I knew I was going to that school play:
it was important to me’ 

‘I’ve said to women for years that I’ve never snuck out of the office when I’ve had to do something with my kids; I walked right down the centre aisle, always. That’s who I was; I knew it was important to me. I knew I was going to that school play at 11.05 on a Thursday morning. The school play never lasted more than 25 minutes though! I could be back in the office by noon and what difference did it make? You don’t have to hide.

‘I think you need the self confidence to say ‘this is who I am, this is what I do and if you want me to keep on working here you need to trust me enough that I will get done what needs to be get done, but I’m going to do it on my own time.’