Yale Bulletin and Calendar

March 31, 2006|Volume 34, Number 24















In her Poynter Lecture on March 22, Fortune magazine editor-at-large Patricia Sellers described the attitudes of some of the most successful businessmen and businesswomen.

Not planning too far ahead is one of the
keys to career success, says journalist

For those Yale students who have already mapped out what they hope to be doing in another 5 or 10 years, Fortune magazine editor-at-large Patricia Sellers has this to say: Quit planning.

The people who have been most successful in their careers did not plan their job futures by setting specific goals, she told the audience at her Poynter Lecture on March 22. Instead, she remarked, "they looked at their lives and careers more as jungle gyms than ladders," and knew when to seize an opportunity that came along.

"People who look ahead with the thought 'I hope I get that job someday' don't have very good peripheral vision," she said in her talk in a Law School lecture hall.

Sellers, who spoke on the topic "Power and Leadership," said that she gained insight about the pitfalls of planning through her conversations with some of the world's most successful corporate executives. During her 22 years at Fortune magazine, she has written profiles of and stories about numerous executives of Fortune 500 companies, as well as such individuals as Martha Stewart, Meg Whitman (chief executive officer [CEO] of eBay), Oprah Winfrey, Ted Turner and Jack Welch (CEO of General Electric), among many others. In addition, Sellers has met many noted women leaders as co-chair of Fortune's annual "Most Powerful Women Summit" and as a founder of and writer for the magazine's special issue titled "The Most Powerful Women in Business."

In her talk, Sellers spoke about the "four Ps" of success: planning, passion, purpose and power. By not planning too far in advance, successful executives are less afraid of failure, and are therefore more willing to take risks, said Sellers. Likewise, they are more open to career choices that are not necessarily a step up. In fact, she told her audience, many of the most successful business leaders, particularly those who are women, have made lateral moves or even taken steps down "because it will give them more power or satisfaction."

In her conversations with top executives, she added, many of them have said: "Don't pick a job: Pick an organization, pick a boss or pick the people. Don't pick a salary."

While Sellers doesn't advocate too much planning, she said she does believe that having passion for what you do is critical to finding success in it.

"It sounds trite to say 'Follow your heart,' but it is so important," said the journalist. She pointed as an example to Steve Jobs, the co-founder of both Pixar and Apple who is now CEO of both companies and whom Sellers described as one of the most successful people she has interviewed. She noted that Jobs dropped out of college against his parents' wishes and decided just to take courses in a variety of subjects that interested him. A calligraphy course in which he enrolled at Reed College, he has since said, later helped him to understand the importance of computer typefaces.

Sellers also noted that when Jobs was fired at one point from Apple, he went on to found Pixar, an accomplishment again made by following his passions. She recounted how Jobs, in a Commencement address given last year at Stanford University, told the graduating students that when faced with negative experiences, people who follow their passion and their gut end up winning.

Having purpose is more important than having a goal, Sellers emphasized in her talk, noting that people who have purpose do not look at their success as simply an accumulation of power. She said she was impressed when Oprah Winfrey defined power to her as "the ability to impact with purpose." Sellers also noted that having a higher purpose helped Martha Stewart make a comeback after serving her jail sentence for the charge of lying about a stock sale.

Maintaining the belief that "dealing with adversity makes you stronger" is also important to success, the journalist said.

"If you believe that, you can get through anything," Sellers told her audience. "I've lived my life by that rule. ... The most successful executives today embrace failure; they certainly learn from failure." In today's world, she added, it is easier to fail simply because "everything is changing so fast."

Sellers pointed to the failures of a number of currently successful executives, mentioning that Bernard Marcus, one of the founders of Home Depot, failed at his first business venture. Recognizing that there is something to be gained by failure, Marcus has since asked prospective employees in interviews to describe "how they dealt with a point of despair," Sellers related.

The Fortune editor also described some differences she has observed between men and women business leaders.

"I was always struck by how women are more about using power to reach out, to extend power," Sellers said, noting that women are more "collaborative" than men. She added that women, because of childbearing cycles in their lives, are also more apt to view their lives "in chapters," and are thus more willing to take time away from their careers. She cited Brenda Barnes, the current CEO of Sara Lee, as an example, noting that Barnes left a position at PepsiCo to raise her three children. However, instead of taking a hiatus from all work, Barnes joined the boards of six different industries, thus gaining an important understanding of corporate governance, Sellers said.

Likewise, women are more likely than men to pass up promotions, according to Sellers, who noted that Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy -- rated second on Fortune's "Most Powerful Women" list -- chose more than once to decline offers of higher positions. She later was persuaded by the company to take the top post after announcing she intended to leave the company.

For both women and men, finding true success is really all about "finding a job you love and are passionate about," Sellers told her audience.

During a question-and-answer period after her talk, an undergraduate planning a business career asked the journalist for some advice.

"Remember, [the business world] is about people," Sellers responded. "It's about EQ [emotional intelligence], not IQ. One of the biggest reasons for failure is when people deny reality. Look outside yourself; try to see a situation the way another person does. ... Write like you talk: don't try to be formal. ... The best thing, the smartest thing I've done is to be nice to assistants and secretaries. I believe you should be nice to everybody. As you rise, you will see that the world gets so small. That's why I think of every relationship as a long-term relationship."

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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