Make It a Jungle Gym Career: Patricia Sellers

I didn’t attend the speaking engagement featuring Patricia Sellers with any other expectation than of listening to her words of wisdom, as she is a journalist at a prominent magazine. But after the 30 minutes of her insightful talk, I had so many questions that I wasn’t able to ask in a room of fifty people — “What about this; what about that?” After it was over she was quickly whisked away by the hosts.

“Excuse me,” I said as another writer and I followed her through the courtyard. “We want to interview you for TheSavvyGal.com.” She graciously agreed, and when we talked again several days later, she expanded on her insight, which proved to be another inspiring thirty minutes.

Sellers is an editor-at-large at FORTUNE magazine and helps to oversee the publication’s “Most Powerful Women in Business” annual issues and co-chairs the magazine’s “Most Powerful Women Summit.” Known for writing rich narratives about powerful people, she’s interviewed Oprah, Martha Stewart, Ted Turner and Meg Whitman (eBay), to name just a few. In spending time with powerful people, she has come to understand just that — power and people.

“My favorite definition of power is when I asked Oprah years ago how she defined power and she said, ‘it is the ability to impact with purpose.’ I love that definition,” Sellers said. She interviewed Oprah in September 2001, five days before 9/11. It is the only business profile Oprah has ever done. The story was held because Sellers wanted it to be a cover story, so she went back to see Oprah in January 2002. “Afterwards, she called me and said ‘this is the last business story I’m doing … I don’t like thinking of myself as a businesswoman.’ It was an interesting time because it was after 9/11, and she was questioning her role and purpose … as we all were,” Sellers said.

Besides being inspired by Oprah, and many others, she said another woman who also made an impact on her was Martha Stewart. “Say what you will, the woman is amazing in her ability to take the heat, bounce back and find her inner strength. Everything bad is happening around her and she just keeps on going … that’s great.” As Sellers answers my questions, it’s obvious that she loves what she does. “I find great advantage in being a woman,” she said at the first talk where I met her. When asked about that, she elaborated, “Any way that I can stand out from the crowd is an advantage … women tend to be underestimated. And that is a great thing when you’re trying to get people to open up. They’re not as guarded.” Women, she said, while it may be a stereotype, tend to have more empathy. “I think I have a lot — it’s one of the characteristics that helps me be a good journalist. I think, ‘if I were a guy, would I be as empathetic as I am?; would I be able to step into another’s shoes?’ Maybe, but I doubt it. I think being a woman helps me be more empathetic.”

After twenty-two years at Fortune, and almost a decade of being a part of the powerful women cover packages and summits (which is by invitation only, and is the most prominent gathering of women in business, philanthropy, government and the arts), she has found that women and men think about power differently. Not too surprising. What is interesting (and surprising) is how she goes on to explain the differences.

TSG: How do men and women think about power?

PS: Women tend to think — and this is a stereotype but is based on my 10 years of talking to powerful women and powerful men — but women tend to think about power horizontally. They think of influence as, ‘how much can I do across a broad span?’ Men tend to think about power more vertically, about climbing the ladder and reaching the top, the status of their position. And that keeps men on the ladder. That different attitude is what makes women jump off. Women say, ‘I don’t care about the bigger title, but about having a greater impact on this or that.’

TSG: Is that a positive thing that women think that? Would more women be at the top if they thought vertically?

PS: Absolutely! More women would be at the top if they thought like men. But no, it’s not a bad thing. We’re entering an era where women are allowed to make choices to not want the brass ring. And interestingly, it is becoming more allowable for men to say, ‘I’d rather live a saner life.’ If we didn’t have women — really talented women — dropping out of corporate America, we wouldn’t have the leaders we have in nonprofit organizations or the leaders in education. I just did a story on Wendy Kopp, who founded and runs Teach for America — she’s a great example of a woman who’s not in corporate America and the world is all the better for it.

TSG: There are a lot of things out there about women not mentoring each other or they are creating environments of competition. Do you find that to be true after talking with women who reach the top?

PS: Most of the women [interviewed for the powerful women issue] have not had a female mentor. But these are women who run companies with $5 billion and up in revenue. The Summit attendees are broader, although still very senior. But most don’t have a female mentor because there is a scarcity of women at the top. The Queen Bee syndrome is not disappearing necessarily, but is becoming fairly rare. The idea that if you get to the top and there’s no room for others in that space — that was the motivator behind women not helping other women. That’s not really the case anymore. There’s room for a lot of women at the top. More and more companies are eager to put women at the top.

TSG: What would your advice be to women who want to get to the top?

PS: I would say don’t plan your career, think of your career as a jungle gym, not a ladder. If you think of it as a ladder, you’re going to close yourself off to all sorts of opportunities, and not have the necessary peripheral vision. You’re not going to be inclined to swing to lateral opportunities and even opportunities that may be a step down, but great for broadening your expertise. A lot of the women on the list who have indeed reached the top have done so by considering their careers as jungle gyms, rather than ladders. They’ve swung back and forth in odd places, and taken lots of risks with their careers.

TSG: What are challenges women might face and what advice would you give them?
PS: Pick your job not for the money, but for your personal passion and the people. Aim to work with good people. Too many people (not just women) pick for the pay and end up in a place that isn’t very satisfying. Work with people you feel good about and who believe in you. And be willing to be flexible. As we close the interview, I ask her about her own overall success and sense of power and her own challenges.

TSG: What do you credit for your overall success today?

PS: Curiosity. Trustworthiness — I work very hard at that because I’ve been at Fortune for 22 years, and I’ll probably be here another 22 years, and I don’t want to burn any bridges and hurt my own reputation or the reputation of Fortune. So I’ve built up this bond of trust with a lot of people. And empathy.

TSG: As a working woman, do you feel like you have time to find a balanced life?

PS: I love what I do. My work and my personal life often merge in that I do stories about what I want to do, people I want to meet, people I want to spend time with, which makes it a lot easier. I feel like I’m constantly juggling. I don’t know that I’ve balanced, but I’m very satisfied with my life.

TSG: Any parting thoughts?

PS: When I came to Fortune the business world was a sea of men, and doing this most powerful women package over the past years, and co-chairing the summit, it has been so satisfying because it’s opening up the world to me. I find when we hold our annual women summit, our participants look at power in horizontal ways. They want to use their power for more than driving numbers, for philanthropic ways. Power has been redefined before my eyes.

And power is able to be redefined before our eyes, too. She told me that one of the things she loved about meeting and writing about these women is that it’s an opportunity to write about powerful and smart people who actually make a difference in the world.

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