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CEO's advice for businesswomen: Swagger

DALLAS – Barri Rafferty has a suggestion for women who show up late for a business meeting: Enter with a bit of machismo and check the apologies at the door.

DALLAS – Barri Rafferty has a suggestion for women who show up late for a business meeting: Enter with a bit of machismo and check the apologies at the door.

"Women come into a room five minutes late and it's, 'Oh, I'm so sorry, blah, blah, blah,'" the 50-year-old CEO of Ketchum Inc. North America says. "A guy comes in late and says, 'OK, I'm here. The meeting can start now.'

"What I say to women is: You need to be your authentic self. That's how you're going to be the best leader. But you need to do it in a way that is authoritative, that carries swagger and has that confidence that men will listen and respond to."

Mentoring women into leadership roles became Rafferty's mission three years ago after she attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for the first time.

Everyone wanted to know whose wife she was.

It was a reasonable question since less than 15 percent of the global gathering of 2,500 business execs, political leaders and intellectuals were invited female delegates. Many of the other women on hand were on the arms of husbands.

"It was a rude awakening for me," says Rafferty, a member of Davos' sustainability task force and the first woman CEO in Ketchum North America's 90-year history. "Until then I'd been, 'Don't stand out on women's leadership. Do your job. Be recognized for your work.' But I came back from that and thought, 'I need to do more.'"

Rafferty has launched several initiatives to change mobility at Ketchum and the entire Omnicom organization by coaching women and helping them broaden their skills.

On her second trip to Davos, last year, the most common question she was asked was the same one. That prompted her to blog: "Are you a spouse? No, I'm a CEO."

She leads Ketchum's nine North American offices as well as Ketchum Digital and Ketchum Sports and Entertainment. Rafferty advises many of the public relations agency's largest clients, including Procter & Gamble, Frito-Lay, Weight Watchers and Ikea.

Her husband of 25 years, David, writes a Sunday newspaper column for The Greenwich (Conn.) Times and runs the Rafferty household.

He also runs a boys camp in the Adirondacks, which takes him away from home for two months a year.

Two summers ago, their son didn't go to camp with David for the first time in nine years. That prompted him to ask his mother whether she knew how to do laundry. After having some fun saying no, she assured him that she had plenty of experience loading a washing machine.

She also knows what it's like to have a work and life imbalance.

In 2002, she gave up her job as head of Ketchum's global brand marketing practice in New York because the time and travel commitment just wasn't working for her and her family.

She moved to Atlanta to take over Ketchum South, a struggling profit-and-loss center that oversaw the Atlanta and Dallas offices.

That's when she and David worked their way into their division of labor. His retail store in Greenwich closed after 9/11. So he took on the task of getting the kids set up in the new city.

After six months, the couple decided they liked the family organizational chart.

"Every woman has to build a support network if she's going to work full time," Rafferty says. "It depends on what you and your husband are going to do and the roles you're going to take and the support you can afford to make it work."

Rafferty says women need both male and female mentors.

Look at responses to email, Rafferty says. Women tend to write responses that are twice as long as men's. "Think about how much time you'll save if sometimes you just say, 'Done.' 'On it.' Because that's what men do."

There's also the matter of prefacing ideas with a hedge. "This might be a good idea, but..." When that happens, Rafferty says, a man will lay claim to the idea 10 minutes later.

"Women in general have that perfectionist syndrome. There are times when it's OK to get the B-plus or the A-minus vs. the A-plus," she says.

Her 15-year-old daughter recently made the state volleyball championships.

"I was in Florida and she called and said, 'Mom are you going to be here for my game?' I looked at my flight. I'm supposed to land at 7 and the game's at 5."

She called David and asked whether there was a chance their daughter would make it past the first game. He assured her that it would be one and done. Barri moved up her meetings and flight.

Good thing she did. David was right.

"People are more accommodating to those things than we think," she says. "I think you can be committed and still make the volleyball game."



Barri Rafferty says women need to be authentic but authoritative if they want to be seen as leaders by men. Here are her nine suggestions for achieving that balance:

–Be clear about what you stand for.

–Allow your point of view to shine.

–Adapt your style to fit your audience.

–Be open and honest to build trust and foster relationships.

–Have swagger and stop apologizing.

–Respond, don't react.

–Don't over-explain.

–Sell your ideas.

–Make others the hero.


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