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The school play or the client meeting?

Lessons from a world-class CEO
By Kathleen Quinn Votaw

How many school plays and family gatherings have you missed because you had an important meeting at work? How often do you slink out to take your sick child or ailing mother to a doctor’s appointment? It’s often difficult to live our core values at work, and it shouldn’t be. That’s why I was delighted recently to hear Shelly Lazarus, former CEO and now Chairman Emeritus of Ogilvy & Mather, share her perspectives at the first annual WILD Summit (Women Inspiring Leadership Development) through the University of Colorado.

Ogilvy & Mather is one of the world’s top ten marketing communications firms, with more than 18,000 employees in 450 offices located in 120 countries. Shelly Lazarus’ personal values and life philosophy shaped the award-winning agency for 40 years. Her model and mentor was founder David Ogilvy, who initiated her tenure as CEO with these words: “You can never spend too much time thinking about, worrying about, caring about your people because, at the end of the day, it’s only the people who matter. Nothing else.”

With people as the center, including herself, Ms. Lazarus grew into a world-class business leader, recently described as “a pearl beyond price.” These are my takeaways from her presentation:


  • You don’t need to sacrifice your life for your career. Make yourself indispensable; then you can ask for what you need. Don’t be afraid to define your priorities and voice them. Lazarus, who has three children, cautions: “Next month you won’t remember who was or wasn’t at the meeting. My son will always remember that I wasn’t at his field day.”
  • Fear is a good thing; be brave. Figure out your own solution and purpose—you know what’s right for you. Don’t wait, act.
  • Do something you love. Your role, whatever it is, should give you joy. That’s the key to a balanced life.
  • Make the most of your opportunities and accept that you cannot do it all perfectly.

As a leader:

  • Despite technology, show up and interact with people in person. Her examples: “Go to the ladies’ room. You find out more in the ladies room. I hate these people that have their own bathrooms … Go to the cafeteria. It’s amazing what you can learn standing in line.”
  • No one becomes successful in a vacuum—remember that there are people on the rungs above and below you to help.
  • Find the people you can work with, motivate them and let them motivate you.
  • Your emotional quotient is more important than your technical skills. Be generous. Share. Communicate. Say thank you.
  • Build a great team and let them get it done. As an example, she described a rowing match between Cambridge and Oxford in the U.K. that was won by the underdog team. The team was coached and captained by a woman who placed the team members in their positions then cheered them on with encouraging words. When asked how she led them to victory she said, “I just let them row.”

Pulling it all together, Shelly Lazarus suggests that we: “Think of everything in terms of outcomes—the outcome of not going to the meeting versus the outcome of not going to the school play.” What a great way to ensure that your values are the foundation for every choice you make: personally, as a leader, or as the member of a team.

Kathleen Quinn Votaw is CEO of TalenTrust, the expert in strategic outsourced recruitment. The organization helps companies find exceptional talent and solutions to accelerate their growth.  Kathleen  recently completed a two-year term as president of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG), Denver. Reach Kathleen at or 303-838-3334 x 5.

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