Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How to Succeed in Business: Lessons from "Mad Men"

With the passing of "The Sopranos" the mantle of television cult classic has fallen on "Mad Men." With the show's third season starting this Sunday the media is filling up with commentaries about it.

Among the best is an article by Emma Pearse on The Daily Beast. Link here.

Raised to be a feminist Pearse looks slightly askance at the women of "Mad Men." Yet, however distasteful she finds their conduct she tries to use it to guide her own conduct as an executive assistant.

Given her background, Pearse found that being an executive assistant was nothing less than "basic submission."

The first thing she brought to her job was a bad attitude, a rebellious spirit, an ideologically-driven antipathy. In her words: "One could call it a persecution complex. Or call me a spoiled brat. But try as I might, I couldn't breathe away the feeling that with every warm photocopy came proof that I was not where I wanted to be. And I didn't stop there: Every cup of coffee, every lunch reservation, was proof to me that women and gender politics were not where they should be."

Evidently, the situation was unstable. She turned to "Mad Men" for guidance. And she concluded that if you want to be successful you need to do your best at what you are doing, and put aside your resentment over not immediately being where you want to be.

As she writes: " predecessor...made an art out of assisting and was promoted to a managing position based on it."

Describing her new insight in more detail she says: "What I didn't understand, though, was that I didn't need liquor to bond with my boss; I needed to be good at the secretarial tasks that, performed with efficiency and aplomb, actually helped him to do his job. What I should have learned from 'Mad Men' is that if I really could be a man's right-hand woman, I stood to gain his respect."

More succinctly, she concludes: "I needed to stop thinking about where I wanted to be and start being where I was."

In the end, Pearse cannot quite make it as an efficient, engaged, competent assistant. She was simply not cut out for it. Perhaps it had something to do with her upbringing.

She understands this well: "Sometimes I wonder whether my feminism has become so second nature that I'm blind to when it is getting in the way. Sexism was Betty, Joan, and Peggy's cross to bear: mine is when to distinguish between gender inequality and reality."

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