How Ogilvy’s Shelly Lazarus Scaled The Corporate Ladder

Shelly Lazarus is the Chairman Emeritus of Ogilvy (formerly Ogilvy & Mather) and has worked in the business she loves for more than four decades. She rose through the ranks of Ogilvy & Mather assuming positions of increasing responsibility in the management of the company, including president of O&M Direct North America, Ogilvy & Mather New York and Ogilvy & Mather North America. She was named worldwide CEO of Ogilvy & Mather in 1996 and Chairman in 1997. She became Chairman Emeritus in July 2012. Shelly started at Ogilvy at a time when the agency's legendary founder David Ogilvy still walked the halls and personally preached that the purpose of advertising was to build great brands. Under Shelly's leadership, that essential mission has remained the centerpiece of the company's philosophy, extending across regions and marketing disciplines, and attracting some of the world's largest and most respected brands, including American Express, BP, Coca-Cola, IBM, and Unilever among many others. Here, she talks about leadership, priorities and being passionate about what you do.

Scaling the ladder How did you master the art of speaking up and having a voice in what was a very male dominated environment?

Making significant career moves takes a little bit of passion and a little bit of not being afraid to speak your mind. I taught myself to think in terms of outcomes, and it dawned on me early on to think, "What was the worst thing that could happen?"

The worst thing that could happen is probably getting fired. Don't even worry about that. They're not going to fire you. Anyone who's talented is not going to be fired. So to speak up, and share what's on your mind. If the reaction to what you said is not as positive as you were hoping, it's fine because the people sitting on either side of you will forget about it in five minutes. Trust me, no one remembers. So speak your mind. I was never afraid to do that.

I was never afraid of talking back either. I'm not confrontational for the sake of being confrontational. I talk back when I think I'm right. That's how I've lived my whole life, and it worked. You can't imagine how many people you can stand up to who will fall apart as soon as you challenge them.

Making significant career moves takes a little bit of passion and a little bit of not being afraid to speak your mind.

The key to career progression is getting the stretch assignments that allow for growth and opportunity. What’s your advice to women who feel stuck in a lane?

I had moments when I was bored to tears. That's a terrible state to be in. So whenever that happened, I immediately sought out a position I would enjoy that was more challenging. That's how I wound up running Ogilvy Direct, which nobody wanted to do. It used to be that direct marketing was the poor sister of advertising, and the only people who ever went to direct marketing were the people in sales and advertising.

I was really interested in direct marketing, so I went to the president of the agency and asked to move. She thought it was startling because no one had ever done that before. I told her I wanted to run something, and there was the opportunity to go there and be the general manager. So again, I landed that leadership role because I got bored, raised my hand and asked for a harder job.

If you think about people's careers, it's not really about managing your career. It's about getting good assignments. If you think about it, that's when your career starts to move. I always kept an eye out for nice, chunky assignments, not because I wanted to advance but because I wanted to learn continuously.

What are your thoughts on the value of mentorship