Pillsbury's Mary Cranston: "The price you pay for being stupid is a lot higher"

by Mackenzie McCarty26 Mar 2014
Women are notoriously underrepresented in top-level positions and law firms are no exception. However, recently retired senior partner and immediate past chair of US-based multinational firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, Mary Cranston, says there are practical strategies women can use to get ahead.

Cranston, who visited New Zealand last week for a series of workshops hosted by Kensington Swan, tells NZ Lawyer the vast majority of issues come down to “unconscious bias”, rather than malicious intent and that most people – male and female both – simply need to be made aware of their inadvertent actions in order to rectify them.

Furthermore, female lawyers who are interested in making it to partnership level, according to Cranston, should consider taking a look at research carried out by global management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, dubbed Centered leadership: How talented women thrive.

“These are leadership skills that are necessary for both men and women to be effective, but women absolutely need it – otherwise they will be under-perceived with regards to their potential. This research looked at all these pioneering women who busted through the glass ceiling…and the patterns that they called out as critical to their success. It turned out there were [traits that] were just jumping off the page,” says Cranston.

“Remember, it’s unconscious, not malicious. Information will often overcome it. Let me just run through those at a high level:”

Meaning: “Women need to have a job that is actually meaningful to them and there is a difference between men and women [in this respect] that is actually measurable,” she says. “In a gender-biased world, if the thing isn’t meaningful for you, you’ll walk with your feet because there’s too much drag…and this also relates to setting a vision for yourself. Finding in yourself what is meaningful and a stretch for you  - that’s the sweet spot. Finding that and going for it is really what helps women come up the curve quickly.”

Positive Framing: “The second was something they call ‘reframing’, but it’s fundamentally learning to think like an optimist – because optimists are generally more successful in life,” says Cranston. “It’s because they don’t have to waste a lot of energy talking themselves out of funky states. Women tend to be more prone to that because we live in a world where you are judged, often unfairly…So it’s kind of stepping back periodically and saying, ‘I have these thoughts about it but they may not be true’. Actually, there are techniques for cognitive intervention that can be extremely helpful with this.

Managing Energy: “The third one, they call ‘energising’, which is being very conscious about what you choose to do and not do – and not just doing it based on what somebody’s demanding of you,” says Cranston.

“If you have a clear vision of where you want to go, you have a much better differentiator between whether you want to do something or not depending on whether it’s going to move you forward. So there’s a set of choices around prioritisation that has to do with your goals and then there’s another set of prioritisations around what you like to do. In life, we all do a million things and how often do we stop and think, ‘Which ones do I like better?’ But it’s an amazingly transformative question, because then often you can deal it off the bottom if you don’t like it.”

Networking: “Men and women have different networking styles,” she says. “Men are broad and shallow and women are deeper, with fewer friends. And also we have a cultural belief that we shouldn’t trade on our friendships for business, which has to go out the window.

But almost every one of these women who were successful learned the importance of this kind of quid pro quo networking, where you help somebody and they help you and you just reach out more broadly all the time. Fortunately, for women, there’s starting to be such an ‘old girls’ network that it’s actually easier than it was, say, ten years ago.”

Engaging: “The last one is speaking up and taking risks,” Cranston explains. “Research is really clear that women don’t speak up as often; they have to be very certain of their answer before they’ll speak in a mixed environment. And it’s not even paranoid – in a gender-biased world, the price you pay for being stupid or wrong is a lot higher than men. But, on the other hand, unfortunately, the only thing that really trumps the bias is communicating who you are and what you know. So while speaking up feels risky, it’s your only choice.”

Finally, Cranston says women are often inclined to see more problems surrounding any kind of risky behaviour or actions – and that’s something which, in the business world at least, needs to be overcome.

“What I did in my own life was I figured out early on that I could change things by having a clear vision for myself. When I set these visions, the first thing that happened was I had all of these fears that I didn’t even know I had, mainly because I hadn’t pushed up against that envelope before. It was kind of overwhelming – it took a couple of years, honestly, to let them come up and still go for it. The more I pushed against it, the more I went for it even if I was worried about it, the better things turned out. So eventually, it lost a lot of its power and while I can get those thoughts now, it really was a process.”

Mary Cranston is the retired senior partner and immediate past chair of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. In her eight years as Chair, she expanded the firm from a regional California base into an international platform through two of the largest law firm mergers in history and added seven offices. While Chair, she also achieved top-10 rankings among American law firms for women and minority partners through the introduction of innovative diversity and work-life programs.