An Image Makeover — A New Shot at Success
Sometimes it takes more than just a little self-knowledge and chutzpah to get what you want. Sometimes it takes someone with an outside perspective to help you see that you may be frustrated in pursuing a goal not because you can’t reach it, but because it’s not the right one in the first place.
In the case of Laura Warren, the right job turns out not to be the mid-level marketing positions she was pursuing in a $230 billion cosmetics industry dominated by Estee Lauder and L’Oreal, against which she competed as an independent. The right job comes out of charity and community work, a path that feels to her like advocating for important causes and looks to a career counselor like the background and contacts of a successful lobbyist or political operative.
Chasing the wrong job was more a matter of momentum and reluctance to take advantage of friends than it was a conscious career decision. After nine years of fighting for and running her own color-cosmetics business, Warren knew she needed a job, so she went after one in the industry in which she’d most recently worked.
Unfortunately, all her experience in cosmetics was in working for herself, not for companies among whom, she said, a 57-year-old woman isn’t the most sought-after commodity.
“Everything is fine in e-mail or on the phone until I go to the interview,” said Warren of her job search and inability to get past what appeared to be the refusal of industry recruiters or hiring managers to consider a candidate who is older than the one they might have expected.
“If [the interviewer] is someone younger than I am, 38 or 40 maybe, then it’s an issue,” she said. “If they’re younger than that, they just have no time for you. They seem to be following a formula, and if you don’t fit, it’s hard to talk your way through that barrier. They’re not interested in a history of success as much as they are a profile.”
But was it really her age that was working against her? Or did the problem lie in the way she was marketing herself – and to whom?
Warren agreed to be interviewed for a story on Ladders.com about age discrimination and how to get around barriers like the ones she faced. She also agreed to talk to a career coach about alternative approaches that might be effective.
The problem Warren was running into – according to Josh Klenoff, leading career coach for Ladders and president of JKCoaching.com – was that she was not only applying for jobs that were too low-level for her skills, she was ignoring her greatest strengths and assets to interview for jobs that weren’t half as important as the work she did on a volunteer basis.
“She had a great deal of energy that was wildly diffused,” Klenoff said of their initial one-hour phone conversation. “My job was to help focus that energy. We took inventory of the elements of her past or skills that would help her to thrive, adapted those to what she might think would be her ideal job, and focused her on how to land that job. ”
Friends in High Places
One stumbling block was the limited range of contacts with whom Warren was networking. She was talking to recruiters and colleagues in the cosmetics business but had not even approached friends and colleagues she made doing political or business-development or charity work.
Warren is a member of the board of governors of the Los Angeles Economic Development Council, for example, a Southern California lobbying and business-development group whose executive committee and board of governors include senior executives from Time Warner; Wachovia; Bank of America; Sony Pictures; and some of the largest, most powerful entertainment, transportation, real estate, manufacturing and other businesses in Southern California.
Its reports focus on the performance of California businesses; recommendations for changes on regulatory, business or political issues; and forecasts of economic performance are often among the earliest hints that big economic changes are about to take place.
It compares to a local Chamber of Commerce the way Simba the Lion King compares to a house cat.
LAEDC’s membership page quotes Warren as saying the group “is one of the most powerful catalysts within the business and economic development community today. The LAEDC is instrumental in effecting positive change that benefits residents and businesses throughout LA County.”
Warren has been an active member for years, spending tremendous amounts of her own time working on committees, reports and issues she considered important to the business and political climates of Southern California.
When industry trade group the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association needed a contact in the California legislature to raise objections to “legislation that was going to be very bad for the cosmetics industry in California,” Warren said, they called her. “I was a member of CTFA, but I also knew all these other people. I gave them a name to call, who was a friend sitting in the legislature, and I called her and said ‘I want you to be nice to these people.’ It worked out very well,” she said.
Though she’s the only cosmetics-industry executive on the board, her contacts and experience go far beyond cosmetics. She has deep expertise – and tremendous contacts – in the international shipping industry, in entertainment, and at the high end of the art world.
She began her professional career in the shipping business in the Port of Los Angeles – a family tradition in which she was the third generation. She started in office work, helping to establish the first West Coast headquarters of Evergreen Marine Corp., the Chinese shipping company that became a giant of Pacific shipping by moving heavily into container ships while U.S. shippers were shackled by fuel costs during the oil crisis of the mid-1970s.
She is still proud of her membership in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), in which she rose through the docks hierarchy, managing the schedules and paperwork involved in loading the huge ships and eventually heading the maritime claims group responsible for making good when a rogue wave or loose tarp left cargo water damaged or lost at sea.
“I loved working with the Chinese and people from all over the Far East,” Warren said. “I picked up Mandarin after a while. The Chinese are fascinating; they’re all about results. We got along very well.”
Where she didn’t get along was with the culture of the docks that, even in 1994, made it impossible for a woman to be seriously considered as vessel superintendent, the staffer who coordinates the movement of cargo on and off ships. It was the only role in vessel operations missing from her resume, and she didn’t like the limitation.
She learned to negotiate in the rough conditions and multiple languages of the maritime industry, in which management and the unions might be at each other’s throats over an issue, and sometimes might be unable to understand each other because of language or cultural barriers. After negotiations were settled, though, everyone still had to work together.
“That’s where I learned my technique for negotiating, which my friends refer to as ‘pouring tea,’ ” Warren said. “You pour tea and remain calm and polite and just keep talking. It’s diplomacy.”
She learned how to negotiate more softly, with celebrities, wealthy benefactors and art collectors, after shifting into the high-end art world to support her then-husband, a well-regarded painter of the Taos school. She took a relatively low-level job at the Biltmore Galleries, a top-end art gallery founded in Los Angeles by artists including famed Western painter Charles M. Russell, but was quickly promoted to executive director, the No. 2 position.
The job required discretion – celebrities and wealthy clients don’t like to be gossiped about – a rich understanding of not only the art, but the rapidly changing market for it, and tremendous tact to deal with both clients and artists of unpredictable mien.
“I handled all the live artists because the owners loved the dead ones,” she said. “They loved them because they were dead.”
Though she doesn’t talk about them without pressure and doesn’t name them at all, the people she works with on charity projects, economic-development projects and groups like the LAEDC make up a contact network that covers most of the rich and powerful in Southern California.
“I never looked at my network for myself,” Warren said, a little wonderingly, a day after her conference with Klenoff. “I always looked at it for trade academies, for the Port of Los Angeles, problems with the community. I don’t hesitate to advocate if the issue makes sense. But I never really looked at it for myself. I just didn’t really think to do that.”
From Beggar to Marketer
The issue is one of perception, Klenoff said. Even accomplished people feel as if they’re going hat-in-hand to ask for handouts if they have to ask powerful, wealthy or well-connected friends for help.
“They’ll say ‘I feel like I’m asking for favors,’ ” Klenoff said. “It’s a beggar mindset. That’s not a powerful place to be coming from. The alternative is a marketing mindset. You see yourself as a product and you can see that anyone who can get that product to the customer who values it – the employer – will also get a value out of it.”
After realizing the untapped power of her network, Klenoff and Warren reviewed her other strengths and decided her ability to politely collar politicians, friends and business contacts to talk about issues she thought was important is more than just a personal strength.
“We talked about lobbying as a career, and it’s just a natural fit,” Warren said. “I’m a natural-born advocate if something makes sense to me. I have a very sound background in maritime — not only ocean but air and rail — as well as entertainment and cosmetics and other international business.
“Maritime transport and entertainment are very hard-pressed in this state. Growth, taxes, business-unfriendly environments and other states that are enticing businesses away from California, we’re competing with other states for port development,” Warren said, listing a few of her hot-button issues. “There is a lot of critical legislation up for discussion, and I understand business, and I’m used to working with politicians; I know how they work.”
“This change in perspective put her on a completely different playing field,” Klenoff said. “When we first got on the call, she was unclear on her next steps. It’s not at all uncommon, and people can spend a year in that place. Now she has a path at her feet she can just walk on and it’s one in which she can use her wellspring of resources, her knowledge, her intuition. So creating a new metaphor for herself was helpful. It was a quantum leap in progress for her.”
It only took one phone call to get started on the new course, Warren said. She phoned a close friend and contact who is active in Southern California business and politics, and whose husband is a player in judicial circles.
“They understood immediately that I was talking about myself,” she noted. “She said, ‘Yes, darling. Come over Sunday and we’ll talk, we’ll make sure some doors open for you.’ They’re thrilled I came to this realization because they know I can do it. I just didn’t know it was OK to ask. I’m amazed.”