When ailing White House press secretary Tony Snow stepped down in March 2007, Dana Perino, then the White House deputy press secretary, suddenly found herself in the spotlight. And as Perino put it, “At that time, the [Bush] administration never had an easy day.”
Moments after learning that her boss’s cancer had returned, Perino prepared to step in front of the press gaggle for a briefing. Snow asked her, “How are you feeling?”
“Terrible,” she answered. “How am I supposed to replace you?”
Perino hasn’t forgotten his next words: “You’re better at this than you think you are.”
She echoed that advice at her “Minute Mentoring” event, which she created because she couldn’t find time for every young woman who wanted to meet for coffee. Last Thursday, she held a forum with the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, the nonprofit Running Start, and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Fifteen female mentors involved in politics, communications, and public affairs met with 45 young women, ages 23 to 33, in a speed-dating-style forum.
In groups of three, the young women shuffled through Bracewell & Giuliani’s K Street offices to meet with mentors for ten minutes each—just enough time to hear three pieces of advice from the mentor and to solicit career advice. At the sound of a whistle, mentees filed into another office.
Perino conceded that ten minutes isn’t a lot of time but told the group, “Some of your most effective meetings will be under ten minutes and in hallways. I remember standing between the Oval Office and the Roosevelt Room because that’s where I could catch Condi Rice [before press briefings].”
As Susan Molinari of Bracewell & Giuliani put it, “The mentors here all have a lot to give except for one thing—their time.”
From this group of women, many of whom file television segments in 90 seconds or can expertly craft a 15-second sound byte, ten minutes can go a long way. Here are a few takeaway lessons:
WELCOME TO WASHINGTON. NOW, GO HOME.
Long before her days as Clinton’s White House press secretary, Dee Dee Myers arrived in Washington for job interviews with no experience. During one interview, she remembers being told nicely to go home. Go back to Los Angeles, her interviewer advised, get some campaign experience, and then come to Washington. He said it’d take her longer to get the same skills if she started out in the nation’s capital.
The trick, Myers said Thursday night, is to do what gets you excited. “If you do what you like, everything will fall into place.”
On Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign, she worked in the press office because she liked dealing with reporters. “The minute I figured out that was a job, I thought, ‘That’s what I want!’ ” Myers said. She became the first female White House press secretary in 1993. Mentees walked away with signed, hardcover editions of her book, Why Women Should Rule the World.
One of Myers’s top pieces of advice is simple: Be the one who gets things done around the office. Years ago, she came to work at the White House and found an intern reaching over desks to answer someone else’s ringing phone because, she said, a ringing phone in the White House press office shouldn’t go unanswered. Myers hired the intern, and they worked together for five years.
LEARN TO THINK LIKE YOUR BOSS.
If Betsy Fischer had to choose a piece of advice that helped her rise from the rank of intern for NBC’s Meet the Press to executive producer, it’d be this: “Anticipate. Learn to think like your boss.”
It’s worth noting that Fischer’s boss—and mentor—for most of her time at NBC was Tim Russert, the late host of Meet the Press and NBC’s Washington bureau chief. Fischer credited much of her success to Russert.
Asked about negotiating, Fischer told her young audience that knowing your own value and being able to articulate it is important, and women have a tendency to get patted on the head and told, “You’re doing a good job. Keep it up.”
“WHEN MEN BOND, THEY GET JOBS. WHEN WOMEN BOND, THEY GET THERAPY.”
Candy Crowley, a CNN senior political correspondent, remembers covering more than a dozen presidential campaigns, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the terrorist attack on the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. She also remembers when, in the 1970s, the general manager of the television station where she was working told her, “The public will never accept a woman’s voice as the voice of authority.”
“It’s still true that you have to be better at what you do than a guy,” Crowley said. “Be so good at what you do that they can’t ignore you.”
Crowley, a working mom who raised her kids in Washington, told young women to go ahead and lead their lives and then find ways to make their careers fit. “You can be a lobbyist in Iowa,” she told one young woman.
“There’s nothing like girl bonding,” Crowley told the group, but later noted, “When men bond, they get jobs. When women bond, they get therapy.”
“ONE HOUR OF REALITY TV IS OKAY. FOUR HOURS IS BAD.”
Perino’s advice was more sensible than strategic. First, don’t be afraid to move, she told the group, citing job opportunities that took her from Colorado to Washington and a marriage that took her to England. Second, “Turn off the TV and pick up a book”—reading makes better writers. “One hour of reality TV is okay. Four hours is bad.”
Kate O’Connor, a 25-year-old who works for Politics magazine, asked Perino if she ever had a quarter-life crisis. At 25, Perino said, she’d been working for a congressman for 2½ years, didn’t have a boyfriend, and was living in a basement apartment. Perino said that it might have been the hardest time in her life because there was a lot of transition and deliberation about the future, whereas “the guys just seem to leapfrog.”
Perino hopes to host the session again and is thinking about starting similar programs across the country. Melissa Sullivan, who works for the US Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the event fostered a sense of community and partnership. “I feel like that’s so difficult in this town,” she said, “And I think that if more people, especially younger women, find mentors, that’s how women are going to rise, by working together.”
Legislative assistant Suzanne Swink liked the event’s nonpartisan focus: “Even though we have different political backgrounds on different sides of the aisle, we had a similar interest in women’s issues.” The event was purposefully bipartisan, Perino said, “so that the younger women could experience what I’ve found to be true—when it comes to women helping other women, there’s no R’s or D’s behind their names.”