Ironically, the reason I haven’t had a chance to write a recommendation of #Girlboss by Sophia Amoruso, which released in May is because I’ve been busy being a #girlboss. It happens to be the first book I read upon receiving my promotion to General Manager of 800-CEO-READ, and Amoruso’s fueled me during those first few uncertain days. Actually, I’m not the only #girlboss in the company either; 800-CEO-READ is a woman-owned company, and those owners are also our CEO and Board Chair. Since the retirement of our President and Founder, Jack Covert, the leaders at 800-CEO-READ are women. (Though I want to be careful to note that the folks that do the daily work are the true leaders of the company, and they are a healthy mix of men and women.)
I will be honest here, though, that when I first received an advanced reading copy of #Girlboss, I shrugged. The book seemed like a light-weight among the other heavy-hitters we most often review. Perhaps my resistance stemmed from the title, or the pink cover, or the fashion-retail subject matter, but because of its applicability to my situation, I opened the cover, finding that the book–and Sophia Amoruso herself–might be a welter-weight, but she is boxing well above her weight class. I pretty much loved everything about the book, particularly Amoruso’s bravado and professionalism. Many biographical business books talk a good game about how the author ‘put in the work’ or ‘got his or her hands dirty’ or ‘labored in the trenches’ but Amoruso is effectively descriptive about the hard work and attention to minutiae she employed when she first began selling vintage clothing online.
As with many business biographies and “how done it” stories, you begin to wonder whether it’s actually true that these folks are just “regular people” who had the right amount of guile and luck. But as we all know somewhere deep in our hearts, those same hearts that live in our bodies that prefer to sit on the couch eating nachos rather than continually striving, guile and luck matter, but its those who are willing to hustle and have an innate drive to be ‘different’ that seem to create their own success.
I scoured Craigslist for estate sales, and then made a map, starting with whichever one sounded like the people who died were the oldest. I would show up at 6:00 a.m. and stand in line with people who were all at least twenty years my senior. When the doors opened, everyone else started putzing around for doilies, while I bolted straight for the closet to unearth vintage coats, mod minidresses, Halston-era disco gowns, and many a Golden Girls tracksuit. I’d hoard, haggle, pay, and leave. Also a regular at the local thrift stores, I waited for the employees to wheel shopping carts of freshly priced merchandise out from the back, and when they too an armload to hang up on the racks…pounce! I’d run over and check out what mysteries awaited. Once, I found two Chanel jackets in the same shopping cart. Flip, flip, flip–Chanel jacket–flip, flip, flip–another one!
In other words, she hustled. She hustled, and she stayed ‘in her lane’ by doing what she loved best: making a statement with fashion. But she didn’t just thrift, she noticed things. She noticed that on eBay that few if any other sellers posted pictures of their items on actual people. So Amoruso solicited help from people she knew to become her ‘models’ and then worked day and night taking pictures and posting them online. Just change in presentation netted her a huge increase in traffic, attention, and sales.
In a singularly defiant, yet friendly, voice, one that reflects her three mottos about business–
Don’t ever grow up.
Don’t become a bore.
Don’t ever let the Man get to you.
And as retro-1969 as that list seems, she clearly walks her own talk. Amoruso tells us that she began her now $100 million plus online fashion retailer with more than 350 employees, Nasty Gal, because she needed to “get a job to get health insurance.” But instead of giving herself over to the tedium of “checking IDs in the lobby of an art school” she uses her time to “dick around on the Internet and open up an eBay shop called Nasty Gal Vintage.” Certainly, in 2006, the territory of Internet resale was mostly-unchartered territory, and Amoruso benefited from being in the right place at the right time. But #GirlBoss also shows that Amoruso wanted to challenge herself, and even if she’d never considered herself inclined toward business, she was open to where ever her talents and intuition took her.
I entered adulthood believing that capitalism was a scam, but I’ve instead found that it’s a kind of alchemy. You combine hard work, creativity, and self-determination, and things start to happen. And once you start to understand that alchemy, or even just recognize it, you can begin to see the world in a different way.
That passage above is one of my favorites from any book I’ve read or reviewed this year. It accurately and enchantingly describes how I feel business–as an adventure–transcends its primary pursuit, to make money, and can be as satisfying to the soul as any other kind of creative endeavor. That sounds a bit dreamy, I suppose, but as a fellow #GirlBoss who never thought she’d find such satisfaction in her work in business, I’m happy to celebrate the multiple and multi-layered ways my job satisfies me.
Before I leave #Girlboss for another equally motivating story, I need to address one thing: what’s with the “girl” in #Girlboss? Yes, as noted above, Amoruso is in no hurry to grow up; but how does she maintain her personae as a CEO while embracing her status as girl? How can any of us? I’m ambitious, and I want not only to support this company with my actions and my intentions, but I also want to grow it. I want to push our boundaries even as we concentrate an even greater amount on our core strengths. How can I do any of that if, as a friend of mine used to say, most ironically, “I’m just a girl”? As with most things in this book, even if I don’t completely agree with Amoruso, I appreciate her willingness to come right up to a topic and smack it in the face. Well, she might say that she first has to “reject it to fully appreciate it” but she certainly doesn’t turn her back on it.
Is 2014 a new era of feminism where we don’t have to talk about it? I don’t know, but I want to pretend that it is. I’m not going to lie–it’s insulting to be praised for being a woman with no college degree. But then, I’m aware that this is also to my advantage: I can show up to a meeting and blow people away just by being my street-educated self. I, along with countless other #GIRLBOSSes who are profiled in this book, girls who are reading this book, and the girls who are yet to become a #GIRLBOSS will do it not by whining–but by fighting. You don’t get taken seriously by asking someone to take you seriously. You’ve got to show up and own it. If this is a man’s world, who cares? I’m still really glad to be a girl in it.
Anita Krohn Traaseth was Managing Director of Hewlett Packard Norway for five years before becoming the CEO of Innovation Norway. Her recent ebook, Good Enough for the ‘Bastards': Confessions of a Female Leader, translated and sold as an ebook by Cappelen Damm, labelled a Lean In story from Norway, is now available via Amazon Kindle. While #Girlboss is the superior read–either the translation of Good Enough isn’t of the highest quality, or Krohn Traaseth didn’t have a ghost writer helping her construct the narrative and shape the writing, so the book itself is a bit rough, with errors here and there and a stilted quality–Good Enough for the Bastards serves to explicate the motivations and experiences of this highly-accomplished, yet humanistic, female leader (aka #GirlBoss?)
Krohn Traaseth begins her book with an admission that grabbed me immediately:
I am too young to write a book. I am not enough of a leader. I haven’t achieved enough. I am not a good enough writer and I certainly don’t have enough interesting stories to tell. I am afraid of being made a fool of, and afraid of waking up to mediocre reviews….But I’ll risk it anyway.
The same day I started reading this book I had posted this reflection on my Facebook page: “I’m having one of those weeks in which I feel like a total fraud in everything I do. Fake it ’til you make it, right??”
It never feels particularly comfortable admitting your own vulnerability. And certainly I don’t always feel that way. In my case, I had taken a day off of work and felt behind, struggling to get a big-picture grip of what all of our company’s upcoming activities will demand of us in terms of effort and energy. I was worried that my coworkers would read my comment and think less of me. I was worried that putting my insecurity into words would make them so. But then I had numerous people whom I respect chime in (ah, the wonders of Facebook as confessional) and assure me that this is pretty much the way anyone who ‘puts themselves out there’ feels occasionally. Because I was truthful, I was supported.
Krohn Traaseth clearly decided to take the risk of writing this book, but also putting herself into work situations for which she had little training, and striving for each new challenge, despite her concerns. And she is upfront about all of it. She explains that she feared sharing her whole story, including her mother’s suicide after a lifetime of suffering as a manic-depressive, but overcame that fear by focusing on how such truthfulness engenders, rather than erodes, trust.
As an adult and a manager I have come to realise, with time, that it is important to tell the story of my background. In each and every psychological test that I have taken as part of the employment process, I have been defined as unusually mature and mentally strong for my age. Are you superficial? Where does all the optimism and confidence come from? Poor self-knowledge? Inflated ambition? When I explain my background, the test results are put into perspective and the criticism is balanced. It’s a paradox that evident skills, self-assurance and courage can have a reverse effect. It can intimidate and create distance, and you can come across as being the opposite of what you intend: seemingly without substance, rather basic and smug. To be aware of this, taking the time to explain the context and connections and learn what effect one has on others, demands the courage to share one’s stories.
Because I have my own stories of early losses and latter struggles, I find her perspective affirming, a reminder that it’s those very losses and struggles that make me capable and strong in this new position. Krohn Traaseth writes, “In challenging situations I can either choose to give up or to give more. I have chosen to give more: to give others more, do more, live more and be more, regardless of the situation or what other people might make of this approach.” And I hope that I lead and live similarly.
It seems clear from her reflections on her childhood that her parents encouraged their three children, two girls and a boy, equally and uniformly. (This is not the case for me; my brother had ‘outside’ chores while I had ‘inside’ chores.) They were not raised to achieve as much as they were raised to work hard. And in fact, Krohn Traaseth’s father is the inspiration for the somewhat startling title, Good Enough for the Bastards, which is meant to serve as a sort of elixir for perfectionism.
I have used and continue to use this phrase in various contexts, including at work. When I first used the expression in a work context, I got some strange looks. One brave soul finally pointed out an important fact: “Anita, you can’t call our clients bastards!” Dad’s expression has been an important guidepost for me. I knew from an early age that I was more than good enough, even if my Norwegian language teacher placed me in the mediocre category. I received constant affirmations of this at home, in addition to an endless faith in my ability to solve problems for myself, and believed that I would be satisfied with my efforts when I was done. I always knew that it was important to finish what I had started.
Though Good Enough for the Bastards isn’t “about female managers or female leadership as a subject”, Krohn Traaseth doesn’t entirely avoid the elephant in the room. Like Amoruso, she assesses her own success in the context of gender discrimination and/or bias. Yet, she agrees with sociologist and gender researcher, Anne Grethe Solberg, that the best kind of leadership is “Androgynous Leadership,” the kind that takes the strengths from both genders, or perhaps, is gender-less.
It isn’t necessary to view leadership as a polarised black-or-white situation. One doesn’t rule out the other. One style of leadership can accommodate what may seem like polar opposites but really aren’t. Androgynous leaders have a dimension of both; they score highly in both masculine and feminine qualities. According to Solberg’s study, androgynous leaders are more confident than those who are either masculine or feminine. The reason for this is that androgynous people have made their own choices when growing up and establishing their own identity. They haven’t allowed themselves to be pressured into paradigms in which little girls are princesses and little boys are superheroes.
Still, Krohn Traaseth acknowledges that there were structures in place within Norwegian business specifically that made it unlikely for a young, blond woman without an MBA to succeed in business, and that her story is a rare one. But she is hopeful that, like herself, who grew up with more female role models than did the previous generation, her three daughters will grow up with even more, including their own mother.
My girls know that Mum is the “boss”. They are growing up with more female role models than I did. One day when I was rushing to a meeting with Hans Daniels, my boss and SVP of HP in General Western Europe in 2013, a puzzled Milla asked, “Are there boy bosses too, Mum?”
I’m fairly sure that my mother’s career as a teacher and the stories of her international travels when she was a young woman, far before it was commonplace for a woman to do either well into their 40s, is the source of some of my ambition.
Ultimately, Good Enough for the Bastards offers a look into the life of one of the most recognizable and accomplished women in Europe. Throughout the book, she opts for reflection and a sort of parity in her subject matter: she is as open about her professional experiences as she is about her personal motivations. If it is true that work-life balance is a misnomer, and instead, we should strive for a work-life rhythm, then Anita Krohn Traaseth sets the tone for many of us to follow.
We all have books or songs or people we turn to as sources for inspiration and energy. When I need to power up, I listen to Dessa’s Fighting Fish. It speaks to the Midwestern and the burgeoning #GirlBoss in me.
around here we don’t like talk of big dreams
to stand out is a pride, a conceit
to aim high is to make waves, to split seams
but that’s not what it seems like to me cause
I wanna try, I wanna risk
and I don’t wanna walk
I’d rather swing and miss
I’m not above apologies but I don’t ask permission
got a lot of imperfections but I don’t count my ambition in them