Happy Monday! We are incredibly excited for today’s coffee break interview. Andie Kramer is a Northwester Law grad, partner at McDermott Will & Emery, author of Breaking Through Bias, philanthropist, adjunct professor, lecturer on gender stereotypes and biases, and endless inspiration for lawyers and women everywhere. We know you’ll love this one!
Let’s start by learning a little bit about you and the roles you play. I wanted to be a lawyer since I was 12 or 13 years old, and I have never regretted my decision to become one. In the world in which I spend most of my time, the people around me are usually successful and economically comfortable.
But I know that my world is not the world most people live in. I have always attributed my good fortune to a lot of hard work plus a lot of good luck sprinkled in. I have always felt an obligation to help other people who are not as lucky, with most of my efforts directed toward helping women and children . . . .
By my community involvement, I don’t think I am equalizing my “luck factor” but I do feel as though I am sharing part of my good luck. And, that is a constant reminder to me to be thankful every day for my good fortune.
My community involvement nourishes me, and it give me balance and perspective. I find purpose in being able to help people who are not as lucky as I am.
What does your day look like? Favorite part of your day? My days often don’t follow a set pattern. I do a lot of traveling and find that what I hope to accomplish on a particular day is often delayed to accommodate an unexpected emergency. My days are never boring. The favorite part of my day, however, is when I am lucky enough to arrive back at home (from wherever I’ve been that day) to get to sleep in my own bed.
Caffeine of choice? My caffeine of choice is an occasional Diet Coke. I was once a very serious coffee drinker, but I have worked very hard to break myself of that habit. After I woke up on two separate Sunday mornings much later than I normally did with caffeine withdrawal, I knew it was time for me to give up caffeine.
How do you create “balance” between your work like and your personal life? I think that work/life balance is really a gender stereotype that hurts the women who buy into it. Why are women – but not men – asked about achieving work/life balance? What about a balance in men’s lives? Every working person needs to find a satisfying mix of work and personal life. For me, work takes precedence; sometimes life takes precedence. I’ve always felt successful in my life as a whole, but I don’t think women can balance their lives any more than men can.
Accomplishment you’re most proud of? How did you get there? I was invited to testify at a historic joint hearing in Washington, D.C., before the tax-writing committees of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. This hearing was only the second time since 1946 that these two committees had met together, and I was one of three people invited to testify: two men from New York (one a lawyer in private practice and the other a tax professor) and me. I had some important things to say, but I knew it would be very unpopular – particularly since the Chairmen of both committees had taken public positions that were the direct opposite of my intended testimony. The purpose of the hearing – and what the three of us were expected to say – was that the current tax system for financial products was broken, needs to be scrapped, and cannot be repaired. But what I planned to say was that this current tax system needed to be tweaked not scrapped, and I planned to explain exactly how to do this.
The morning of the hearing, I sat down at the witness table and looked around the room. In front of me sat more than 100 U.S. Senators and Representatives and many of their staff people stood behind them holding piles of papers and talking softly in their ears. Behind me, the room was packed tight with lobbyists, the press, and interested members of the public. Almost all were men, every one of them in a blue or grey suit. I was wearing a bright jacket over a black shell.
Each of the witnesses had a set time to deliver a prepared statement. After that, Senators and Representatives were recognized (in order of their seniority). Each one asked questions for a few minutes until they all had an opportunity to question the three of us witnesses. The questions fell along party lines and as the hearing wore on, the questions became more and more partisan.
I was very nervous the morning of the hearing. But I told myself I needed to say what I believed, that what I believed was right, and most importantly that the contrary position would screw up our financial markets for many years to come. I knew the only way my message was going to get across was if I appeared confident, composed, and articulate. And the only way I could appear confident was if I were. I walked into the hearing room, shook hands with the Chairmen, smiled for the TV cameras and knocked everyone’s socks off. I was a success. I made my points clearly, I defended my views, the hearing was over, and the financial products tax structure was never scrapped.
Best piece for advice for young lawyers? Perfection is overrated. None of us believe we are perfect – but too many of us think we should be. We need to stop thinking about perfection because it is self-defeating.
Trying to be perfect makes us afraid to try to do new things at which we might fail. It holds us back from raising our hand for the tough assignments; from volunteering for challenging, career-building projects; from venturing out of our comfort zone; and from giving ourselves the chance to grow and really get better. And, that should be our goal – to be better not perfect.
Trying for perfection makes us frustrated and discouraged. Think about it: no matter what we do and no matter how hard we try, we will never be perfect. If we think we should be perfect, we will have never accomplished enough, we will never be good enough, we will never be smart enough, or popular enough or successful enough, or thin enough.
Instead of trying to be perfect, you must give yourself permission to try new things, to spread your wings, to make mistakes. You only get better if you can learn from your failures. I keep in mind something Henry Ford once said: “Those who never make mistakes work for those of us who do.” So, my advice to young lawyers and aspiring lawyers as well as all people starting their careers is to give themselves permission to be less than perfect. It is liberating.
Do you have a mantra that you live by? I live by two mantras. The first is “Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.” This is self-explanatory so I will not discuss this other than to say that this has always served me well when our daughter was sick as a child or something was not going according to plan. The second mantra I live by is the phrase “bird by bird.” This one is not self-explanatory so I will explain what it means. Bird by Bird is the title of a wonderful book about writing and life. The book is named for a story about the author’s older brother. When he was about 10 years old, he had to write a school report about the birds of North America. Although he had been given months to write the report, he had not started writing it the report until the day before it was due.
Sitting at their kitchen table and near tears over the enormous task before him, their father saw her brother’s distress and said something to her brother like, “Bird by Bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I think of that 10-year old sitting at his kitchen table and his wise father’s advice to tackle the overwhelming project “bird by bird.”
Patience and forward progress is really about performing over the long haul. Success requires perseverance and stick-with-it-ness. We need to be prepared for the long haul, to keep trying and not to give up. But when it feels overwhelming, I suggest that you close your eyes, listen to your breathing, and then – stick with your task – and do it bird-by-bird.
Office essential? My favorite office tool is my document scanner. It is essential to my law practice and my writing and speaking activities. I spend a lot of time editing documents prepared by other lawyers and creating and editing PowerPoints and all manner of documents. My Scan-Snap scanner travels with me on many of my trips out of town.
Professional wardrobe staple? I typically wear black slacks and a black shell almost always with a brightly colored jacket. To be taken seriously, I know I need to appear confident, composed, and articulate. And the way to do that is to actually be confident. To feel confident I need to feel both comfortable and prepared.
I am most comfortable when I look my best, and for me that often means wearing bright colors. A bright jacket distinguishes me from the sea of blue and grey suits. And, it is another way to make sure I have other people’s attention. My clothes cannot help me feel prepared but they can help me feel confident.
If you could have coffee with anyone, who would it be? . . . Marie Sklodowska Curie . . . .
What are you most excited about right now? I am most excited about the book I wrote with my husband, Al Harris. Our book Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work [was] officially released on May 17th. Breaking Through Bias has two fundamental goals. The first is to convince women that despite the gender biases they face advancing in their careers, they can achieve success without waiting for the world or their workplace to become more gender neutral. Our second goal is to give women the tools – communication techniques – they can use to do precisely that: to succeed in the face of gender discrimination. Breaking Through Bias is fundamentally different from other advice books for women about their careers because we explicitly identify gender stereotypes and the biases that flow from them as the primary reason there is such glaring gap in women’s and men’s career achievement. We want women and men to be aware of these stereotypes, understand how they operate to slow or block women’s achievement, and learn how they can be avoided or overcome. By speaking and writing together, we believe we can offer women truly helpful and immediately actionable advice to advance in their careers. We present a variety of communication techniques that women can use to avoid the negative effects of gender biases so they can advance as far and as fast as their talents and hard work will allow them. We provide women with the information and advice to do just that in our book, Breaking Through Bias, and in our blogs available at our website AndieandAl.com
We’ve been honored to see our book reach Number 1 on Amazon’s business negotiating list of hot new releases and number 2 on Amazon’s Women and business list of hot new releases.
And to our dear readers, we’ll see you back here on Wednesday.