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Ep 4: How To Overcome "Mean Girl" Culture At Work with Graceann Bennett

Master Brand Strategist and Thought Leader Graceann Bennett talks with Elizabeth abut how to handle Mean Girls in the Workplace.


Elizabeth: Hello, everyone. Welcome to Ascend and Transcend. I'm super excited to be speaking with Graceann Bennett today. She is somebody who is a complete powerhouse in the world of brand building, product development, and organizational transformation. She brings a strong track record of partnering with huge CEOs and CMOs to drive significant increases in shareholder value, which is what everybody wants, especially the Fortune 500 companies that she's worked with. Today she's going to talk with us a little bit about this "mean girls" culture that sometimes pops up when women are grabbing for new rungs, climbing the corporate ladder, or even an entrepreneurship, right, Graceann? So please welcome her to the show today. Thanks for being here. I really appreciate it.

Graceann: Thanks for having me. This is great. I love this topic, and it's kind of a third rail topic, but it's something that I've thought about a lot. I'm really excited that you want to talk to me about that, because I think there's a positive and a negative side to women in the workplace, and it's great.

Elizabeth: I couldn't agree more. I think if you're a woman who's had the unique opportunity to work for both like a Fortune 500 company and maybe a smaller, completely women-owned, women-run company, you can see vast differences. But it's not ways one size fits all: "Women should just go work for other women, and it'll be great. It'll be kumbaya, and it'll all be supportive in sending the elevator back down" and all of this good stuff. It doesn't always work out that way. I've had my own experiences in that, but I would love to hear a little bit more about your journey, Graceann, and how you came to the decision that you really needed to create PLAYBOOK STUDIO about three years ago.

Graceann: Okay. I've had a long career. I stopped counting after two decades, but I definitely think it's been three decades plus. I always wanted to work in understanding brands and building their value, their meaning in culture and society. As a little girl in Southern California, I was always obsessed with how do people figure out how one brand, why you wear one pair of jeans versus another, how you pick brands? And so I went off and had my dream career in New York. And I mean, I worked for women since the beginning in my career, and some of them have been my strongest advocates and best mentors, but I've also been taken down, I mean, probably a couple of times, even lost a job based on a woman client that literally gave my company the gun to shoot me with politically.

Elizabeth: No way.

Graceann: Yes. It was crazy.

Elizabeth: What do you feel like was underlying intention? Or what was the upside for her? Everybody always usually has their own agenda, but I do feel like... Maybe it's Tina Fey who says like, "There's a special dumpster in hell for women who target other women," especially in this kind of arena. So do you feel like there was an intention? Can you tell us a little bit more about that specific situation where you felt targeted?

Graceann: Yeah. Well, I mean, it's an interesting story. And it's funny, because once when I was pregnant with my third child, I was told by a man that I wasn't sexy enough for my position. It was before-

Elizabeth: Wow. The balls on that guy.

Graceann: This was before #MeToo. So that was a guy saying, "Okay, we need a sexy new business person. And you're super smart, but you're not sexy enough for the creative director," a man who wants a sexy new business partner. So that was from kind of the man side. So this will take me to how I got shot down and taken down by this woman. So that was one thing. And then so I had my third kid. I got started doing yoga. I got into shape, lost 30 pounds. I was in the best shape of my life, and I was crushing it at my job, running strategy for Ogilvy & Mather in Chicago, working on the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, doing all these global repositioning projects, working Unilever, Kimberly-Clark, all these big, big brands and super successful. We tripled the size of the office. Everything was going really well. But I was getting "sexier and sexier" as I kind of got rid of the baby weight, and I was feeling super good, and I was having so much fun as a woman in the workplace, and it was great.

Elizabeth: Yeah, like [crosstalk 00:04:30] fashion probably, but then what signal does that-

Graceann: Right.

Elizabeth: God. Okay.

Graceann: And I'd wear heels, and I'd walk around in my heels, and I felt like power boss. And then all the women in my department, they started dressing like me. But we all had fun. I mean, we were kind of known as this like killer female group of really good-looking, super smart women just crushing it. And it was super fun. So kind of coming into my own, feeling really good about myself, all this success in the office, building my team of these really mostly women. Probably about 80% of my team were women. And then I went to Italy for this client, and I was doing a big workshop session. And the company... And I won't name it just to protect-

Elizabeth: Yeah, they're lucky.

Graceann: The guilty.

Elizabeth: I would name it, but-

Graceann: To protect the guilty. Well, I could name it. I mean, anyway, it's for a tractor company, Case IH, in the Midwest. And so my female client, she was the chief marketing officer. I actually don't even remember her name, but so she brought us in to do brand positioning for Case IH, this tractor company that goes against John Deere and some of these big brands. So we went to Italy where the corporate... So they were part of Fiat. And so we went to Italy, and we had a workshop and I do these dinners and downloads before we go into the workshop, where everybody gets to know each other, we have dinner, we're drinking wine, we're doing a little presentation. And there was a table right by the presentation table where I was giving the presentation, and all the men, the CEO of the company, all the men were sitting at that table. And she had placed all the people at the table. And I was supposed to be sitting in the back of the room with her and some other women. And all the power men were at the front, but I was presenting. So all the guys said to me, they said, "You should sit here. There's an empty seat. Sit here. You're presenting it. Anyway, come sit with us." But the woman was in the back, who is my client, and I sit where she put me.

Graceann: So I do the presentation. I think I had a glass on half of wine. Everybody was having fun. It's a dinner and a download. It's supposed to be fun. And so I think nothing of it. Oh, and then the CEO, her boss's boss, took me around with his team, men and women, and gave me a ride to one of the events and said, "Oh, I loved talking to you" da, da, da. So I was connecting with her boss's boss, the men at the table. All these things were... But it was all going well. Ran the workshop. It was success. So she writes a letter after this Italy trip, and she writes a letter to my boss at the agency saying that, "Graceann was inappropriate."

Elizabeth: Wow.

Graceann: "She sat at the wrong table. She was flirting with all of the men at the table, and she was going to have sex, have an affair, with the CEO of the company, because they were planning some trip to go to the conference in London, and I stopped that, but she was on the path to doing something inappropriate." All not true.

Elizabeth: Wow. Wow.

Graceann: She sends this note.

Elizabeth: Were you even single at this time? Or were you in a relationship?

Graceann: I was single.

Elizabeth: Well, that's even more threatening. I mean, forget it. If you're single and beautiful and you have your shit together, it's, yeah, I mean you're very vulnerable.

Graceann: So vulnerable. And then these men, I was having a power struggle with these men who didn't want me to go to a conference. They didn't want me to go to the Cannes Advertising Conference in France, because they said, "I don't trust men around you, and they're going to hit on you, and that's not a place for you to be. So you can't go to this conference with all the other men, because you are too dangerous." And so I was battling it out with them. So this woman sensed that I'm in this battle with these guys, and then they just take me out and say... So anyway, I lost my job within a week of that letter.

Elizabeth: Wow. So were you even given the space to like defend yourself against these accusations?

Graceann: Not really. I mean, I just basically kind of... There was just other stuff going on, and literally they took me out. And I had to get lawyers really quickly. I couldn't really-

Elizabeth: Wow.

Graceann: And then you have to decide whether you're going to go like am I going to write a book about women in the workplace and just have this be my thing and forget having a career in advertising, marketing, branding, what I love, what I built my whole career on?

Elizabeth: Exactly. All of the dues you've paid, all of the sacrifices, especially as a mother of three, but along the way you've made... And then, to your point, you just will get cast aside, and then now that has to be your label, or your identity. Or you have to somehow validate yourself again, or clear your name as being this [inaudible 00:09:43]. I don't even know what the fuck to call it.

Graceann: Well, right, but they thought-

Elizabeth: That's so ridiculous.

Graceann: Right. And even part of the thing, they were accusing me of, I was like, "I've been sexually harassed." And there's other parts of the story I'm not getting into. And they're saying, "Oh, are you the sexual harasser?" I'm like, "Just because I look good in heals, and I go into this meeting, and I'm an attractive woman," I mean, it was just crazy going from someone telling me I'm not sexy enough for my job and then being taken out by a woman and men for being too sexy at my job.

Elizabeth: It feels like a razor's edge, Graceann. It's like you do. You're supposed to be pretty, and the face, especially in your line of work. You have to personify what you're selling, which is what they're selling, which is their brand. So you have to be attractive enough for them to kind of "bring you to the dance," to be associated with you. But then if you are, which is all completely subjective, which completely fucks women over, is well then when are you too sexy? Or when are you too likable? Or are you laughing just a little too loud at dinner? Or did you have a half a glass of wine too much that somebody might now think that you've been slightly inebriated. So then, I mean, it's just such bullshit.

Elizabeth: And so I think a lot of times women... And that was my experience too. And I worked for some large companies, which I won't name, because I actually still love a lot of people there, but they're big ones, and you can't go anywhere without seeing them. And it was the exact same thing, and to the point... I've told this story before, where I would go to strip clubs with them, because that's what the men were doing. And so you were trying to be one of the men, but then if you were one of the people that got in that cab with the guys, the VPs, or whatever, to go to the strip club to try to be visible, well, now everybody thinks you're sleeping with somebody. Or now it's inappropriate. And it's like, yeah, but I mean, there's no way to have a crystal ball to see how it's going to play out, and you just feel totally trapped. And so I ran to the arms of a female-owned company, because I thought I got to get away from this toxic bullshit. And then I went there, and then there's a whole other set of politics.

Graceann: Oh, there's a whole other set of politics, but that's because if you're threatening... Obviously, you need to be attractive so you get invited, but you have to be non-threatening. So how do you be attractive, non-threatening? And you have to find where that is. And it's even, like they say with Oprah, she's more popular when she gains a few pounds. Her likability score goes up. So you think if I'm feeling my best ever, then I'm a threat, and then you have to tone it down. So it's just an interesting dynamic. I have two daughters, and I think about them in the kind of workplace or how would I actually instruct them. Or if I'm working with women, how would I kind of talk to them about how to be their best self, but not kind of raise... I mean, yeah, not getting the people with guns at your back or trying to be too much of a target.

Graceann: So it is tricky. And I do think in a way, I mean, I guess if I'm honest, I think toning it down a little bit at work and being a little bit more stealth is probably a good idea, but I think it was totally unfair in terms of that situation in Italy, because if you're pretty or you're attractive, any kind of being friendly is seen as flirty. And that's not fair, right?

Elizabeth: Right.

Graceann: If you're pretty and friendly, then you're flirty, but if you're not attractive-

Elizabeth: Then you're a stone bitch.

Graceann: Then you're a stone bitch. Or if you're not attractive, then no one's going to that fault you for being friendly. You're just friendly.

Elizabeth: Well, and then you won't be promoted as quickly as somebody... I mean, statistically, right?

Graceann: Right.

Elizabeth: Like I'm super tall too, so at like six feet, you walk into a room, and already people are looking at you, because you kind of can't not. But then I would be working too with women who were petite, which I always wanted to be, by the way, and then I was threatening to the five foot one woman because here I am and walk in and outgoing and friendly, and then I could see the up, down looks of like [inaudible 00:14:06]. And then if you're a little bit younger than them too, then you've really fucked.

Graceann: Exactly.

Elizabeth: It's like, okay, then they think that you're just in there and you have different intentions and that you're... It's almost like a I'm going to cut you down before you can cut me down type of a thing versus this kumbaya. So what do you think, Graceann, is one thing that we could do to try to kind of bridge this, or at least add some transparency around the fact that this is what's happening in a lot of these situations, this kind of women-on-women crime?

Graceann: Right. I mean, I've thought about this a lot, because that one example is only one of many. And it usually comes when there's a threatening of the power dynamic. And so in terms of how to actually mitigate that in some kind of way, I mean, one, only work for women that are super secure in themselves. And-

Elizabeth: That can be tough.

Graceann: That's why I work for myself. I work for myself.

Elizabeth: I was going to say sometimes you just got to bounce out and start your own thing.

Graceann: I bounced out. So I'm working outside of a system where I'm non-threatening because I'm adding value and I'm not taking anybody's job. People pay me for the value I add. I come in. I do my job. I come out. I'm disconnected from the politics of am I taking someone's job? Am I going to get promoted? How much money are we paying her? It's much cleaner of a transaction, or a value exchange. And as a woman, I feel like it's just less threatening for everybody. And so that, I like my world outside of the system that way, but that's not for everybody, because you can't say, okay, no one work for a company.

Elizabeth: Right. For some of the people... And I work with a lot of clients, it's usually about 50/50. 50 are done with it, and they're ready to start their own thing, and then the other 50% really enjoy the industry that they're in. And to your point, you've worked so hard. That's the other thing. It shouldn't be you sacrifice all of this, the reputation you've built, all of the experience that you've gained, to just start your own thing and maybe that supports that, or go into a completely different career field. There are a lot of women that we need to stay in those positions and to grow in those positions. And I think too one thing that I found myself starting to do was really authentically trying to connect and even befriend some of these women who I could tell didn't like me and were putting a target on my back. I would go and say like, "Let's have weekly calls, whatever. I want to stay in the loop." And I would say to them, "I don't want them to pit us against each other." Just slap it down on the table.

Elizabeth: And I think even the they... It's not just men. This isn't a men bashing thing. It's more of a let's just diffuse the questions that you might have, or the threat we might each feel towards each other. And I think when you can align and it almost feels like a common goal against this even societal expectation that we're going to duke it out and have these corporate cat fights with each other to get to the only... They're only going to let there be one woman vice president or one female in the C-suite. You know what I mean?

Elizabeth: So it can't be both of us. I think we need to have the conversations of how do we both try to get there so that it isn't just one of us? Or if one of us goes, then we will make sure that we're giving credit where credit's due for work that you contributed to get me to this point. But I feel like a lot of it is just women aren't talking. We're not communicating. And we're the best communicators, but for some reason, with each other in these situations, we're not. We shut down, and the other woman becomes the enemy instead of the ally.

Graceann: Well, and I do think that's a really good point. And if I look back to some of the situations that I could've handled better, what would that look like? It was a little bit more awkward with the client because it was a less connected relationship, but I think about people that I'm working with in an agency or working on the client side. I do think having those frank conversations and just putting it on the table, if you feel the threatening or they're kind of pitting... Because I've been in situations where a female boss would pit me against another female coworker to kind of see who would win out. So I think aligning forces, kind of saying, "Let's be allies on this. What do you want? What do I want? What can we do together?" because I do feel like probably 80% to 90% of the time, women have been my most powerful advocates and allies within the workforce. I have very strong relationships with women in the workforce. But the bad ones are just lethal and deadly.

Graceann: So I think those conversations are really important. And maybe helping us just be more brave in those kind of conversations with women so that we can get on the same age, because I think back to like mean girls comes from high school. And I think about some of my high school or college women that hated me. They ended up being really my closest friends after they got to know me. And so then we were really close allies. And the hate was almost we might've been a little bit too much alike and they saw... We triggered something about like, oh, they see something maybe super ambitious, and I'm ambitious too. And I don't like that side of myself, or whatever is triggering. But a lot of people that I remember in high school and college, two women in particular, that really couldn't stand me, and then we ended up best friends.

Elizabeth: Right. I mean, isn't that always it? And it's usually whatever annoys us in somebody else is the thing that we're least likely to see in ourselves, or that we're suppressing in ourselves. So maybe even the woman in Italy, the client, maybe she just really wanted to be like you in a certain sense, to have that confidence, to be able to sit next to all of those men and feel secure and confident and carry herself in a certain way. And so therefore, it was really threatening. But I think, to your point, the other thing that women do is I feel like we downplay the accomplishments of other women, especially when we're working in a team dynamic. And I think the best way to get allies is to really spread the accolades around and give credit where credit's due versus trying to downplay something that a female team member, or even somebody that you're managing, contributed because we think there's this scarcity mindset that there's only so many seats at the top allocated for women, right?

Graceann: Right.

Elizabeth: So that I've really got to kind of... She's doing good, but as long as she doesn't do better than me, versus let's amplify everything that you're doing, because I mean, that's how you're going to gain the trust of other women, is building them up.

Graceann: Right. Well, and also, I saw some... There's always kind of funny things. Instagram, little quotes of the day, but something said about being kind of a good female mentor or just friend within the corporate world is introducing a female friend or colleague in a room full of possibilities. And I thought, okay, that's a true friend and ally, is that when you bring someone in. So if I'm going to go back and say, okay, what can I have done better in Italy when I got invited to the seat of the table? Well, I could've gone to the woman who felt threatened and she was stuck in the back and invited her to that table and said, "Okay, why don't you sit here? They want me to sit here. Why don't you come along with me?" Instead I was just, again, if I'm taking accountabilities, I was excited to be invited to the table. I was presenting. I'm thinking, well, I should be here anyway, but I was not really thinking about, okay, she's my client. How do I include her?

Graceann: And I think that, again, feeling like you're bringing the women along for the ride, bringing them into the opportunities. And if the CEO took a liking to me and he wants to talk to me, okay, well, let's bring my client, who I should be kind of making sure that she feels included, because she's the one that engaged the agency on this project. I could've done that. I could've handled that better. So I think, again, taking accountability for that. It was not a fun situation, and I think it could've been handled better. I think she should've talked to me directly. So I think that kind of direct one-on-one conversation as well and bringing women along with us, raising them up, and yeah.

Elizabeth: But really doing that.

Graceann: Yeah, really doing that.

Elizabeth: I think a lot of women talk a lot a game, and then they don't. I can even see that sometimes in friend circles. It's like, I'll bring in this person, but don't hang out without me, or this or that. And I feel like a true friend is one that's like, "Yeah, here's her phone number. Text her on your own, or go hang out." And that translates into the corporate world too. Real confidence is doing that. And I think that that is something that's probably going to be noticed by male counterparts as well. If you're secure enough and you're confident enough to be like, "you know what? She did 90% of this project," that's what leadership is. It isn't me, me, me, me. I did this. It's always spreading it around. And then even if maybe they didn't do as much, I love this idea of giving people reputations to live up to.

Elizabeth: So even if she's having daggers for you behind your back, if there's a female counterpart, I tell clients a lot of times to wake up too and try to think of three nice things to say about her. What are three gratitudes, even if it's she's incredibly outspoken, or whatever? If you start sending this chick love and light, legitimately, working it in, even for seven days every morning... Some clients I make them text me, and you can tell they're really digging deep to try to say something nice about this woman. They're like, "You know what? I was on a call, and she was just really nice to me." And I'm like, "Right, because you've changed your vibration. Now you're nice and positive. You're getting a little higher. Now this person either has to eyes to meet you, or they will fall away. But you can't sustain a relationship where you're on two different vibrational planes." So this woman, it's kind of this kill him with kindness, but I think law of attraction and vibration, you're going to get back what you're putting out. And if it's fear or threatened vibes, that's what's going to come right back around.

Elizabeth: So even if somebody's being a total bitch to you and you can just find good things, just really try to force yourself to think of nice things about that person. Vocalize nice things. So that's 10xing it right there. It's like the vibe you're putting out, saying something nice. You can't fight with somebody who has their hands down. So if we all just start taking the gloves off, putting our hands down and really trying to learn about each other and see what each other can bring to the table, we can stop being this horrible cliche of women that can't get along or men who don't want to manage a team of women, because there'll be all this infighting and competition.

Graceann: Right, which is embarrassing and beneath us.

Elizabeth: 100%.

Graceann: We do need to rise above that. And again, a lot of times I think we just shut down once someone doesn't like us and we feel like the dagger. So a protective move would be, okay, they're coming after me. I'm going to kind of cut off t

he communication, and I'm retreating. Whereas really kind of what you're saying, and the kind of braver move, is to kind of move towards that and start to kind of open up the conversation, which is sometimes the last thing you want to do, because you feel like you're trying to protect yourself. But the abundance mentality and knowing that there's more to go around... And I do find that when I share more, more comes at me in different ways. It is all out there. There's a million opportunities and so much more, but yeah, I think this is a huge thing. We got to crack the code on this one, because it's so real.

Elizabeth: Yeah, we do. And I think just talking about it too and just admitting sometimes that we might feel threatened by somebody. And I think if you're really feeling confident and you want to be authentic, you can go to that person and say, "I don't know why. It's so weird, but I kind of feel a little threatened. I'm not sure what it is, but I want to talk to you about it, because I don't want this to turn to follow paths of the past." Or if somebody's dressing really beautifully and then you have to really look at yourself like why is that triggering? Why is it triggering for me when Graceann is up there in heels and a pencil skirt and has her shit together. It's not you. Well, it's not them. It's always us, right?

Elizabeth: So anytime we're feeling that negativity or trigger, we really need to look inward to find out why that is coming up, why

those feelings are coming up, and then so explore that and then talk with the person. And then if you feel somebody's low-key got it out for you, I just say call them on their shit. Just in a respectful way say, "I just have this vibe t

hat you just don't let like me, and I'm okay. We don't have to be best friends, but I would really like to try to heal this. Let's try to figure out what it is." Well, thank you so much, Graceann, for coming on today. Graceann is... You'll see it in the video. She's in this beautiful condo off Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. And I'm so jealous because I miss Chicago desperately, but I really appreciate you spending some of your morning with us and sharing some of these insights. Everybody can find more information about PLAYBOOK STUDIO at And then also is it, Graceann?

Graceann: It's


Graceann: Then that's the portal, the Graceann Bennett portal. I have some other things that I'm working on, but playbook. studio. When I found that domain name, I thought that's genius.

Elizabeth: I love it.

Graceann: So it's not .com. It's .studio.

Elizabeth: I love it. And then also, I always encourage women to connect on LinkedIn too. I think that LinkedIn is a very powerful platform for us. We're under-utilizing it. Men leverage it way more, I feel like, than women do to post and support each other. And you never know what new friends and powerful allies you will make. So thanks again, Graceann, and I will be talking to you about some personal branding with Playbook soon.

Graceann: Yeah, well, exactly. You're on the right path, and you already got some branding stuff all worked out. Okay, thank you.

Elizabeth: Wonderful. Thanks.


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