Empowerment guru's advice to working women: "Stop trying to be liked"

Los Angeles attorney Linda Smith is the author of the book "Smashing Glass & Kicking Ass," a manual for female empowerment based on her own personal experience. Smith, 65, retired from the corporate law firm of O'Melveny & Myers after a 40-year career that included a landmark case in which her client won a $1.2 billion settlement.

In an interview with CBS MoneyWatch, she discusses how women can outmaneuver men to reach the executive suite.

MoneyWatch: You describe yourself as the "meanest woman alive" on your website. Is this to help you in your career, or to sell your book?

Smith: That title was actually given to me in 2001 by Corporate Board Member magazine when I was a full-time corporate attorney. My clients, executives at companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and Humana, called me that.

MW: But you've adopted it as your trademark?

Smith: Yes, but I don't consider myself "mean." As a gladiator for my clients -- mostly men by the way -- I was ferocious and fierce in their defense and can bring out the stiletto when needed. The opposition knew they would have to scratch and claw just to stay alive. I represented Exxon in the Valdez oil spill case. 

Even though I'm no longer in full-time practice, I do assist in cases involving illegal immigrants and voting rights. I'm a Democrat and a liberal.

MW: Now you want to teach women how to be "gladiators" for themselves, but do they need this advice?

Smith: As a top attorney in my firm who mentored a lot of women, I saw that females weren't making it. They graduated from law schools in equal numbers, but got tired and discouraged. The same thing holds true in other professions like venture capital. In fact, there are less female CEOs now than there were last year.

MW: Why aren't more women at the top in Corporate America?

Smith: Studies have shown -- by 11 out of 12 different measures -- that women score better than men on leadership skills such as taking initiative, integrity, motivating others and building relationships. But women have been playing by the "male" playbook. They defer to men. They engage in self-sabotaging behavior such as starting conversations with, "I might be wrong but …" Women apologize a lot. They want to be liked.

MW: How should they correct this?

Smith: Women need to use their superior emotional intelligence established in many studies. That's our "feminine superpower." Women can read the people in the room, assess the situation strategically, come up with a nuanced course of action and then take control. Alpha males get caught up in the testosterone game. While they're busy playing who has the biggest Alpha, women should read the situation and operate under the radar.

MW: Can you cite a real-life example?

Smith: Sure. During the second presidential debate, Trump came up and stood behind Hillary. Instead of just taking it, she should have told him, "Get back on your own side!" She was afraid of seeming weak and not made of steel. 

Women have to rise up and take control from this type of classic misogynist. Tell the guy to go back into his corner and stop stalking you. If he keeps interrupting you, look him straight in the eye, use confident body language and then tell the guy to "shut up!"

MW: Would the corporate world actually accept this?

Smith: These studies that I've cited show that companies with more women in the boardroom make more money.

MW: Any final advice for women in the corporate world?

Smith: Stop trying to be liked. Likeability is overrated. Don't act like a deferential woman. Work on being respected. Be confident. Confidence trumps competence every time.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.