Fran Hauser: The Myth of the Nice Girl

I sat down with Fran Hauser, long-time media executive, startup investor & best-selling author of The Myth of the Nice Girl. Best known for her role building PEOPLE.com, Hauser was named one of Business Insider’s “30 Women In Venture Capital to Watch in 2018” & one of the “Six Most Powerful Women in New York City’s Tech Scene” by Refinery29. In 2014, Hauser was honored as a Global Champion of Women on International Women’s Day & was selected as a Forty Over 40 Women to Watch.

Gretchen Tarrant: Can you talk to us about the process of writing The Myth of the Nice Girl? What was it about this idea that you kept coming back to despite having a family and other obligations that could have side-tracked you?

Fran Hauser: Throughout my career, I’ve gotten one question over and over again: how can you be nice and still be successful? I first started thinking about turning the answer to that question into a book when I was working at Time Inc. in 2009. But then my kids came along, and my job at Time Inc. got bigger, so the book idea got pushed to the back burner. In 2016, I talked about this idea of having to choose between being nice and being strong as part of a Forbes blog post, and it clearly struck a chord. Women from all over the country wrote to me to tell me they had struggled with this dilemma in the workplace. I knew then how important it would be for me to write this book, and send the message that the most effective leaders lead with both kindness and strength.

GT: You mentioned that your editor didn’t like your initial draft of the first chapter, yet you still forged forward and created a piece that has touched many. Can you talk to us about how you cultivated this kind of resilience and how you think about vulnerability?

FH: It was difficult to hear that feedback from my editor, but he was dead-on. My first draft relied heavily on sharing research and other women’s stories. He said to me, “Fran, your name is on the book. If you want to connect with readers, you need to share personal stories, including failures.” I’ve watched Brene Brown’s talks on vulnerability, and I don’t think I really got it until this moment with my editor. As soon as I started opening up and sharing my own stories—the good, bad and the ugly—it made the book so much more accessible and allowed me to develop a deeper relationship with readers. It’s just like conversations in real life. When someone senses your vulnerability and authenticity, it allows you to have a deeper relationship.

GT: Although you note that some of the rough patches throughout your career ultimately set you up for success, if you could go back to tell your 25-year-old self anything, what would it be and why?

FH: One of the reasons I am where I am today is because of the relationships I’ve built. I’ve reinvented my career several times and grown into new, exciting positions because I was able to tap into the influence of people in my community. I think I’d tell my 25-year-old self to be intentional about cultivating these relationships. Have coffee dates. Write to the people you want to meet. Go to events where you’ll meet people who share your values and passions. Your tribe is everything, but you have to be deliberate about building it. 

GT: In a similar vein, how do you stay so hopeful and positive?  A member of our women’s group here at Walmart.com noted, “I get so frustrated when people don’t listen to me because I’m young or a woman or too low on the corporate food chain. It’s infuriating and exhausting and sometimes negatively affects how I try to handle certain situations depending on who I’m dealing with.” What is your best advice to combat this?

FH: My best advice is to do great work. Become known for being the person that launched a specific product or a program that saved the company a lot of money. Create value. In terms of mindset, you may also want to pay attention to your own non-verbal cues, which make up 93% of whether a message gets communicated effectively. You may be younger or newer to the office, but strong eye contact, posture and body language makes such a difference. For example, if you’re in a meeting where everyone is sitting, try standing up to make your point. 

GT: Building on this advice, what are the practices you speak about in the book that have seemed to resonate most with readers?

FH: I took a look at social media, emails from readers and the most highlighted passages in digital versions of the book to find out what resonated most. It turns out that readers really gravitated toward actionable advice that can help them lead with both kindness and strength. For example, women tend to say “I’m sorry” a lot at work when they have nothing to be sorry for. I advised readers to start replacing “I’m sorry” with “Thank you”—and this tip has really resonated. I also explain in the book how we can say no in a nice way, which starts with setting clear boundaries about the things you want to prioritize for yourself, your career, your family and the world. Finally, I talk a lot in the book about how to use your innate sense of empathy strategically. For example, I’ve been able to negotiate successfully by truly putting myself in the the other person’s shoes and understanding what is important to them. 

GT: You’ve mentioned family a few times, can you talk a bit more about the role that family and your upbringing had in influencing your values?

FH: I was born in a small farm town in southern Italy, and moved to Mount Kisco, New York with my parents when I was 2. My father was a stonemason and my mother a seamstress. They both built very successful small businesses despite not being fluent in English. I was the general manager for their businesses at a very young age. I was doing my dad’s invoices in first grade! I helped my mom with her marketing and made her a company logo. On top of running their businesses, my parents raised four kids. I will never forget seeing my dad getting out of his pickup truck at night after working a very long day and seeing the exhaustion on his face. They worked SO hard, and they also managed to be the most graceful, kind and loving people. Their approach to work and life truly shaped mine. 

GT: Have you ever struggled to balance work and family?

FH: Absolutely. The most challenging phase for me was when I returned from my first maternity leave. I felt this pressure when I got back to say yes to everything, when I should have taken time to let myself readjust to an overwhelming situation. I started seeing important projects slipping through the cracks, and decided at that moment that I had to be relentless about prioritizing the things that matter and saying no to everything else. You have to think about what will truly move the needle for you, your family and your professional life. Also, forget FOMO—the fear of missing out. You don’t have to go to every event, unless you feel like there’s an important strategic reason for you to be there. Don’t be afraid to say no—you’ll get three hours of your life back. 🙂 

GT: You have had an incredible career with involvement in many different areas. What is the thing you have done that you are most proud of? Why?

FH: From a pure value-creation perspective, I’m very proud of the role I played in building People Magazine’s website, which was essentially like creating a startup within Time Inc. We transformed the website from a marketing channel for the magazine to a profitable standalone business. There was a lot of complexity in terms of how the print and digital teams worked together, and I had to rely on a lot of the skills I talk about in the book, including influencing others, building a loyal team and developing deep relationships. All of these “relational” skills were so much more important to getting the job done than the functional and technical skills. 

GT: Lastly, have you thought about writing another book?

FH: YES! I have some ideas swirling around, and I’m definitely interested in writing another book. That said, with my book tour wrapping up, I definitely want to take a breather before jumping right in. I was talking about this with my co-author Jodi the other day, and she put it best: the reason why Nice Girl worked is because it is authentically me and the timing was right for the book’s messages. When I find the right moment—for me and culturally—I’ll think about starting that second book.

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