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A woman wins a man’s game

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

For the leader of a company with 150,000 employees in 150 countries, Marilyn Carlson Nelson has surprisingly little ego. You would never know Forbes named her one of the world's 100 most powerful women.

Nelson, 68, is chairman of Carlson, a global group of companies that includes travel, hotel and restaurant brands such as Radisson and T.G.I. Friday's. She's also the author of How We Lead Matters and a member of Exxon Mobil Corp.'s board of directors.

Managing People at Work spoke to Nelson:

MPAW: Your career took off as a securities analyst in the 1960s. What was it like as a woman in a man's world?

Nelson: I had to sign all my recommendations "M.C. Nelson" because no one would buy stock recommended by a woman. When I became pregnant, I had to move to an enclosed office to hide my condition. The world wasn't inclusive at that time.

MPAW: Didn't that infuriate you?

Nelson: I found it funny, not that I wasn't offended by it. I also felt I'd like to be in a position to change it. So I demonstrated competence and took on roles of more power.

MPAW: How did you show competence?

Nelson: The first thing is to gather as many facts as possible. I learned that when I was in graduate school in Geneva. I was in a debate and I had practiced long and hard. It was deemed I won. But my professor gave me a terrible grade. He said, "Your facts have to equal your passion."

MPAW: How have you applied that lesson?

Nelson: I engage people in a discussion so that we can all agree on the facts. With a bedrock of facts that can't be disputed, you can build on that.

MPAW: But facts can change.

Nelson: It's important to welcome new facts and be willing be change your mind to show you're genuinely interested in the best answer, not your ego.

MPAW: How do you make wise decisions?

Nelson: You analyze the pros and cons of various alternatives. Then you make sure you have the right answer at the right point in your organization's history. Your recommendation must be contextual.

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