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Author Susan Abrams ’90 rewrites the rules for achieving success

Susan Abrams '90 should know what it takes for women to succeed -- she wrote the book on it.

Abrams is the author of the recently published The New Success Rules for Women (Prima Publishing, $24.95). In it, Abrams shares the strategies that have guided the careers of 45 of the nation's most prominent businesswomen.

Kraft Foods CEO Betsy Holden ’82, New York Times President Janet Robinson and Lifetime Television President and CEO Carole Black are just a few of the women who shared the "secrets" of their success with Abrams. The result: a widely praised tome that brings a 21st-century sensibility to the old rules for climbing the career ladder. Even Kellogg Dean Don Jacobs has weighed in, calling the book "a must-read business guide for women at any level, in any industry."

For Abrams, the seed for the book was planted more than a decade ago when, as a recent college graduate working on Wall Street, she searched for female role models who'd broken through the glass ceiling. She found precious few. Concerned, she asked herself, "What do we need to do to change this?"

Benchmark studies by Catalyst, an organization that tracks the progress of women in the workforce, indicate that Abrams' perceptions were dead-on. According to a recent study, women make up 46 percent of the labor force, but comprise just 11.2 percent of the offices of vice president and above at Fortune 500 companies. Among the highest-paid workers, just 3 percent are women.

"I watched these numbers inch up at a glacial pace, and thought, 'Wow, there really is a need for this book,'" she said. "The more I researched and learned, the more committed I became. This book is my vehicle to affect change."

Among the tips Abrams gleaned from her sources:

  • Dare to be passionate about your job.
  • Seek feedback aggressively and don't personalize what you hear.
  • Trust your instincts.
  • Never accept "no" for an answer.
  • Build and nurture your network at every opportunity.

It's that last point in particular that proved most helpful to Abrams as she sought to write a book that would be of use to women everywhere.

"My goal was to highlight the key strategies women had used to become successful, regardless of their industry," she said. "I was looking for people who had started at entry level and had worked their way to the top once I researched my target list, I began where I had relationships. Relationships are really the currency with which to get things done."

One of Abrams' first sources was Nancy Karch, former director of McKinsey & Co., where Abrams had worked as a consultant after graduating from Kellogg. In the middle of her interview with Abrams, Karch got on the phone with Sue Kronick, chairman and CEO of Burdines. "'Sue, I've got Susan Abrams here, and you really must talk to her,'" Abrams remembers Karch saying. "Before I knew it, I was in Sue's office in Miami, and she shared her insights and her Rolodex with me as well."

Similar connections grew out of Abrams' relationships with former colleagues at Goldman Sachs, where she had worked as an analyst after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, and at the Chicago Children's Museum, where she spent six years working in marketing and strategic planning in the 1990s.

"Relationships can be formed anywhere," says Abrams, who notes that another connection was made through a parent at her son's soccer game. "It's simply a matter of putting yourself out there and letting people know what you are doing."

Abrams is doing a great deal these days. In addition to "pounding the pavement" to promote her book, she is a visiting scholar at Kellogg, working with the Center for Nonprofit Management to build bridges between Kellogg and the nonprofit community. She is married to Kellogg alum Bill Abrams ’90 and is the mother of three children -- Andy, 7, Jessica, 5, and Caroline, 3. The family lives in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago.

Finding time for her family while pursuing her other interests is a "blending act," a term she is careful to distinguish from "balancing act." Balance, writes Abrams, is a state of tension and implies competing needs. Blending allows for more flexibility. It allows women to adjust the mix of activities in their lives according to their priorities at different times.

These days, Abrams says, "I'm doing it through making choices as to how I spend my time. I have to cut back in other areas, but when I'm no longer comfortable with that, I'll make changes."

Whatever those changes may be, it's likely Abrams will continue to write -- and follow -- her own rules for success.

The New Success Rules for Women is available in bookstores everywhere and through Abrams' Web site,

--Rebecca Lindell

©2001 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University