Two Questions with Adam Bryant

Bluemercury CEO shares the No. 1 question that will make a leader want to be your mentor

Bluemercury CEO and co-founder shares the tactic she uses to handle 'mansplaining'
Bluemercury CEO and co-founder shares the tactic she uses to handle 'mansplaining'

You need champions and mentors to help you succeed, says Marla Beck, the CEO of Bluemercury. And they are not necessarily the same person.

When she was raising money for the beauty retailer, she had champions who helped make important introductions to people in private equity. "Champions put you in an opportunity that you've never had before, and they help you leapfrog," Beck says during our conversation about women and leadership in the latest installment of my Two Questions series with prominent female executives. "Mentors give you great advice. They help you make decisions and they help you evaluate opportunities."

Marla Beck

Building a network of mentors can be tricky, and ideally the relationship should evolve naturally, rather than starting with the potentially awkward question, "Will you be my mentor?" But Beck has a smart way to start the conversation.

"I worked at McKinsey a long time ago," she says. "I went into the managing director's office when I was a brand-new business analyst and said, 'What does it take to be successful around here?' When you put yourself on the line like that, people are willing to help you and give you real advice. But you have to ask."

Beck has also learned some effective techniques for navigating some of the headwinds that women face in the workplace, particularly in meetings.

"I think women like to sit back and listen and observe and take everything in and then play it back," she said. "I learned to get into the conversation really early and really often. Sometimes meetings can become very aggressive and sometimes people are just talking to talk. Sometimes you have to play that game. You have to talk to talk, because you want to have that air time. I learned that in graduate school. You take the air time because participation is really important."

She also learned early on to block out the noise of some meetings and stay focused.

Marla Beck

"I try to take a step back and think about the main point of what's going on and how I'm feeling about what I need to say," she says. "I try not to let things get into my head or go with the flow of the meeting but instead make a point pretty quickly. I'm not one to dwell on things. When we're younger, we think everybody is thinking about how you appear or how you look. The truth is, people aren't thinking about you as much as you think. You just have to stand up for what's in your head and what you believe."

Even as the CEO, Beck will occasionally encounter that predictable dynamic of a man echoing an idea she raised as if it were his own.

"I don't worry about that so much," she said. "Maybe my younger self would have worried about that. But I don't need credit like I used to. I'm just trying to get from point A to B."

But what should younger women who are earlier in their careers do in that situation?

"You do need that credit, so making sure that your ideas are heard and that your points get across is really critical," she adds. "If someone repeats an idea that's yours, then you go back into the conversation and say, 'Well, here's how I'm thinking about this.' You're the one who actually had the idea and has thought it through, with the strategy, the tactics and results. So you just have to go back in and pick up where you left off."

Adam Bryant is a CNBC contributor and managing director of Merryck & Co., a senior leadership development and executive mentoring firm. A veteran journalist, Bryant interviewed more than 500 leaders for the "Corner Office" feature he created at The New York Times. Be on the lookout for new Two Questions videos each month, and check out CNBC's ongoing coverage of women in business, Closing The Gap. Parts of this interview were edited for clarity and space.

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