Career Spotlight: How CBS President Jo Ann Ross Got to the C-Suite

Career Spotlight: How CBS President Jo Ann Ross Got to the C-Suite

glass ceiling

Shatter the glass ceiling

We know that diversity is good for business, and yet just 6.4% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women. (In related news, a new study found that publicly-traded companies may have closed the wage gap at the CEO level). One of many reasons for this gender disparity at the top is a lack of female role models, which may contribute to feelings of loneliness in the C-suite, according to The Female Leadership Crisis Report.
One trailblazing female C-suite role model to look to is Jo Ann Ross, President & Chief Advertising Revenue Officer of CBS Corporation. As one of the longest-running sales presidents in television, Jo Ann’s career path had an unlikely start: Her first post-gradation job was playing the part of a Christmas elf wrapping gifts at Lord & Taylor to pay the rent.
After that gig, Jo Ann worked her way up into management at a high-end boutique before she “begged my girlfriend to get me an interview with her dad, who was the guy that ran network buying and operations at [advertising agency] Bozell & Jacobs,” she said. She got a job there as an assistant in the buying department, moved up to head the department, and then transitioned into broadcast television at ABC and then CBS, where became president in 2002.
Jo Ann sat down with Sharon Profis, award-winning tech journalist and executive editor of CNET, in the Girls’ Lounge at Cannes Lions to talk about navigating the world of business, mentorship, leadership, and more. Here is her advice to the next generation of women leaders.

You don’t have to have a set career plan.

“I did not build a pipeline. I went through my career in the early days really learning every day on the job. I remember sitting at my desk as an assistant when a media manager asked me to do a memo. I was like, ‘What’s a memo?’ I just learned on the job, pushed myself, and looked at the men and women around me. It just kind of became, ‘This is where I’m going.’”

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.

“If you’re in a situation and you don’t know which way to go or just can’t figure it out, I always tell the people I’m mentoring to ask for help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness or incompetence.” Jo Ann note sthat we should be guiding people and making them smarter, and her team makes her smarter as well.

Lean on your team.

“Right now at work I have an amazing support system. You can’t do what we all do well if you don’t have somebody who is watching your back and pushing you forward. My team is what keeps me going every day.”

Jo Ann Ross and Sharon Profis in the Girls’ Lounge at Cannes Lions

Find your inspiration — and share it.

“I’m reading a book called We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere. It’s by actress Gillian Anderson and it goes through nine principles that you can adapt to be a full person and take care of your health, your mind, and your spirituality. It’s become kind of my Bible and I’m not really a Bible person. If I’m going through a rough patch, I’ll find something in there to bring me down. I like to share the learnings with anyone who will listen—my husband, my girlfriends, the people at work.”

Guide the next generation.

“We owe it to the generation behind us, and the generation behind them, and even the people in our generation, to take time out to make sure you’re hearing people and listening to them.” Jo Ann suggests sharing what you learned and what made you successful, so that “the next generation is prepared and sees the value in themselves.”

Don’t let self-doubt hold you back.

“When I got the network sales job at ABC, it was huge for me. I had a lot of self-doubt. I knew I could buy, run a department, and go on new business pitches. But can I sell?” Jo Ann continues, “When I was hired at CBS to run Olympic sales, I was the first woman to do so at any network… The rest is kind of history, but there was definitely self-doubt. I guess I kind of just overcame it and was really positive.”

Wear your resiliency like armor.

Jo Ann is a cancer survivor. She found out in an unconventional way; her doctor called her to say that he had good news: she had cancer. When Jo Ann asked why that was good news, the doctor said, “You’re going to beat it.”
Her doctor was right.  It was the most challenging thing she has ever been through, but today Jo Ann is cancer-free. “In a word, my superpower is probably resilience. I’ve had a lot of challenges, whether it’s a work situation or personal situation or anything. You could be going through the worst possible thing and think, ‘Why did this happen to me? What can I do to make this go away?’ You can’t make it go away. You have to embrace it, own it and figure out how to fix it.”
“It’s about taking what you’re learning in your whole life and saying, ‘I’m not going to let this one thing beat me.’ It’s a bad marketplace. You missed a budget. Just move on. You’ve got to take it. You have to learn from it and make it positive. I would say resiliency has allowed me to be a survivor in so many ways.”

Remember to unplug and recharge.

“I work really hard Monday through Friday, and I use the weekends to decompress. I think so many of us are attached to our devices, but I try to turn it off. We have a house out east. When I get there on Friday nights, I intentionally plug my devices into the cubbies in my mud room, and that’s where they stay. I do check them during the day, but I have to force myself. Nothing is easy, but that’s how I do it.”
Find more inspiration on rising the ranks and defining success for yourself here:
Do We Need A New Definition Of Successful Leadership?
Olympic Champions On Why The World Needs You To Be Yourself
Women Rising: How To Succeed In Male-Dominated Fields