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From Challenge to Opportunity: Leadership Advice for Current and Future Executive Women

Businesswoman climbing ladder.by Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)

At the “Dialogue for Leadership – From Challenge to Opportunity: Leading to the Future” panel at the 2009 Forté MBA Women’s Conference held on the 26th and 27th of June at the New York University, two of Fortune 500’s 50 Most Powerful Women Liz Smith, President of Avon Products Inc. and Cece Sutton, President of Retail Banking at Morgan Stanley – shared some words of wisdom on climbing the corporate ladder and living a meaningful life.  Inspired by the questions posed by moderator Pattie Sellers, Editor-at-Large at FORTUNE, as well as audience members, Smith and Sutton told the stories of their careers, their struggles, and their successes, and shared the following advice on how to become powerful women in business:

  1. Get Really, Really, Really Good at Your Job.
    “I didn’t chart my career out,” said Sutton, “but I always had a good view of what I loved doing and what the next career step might be.”   Sutton started her career in finance as a clerk with Wachovia and worked her way up through the organization over 35 years, until she left to establish the banking business for Morgan Stanley.    She added, “I’ve given advice to people I’ve mentored that if you are too focused on the next step, you are not going to do a very good job in the job you are in.  And I’ve seen that over and over again.  Get really, really, really good at the job you are in because if you are and you’ve mastered it, you will move from the next role to the next role to the next role, but if you look too far ahead, you probably won’t… People who seem to be really successful are great operators.  They get in the business and understand the business.” 
  2. Be Comfortable With Ambiguity.
    Said Smith, who, after 14 years of brand management and executive roles at Kraft Foods, was brought to Avon by Andrea Jung to help her transform the company:  “We are all taught that great leaders set the strategy and then set everybody off marching.  But, right now, nothing is more important than a general agile leader who is comfortable with ambiguity.  Let’s face it – it is going to be a bumpy and fascinating ride. We need people who are nimble and agile in their thinking who are, to some degree, comfortable with figuring it out as they go along.   We [at Avon] look for people who can handle change, who can handle the curve balls…understanding that you can’t possibly have it all figured out and being open to that.  Also, people that can communicate and inspire.  That’s always been important in leadership but now more than ever because you have to communicate and be really transparent and take people along on the journey, to say, ‘This is uncharted territory but this is where we are going.’”  Sutton agreed, adding that even her job at Morgan Stanley, which was created for her, changed shortly after she joined the company. “What I was hired to do changed in 6 months and that shifted because the environment changed.  [But it was OK because of] the belief I could make a difference.”
  3. Think of Your Career as a Jungle Gym Rather Than a Ladder.
    Moderator Pattie Sellers advised the audience of MBA women: “Don’t think of your career as a ladder, think of it as a jungle gym.  If you think of it as a ladder, you won’t have the peripheral vision to enable you see the lateral opportunities and especially today when you don’t know what the hot job is going to be tomorrow. You’ve got to keep yourself open and you’ve got to swing to the opportunities that come along.”  Smith agreed, “I believe the greatest plans are restrictive instead of instructive. Figure it out as you go along.  The only guiding principle I’ve had is to insist that my life and work have passion and purpose.  When I think about the pivotal jobs I took [like her move to Kraft’s Callard & Bowser-Suchard to handle the then-unknown Altoids brand for Kraft or the jump from being Group Vice President and President of the U.S. Beverages and Grocery Sectors in Kraft to Brand President for Avon], they really made no sense on paper.”  She continued: “Just go into everything saying – I’m going to be inspired and I’m never going to settle and go where that takes you. ”   And Sellers added, “I’m struck by women on the Fortune’s Most Powerful who’ve taken lateral moves or even taken downward moves because they wanted to expand their experiences. And that’s what pays off in the long term.”
  4. Live a Life of Passion and Purpose.
    “People see passion and purpose in other people,” said Sutton, “When I’m around others – you can see it.  So much of it rides on you and how you show up and do your job every day.”
  5. Don’t Underestimate the Value of Mentors.
    “Mentors play an important role in your career. Mentors introduce you to new ideas, new people and also provide you with great advice,” advised Sutton. Smith also attributes much of what she’s been able to accomplish to her mentors – male and female: “So when I think about the good fortune I’ve had to get to where I am, I’m very humble because I know it’s because I’ve had the mentors I’ve had – Andrea Jung, Irene Rosenfeld, Louis Camilleri, Jim Craigie.  So it is no surprise I got to where I am,” added Smith. 
  6. Find a Mentor Through Your Passion.
    Smith said that people often ask her how to find a mentor but she advises to try to find them not only in business settings.  “A mentor doesn’t have to be a professional person in the area that you think you’ll want to be in at a certain age.  Find the networking opportunities in areas that you do feel the passion and purpose. And it doesn’t have to be a business club. Get yourself involved and your authenticity will shine. Follow your heart and not just in a business sense and I promise you, you will make that connection.”  She added that she herself found a new employee via her volunteer work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters because she could see his passion for the cause.
  7. Your Destiny is in Your Hands.  Never Be a Victim.
    “There definitely have been challenges.  There definitely have been times when I’ve looked around me and felt like I was being treated differently because I was a woman versus a man.  But when that happened to me, I felt like I had to address it.  And so I didn’t let that stand in the way,” said Sutton.   Smith feels similarly: “I was launched in life by a very strong woman and a male figure who pounded into me: ‘Your destiny is in your hands.  Never be a victim.  If you don’t like something, change it.  If you think something is wrong, quit complaining and get into a position where you can do something about it.  If you don’t want to be pigeonholed, don’t pigeonhole yourself.’ I had this reinforced by a lot of terrific people growing up so I never felt like my success or failure was going to be limited or promoted by the fact that I was a woman.  The fact that I never let it enter into the equation helped.  Since I refused to, it was very hard for other people to make it an issue as well.” 
  8. Live a 360 Degree Life.
    “The first thing I decided early on was that I was going to live a 360 degree life, that I did not want work to define me and I am willing to make those tradeoffs,” said Smith. She continued, “Although I have the great privilege of having a really rewarding career that I love, my job is not the most important thing in my life – my [two kids and my husband] are.    My partner and I been juggling [work and life] for 20 years.  And some days it is like MacGyver back there with the duct tape and the paper clips to make it all appear seamless.   But I became a much better business leader when I became a mother because it forced me to be more decisive and more level headed.  I love my job but because my priority was outside the office, it made me a much more objective business leader and businessperson.  And in periods of my life of great stress, it is a great comfort to me because I always said to myself, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’  If my kids are healthy, the rest is gravy.”