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Six Female Execs on Reaching the C-suite

As more women flee corporate life for entrepreneurial ventures, WWD Beauty Inc asked some leading ladies in business to take a candid look at life in the c-suite — and how companies can better attract top female talent.

View the full WWD Beauty Inc Women’s Issue here.

While beauty is a category with an overall workforce (and consumer base) that is predominantly female, the number of women in the c-suite is significantly lower. Not a single one of the top 10 manufacturers in WWD Beauty Inc’s annual global ranking of the 100 biggest beauty companies has a female chief executive officer and there are only 10 on the entire list, including Avon’s Sheri McCoy, who is stepping down in March following pressure from activist investor Barington Capital.

Moreover, the last two years have seen an exodus of senior-level women from some of the largest companies around, including Lynne Greene and Thia Breen from the Estée Lauder Cos., Karen Fondu from L’Oréal, Heidi Manheimer from Shiseido, Camille McDonald from Bath & Body Works and Pamela Baxter from LVMH, many of whom were replaced by men.

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That dichotomy led to the creation of this panel, where legendary businesswoman Rose Marie Bravo led a conversation with other women who have reached the upper echelons of corporate life on what it really takes to reach the top today. In a wide-ranging conversation that covered everything from compensation to bitchiness (yes, we went there), one message was loud and clear: Diversity in the workforce is critical to corporate survival.

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On What It Takes to Be in the C-suite Today — Woman or Man

Rose Marie Bravo: Retail, fashion and beauty have undergone a major disruption in the last five years, which is only accelerating. What does it take to be a ceo of a global company?

Mindy Grossman: You have to ensure that your whole organization has a global mindset where everyone, no matter where they’re located, no matter what their job is, is thinking globally. Number two, you have to reflect global diversity. To have a long-term sustainable, successful company, you have to have a diverse company and that’s not just gender, race and age — it’s diversity of thought and of experience.

Jill Scalamandre: What’s important today is the behavioral competencies. You have to find someone with an agile mind, who is able to go with the ebb and flow and manage change because of the creative chaos in an organization.

Mindy Grossman: Agile is the new smart. Agility married to curiosity in terms of that leadership profile is critical.

Tracey Travis: When you think about how businesses are changing so rapidly, what worked in the past doesn’t necessarily work today. So in addition to being agile and able to pivot, you have to have a good pulse on the organization and on your consumer and make sure that the organization is flexible in terms of pivoting resources.

On What It Takes to Get to the Top

Tracey Travis: I’m not afraid to take risks. I was an engineer and then got my MBA in finance and operations management, and was on a finance and strategy track at Pepsi when I was approached about taking a general management role. In the Pepsi bottling system it was a role that was very — let’s say — testosterone-oriented. It was a dog-eat-dog fight in grocery stores getting growth and distribution against our number-one competitor, so there weren’t a lot of women — three out of 130. Pepsi didn’t have a history at that time of moving finance individuals into the role, men or women, so it was high risk, and oh, by the way, the market unit that I was offered was one of the worst performing in the Pepsi bottling system. I took the role and it’s probably one of my favorite roles. From a development standpoint it was exponential. I actually turned down additional promotions until I turned that market unit around from being one of the worst performing to the top.

Mindy Grossman: It’s knowing the difference between risk and suicide, and it’s also that inherent belief in yourself, because if you want people to believe in you, you have to believe in yourself.

Rose Marie Bravo: Talk about being brave and having a vision, Pamela was born on a farm in South Dakota and she had a dream, and that was literally about New York.

Pamela Baxter: I had a fashion obsession when I was 12 years old and I ordered shoes once from Vogue. I picked up the phone — it was a store on Madison Avenue — and ordered these shoes. In those days, there were no credit cards. The postman came to the door with a package and my dad’s looking at me and I’m looking at him and I said, ‘’It’s my shoes.” He said “You’re working on the ranch the whole summer to pay for those shoes and, by the way, you better get a good college education and a job because there is no sorry a– boy” — his exact words — “in this town that can afford your habits.” That was his way of shoving me out of the nest.

Rose Marie Bravo: Even the way you saw yourself so clearly — it’s important for young people to start with a vision.

Pamela Baxter: And you cannot be afraid to take a risk. I was 40 years old, living in Los Angeles. I’ve got a great job as regional director for the Lauder corporation, Hawaii is part of my territory, I go there once a month. Leonard [Lauder] said to me, “I think you should come to New York and go into the marketing department.” I said, ‘What does a marketing person do?’ He said, “They do everything that you complain about so maybe you can do it better” [laughs] and he convinced me to move to New York.

I took that job and the rest is history — I signed the licensing agreement for Tommy Hilfiger, launched the fragrance, got La Mer in the hallway one day because Lauder bought it and it was a jar of cream and they needed it to turn into a brand and you know — right place at the right time. If someone offers you the opportunity to make a difference and to do something exciting, take it.

On Confronting “Female” Stereotypes Like Being Overly Emotional or Aggressive

Rose Marie Bravo: Do we get stereotyped? Are we too emotional? I once got very excited at a board presentation because someone was showing me jewelry. They were showing me yellow diamond rings that were $150,000. I was very excited! Finally the ceo looked at me and said, “Could you tone it done a little bit?” I said “I’m looking at diamonds, come on!” We have to show passion. How do you distinguish passion from being emotional and how do you think about some of the stereotypes that women are too bossy or overbearing?

Tracey Travis: I’ve heard that a lot during my career, especially being too aggressive. In one particular role, my boss at the time thankfully gave me feedback — because sometimes you don’t even get feedback or at least constructive feedback.  He said, “You’re doing a great job and getting the results, but your peers think you’re a little intimidating.” He gave me an example of a position that I had taken in a meeting and said that the room viewed that as a bit intimidating. I said, “That’s interesting because we were in a meeting a few weeks back and a male counterpart did the same thing and you thought he showed great leadership and strength. So how are the situations different?”

We have training at Estée Lauder on unconscious bias. Sometimes it’s unconscious and sometimes it’s conscious, but at least give people the benefit of the doubt initially that it could be unconscious bias and point the situation out to them.

Pamela Baxter: I learned that lesson from Leonard Lauder. We were negotiating really hard with a company for space and location. I guess I negotiated a little too hard and somebody in the organization went to Leonard and told him that I was being a bitch. And so Leonard came to me and said we have a perception reality check here. He’s said sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it and their perception of you is this and your perception of you is this. Yes, you want that space and yes, you must get it at all costs, but there is a way of getting it.

Read the full story from the WWD Beauty Inc Women’s Issue here.