Taking The Road Less Traveled -CEW Interview’s Liz Smith

One of the joys of subscribing to the Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) newsletter is every morning I receive an email with all a list of their top stories.  The September 18th headline read, ‘Avon President Smith Resigns’.  I immediately click onto the article, which basically said effective October 30th, Liz Smith resigns from Avon to become a chief executive officer – but where, what company? The article did not reveal, nor did any other source (I kept looking for a leak!).

This came as somewhat of a shock considering the week before Liz Smith gave no indication of her departure when she gave a talk on Strategies and Success at the Newsmaker Forum, hosted by Cosmetic Executive Women (CEW).

Yesterday, the CEW released the interview (below) with Liz Smith titled, ‘Taking the Road Less Traveled.’  I have a tremendous amount of respect for Liz and her rouge spirit.  As someone who has often taken the road less traveled, it was really heartening to hear her say, “Throw away the long range plan. Figure it out as you go along.”  It was very inspiring to read about her experiences from Kraft to Avon, and on to her new, mysterious venture.

Taking the Road Less Traveled

Liz Smith believes in taking the road less traveled. After five years with Avon, most recently as president, she is stepping out to pursue a CEO post elsewhere. The guest speaker at CEW’s recent Newsmaker Forum, Smith advised the audience to “throw away the long range plan. Figure it out as you go along.” 

When you have that attitude, says Smith, “you are open to experiences that are off the beaten track. Those will be the experiences that most define you, most grow you and allow you to leave your mark.” 

Smith showed her maverick side previously in Jan. 2005 when she departed food giant Kraft after 14 years to join the direct selling beauty company. She had met Avon Chairman and CEO Andrea Jung, by chance, and had been enticed to a new challenge. 

Smith shared thoughts on career paths, leadership and her work at Kraft and Avon.

Mac & Cheese to Lip & Nail? I am a passionate lover of brands, and a passionate believer that the only way you succeed is by immersing yourself in the consumer – whoever your consumer is. If you have ability to understand, integrate and live the DNA of your brand and truly leave your biases, your perceptions at the door and become your consumer, it makes moving within consumer businesses easy.

Science versus Art In both the beauty and food businesses there is a functional component, but there is also a deeply emotional component. Within the Kraft portfolio, we had mac & cheese, but we also had Starbucks, which is about selling the totality of the experience. When it comes to brand marketing for consumer packaged goods companies like Kraft, there is an objectivity and a process orientation. There are more facts along with the art. In beauty there is an artistry and eye and brilliance that can’t be put down in a manual. You know it when you see it. I think the `wow’ for both industries, is that you need both.

On Instinctual Leadership Every brand failure I’ve had in my career, if I’m honest with myself, was not a surprise to me. If I had just, at that moment of truth, listened. I think you know when things are in harmony. You might not be a great artist but you can have an eye for artistry. You might not be a great statistician, but you have an ear for stats. A great leader has an ear for both and can balance the two.

Acknowledging Failure I was on a panel once where we were asked to talk about our failures. What makes a good leader is the ability to mentor and to talk about your failures. If we want great leaders in our organizations, who are willing to take the big risk, and are willing to go for it, then we better demystify failures by talking about our own.

Learning from Mistakes: Lesson One I would put the failures I’ve had into two buckets. The first one is being too insular. For instance at Avon, we had a lot of work to do on our Internet to really push direct selling through technology. But first, we were going to catch up and put our ERP computer software system in place, as if the whole world was just going be on pause while we finish this. We recognized we had to do both—right away. 

And fifteen years ago at Kraft, we had raging debates about taking Kool-Aid into a ready-to-drink form. As if the whole convenience drink trend was going to come to a halt, waiting for Kool-Aid to move out of powder. 

I learned the world is not going to wait until I have everything in the right order.

Lesson Two Another lesson is about being competitive. We are all competitive. But don’t want something so badly that you send a product out before it’s ready. While I was at Kraft, I launched a drink that should have been an A. But it was a B+. I keep a bottle on my desk at Avon as a reminder. Everything that goes out should be an A.

Tough Choices The best career decisions I have made have been ones that make the least sense on paper. Whether you are in beauty or whether you are in food, you think that A leads to B, B leads to C, C leads to D and that’s how I get into the big office. If you have those blinders on, you’re not going to ever develop the kind of muscles, from taking these wacky side tracks and these different jobs, that truly make you a well-rounded leader.

Finding Gold At Kraft, a $42 billion company, I was put on a newly acquired $15 to $20 million confections importing business in Elmsford, N.Y. I thought, `What did I do wrong?’ At the time I was the business director of Jell-O, which was pretty big stuff at Kraft. But this little food distributor possessed a 250-year-old `curiously strong’ mint, packaged in a tin container, called Altoids. We brought this authentic gem out. That was the moment for me. That made my career there in many ways. How much more was I going to learn from Jell-O?

The Move to Avon I had no intention of leaving Kraft. I was very happy. When my first child went to kindergarten there was another mother there whom I greatly admired – Andrea Jung. We started a dialogue, and she asked me to come on board. I was on track to be the head of Kraft North America. However, I began to truly understand Avon and its mission to empower women. A burning principle I have is to always ensure that I feel inspired in what I’m doing.

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