The summer of 1990, I walked through the doors of a Mars Drinks plant in the U.K. as a freshly-minted university graduate with a degree in chemical engineering. I was eager to get to work, and at the time, was focused on navigating the transition from university student to working professional.
I had no idea that job would lead me to where I am today — President of the Americas for Mars Wrigley Confectionery.
As a professional, I’m an anomaly: I’ve spent nearly 28 years working for the same company. Comparatively, data from the Bureau for Labor Statistics shows that many white collar workers have a median tenure of 5.1 years with one company.
I’m an outlier for another reason: I’m one of very few female executives, as women make up only 5.2% of all S&P 500 CEOs. Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by strong female leaders at Mars, but oftentimes women, myself included, can feel isolated in their professional lives. It’s never easy to be the only woman in the room — whether on the factory floor or in the boardroom. The first time I attended an industry conference, I was surprised to see long lines for the men’s restroom compared to the women’s. Although I wasn’t treated differently, I felt exposed and vulnerable, like I stuck out like a sore thumb just because of my gender. That feeling made me want to become a role model for other women, so they wouldn’t feel like I did.
Looking back, there are three things that have kept me at the same company for nearly 30 years and helped me advance to the c-suite: curiosity, adaptability and fearlessness.
The first few years of my career, I took on several different jobs at Mars Drinks, from industrial engineer to shift manager. When I had the opportunity to take on a role in finance, I was nervous because I didn’t have any experience in accounting. But I was curious and willing to learn something new. I quickly became versed in all aspects of finance, from payroll and customer collections to financial planning, all of which helped me when I became CFO for our global chocolate business.
It was important for me to learn that my curiosity, though an asset 99% of the time, could be a barrier. As CFO I managed markets worldwide and wanted to know everything happening in each region, but I received feedback that I was too deep in the details and needed to maintain a bird’s eye view in order to be most effective in my role. That taught me an important lesson: that great leaders trust their team members and let them fly. I’ve learned to be curious about how and why things are done, as well as that there are many ways to accomplish a goal and incorporating varied perspectives leads to great work.
Adaptability goes hand-in-hand with curiosity. Working for a global company with diverse segments and business units means that the professional options are nearly limitless. With Mars, I’ve worked in our beverage, pet care and confectionery divisions, at sites across Europe and throughout the U.S. In each new position, I’ve had to shift my focus to new-to-me products and industries and have navigated different workplace dynamics. But cultivating a willingness to try new ways of working has eased each of these transitions.
Most of all, being fearless has played a huge part in my longevity at Mars and my path to leadership. In my experience, fearlessness doesn’t mean being unafraid of the unknown; rather, it means talking back to that inner voice that says, “You’re not going to succeed.” Some call this impostor syndrome. It’s so easy to listen to that negative voice and just give in. But I have trained myself to respond to self-doubt with self-assurance. The morning before I began my role as a Petcare Site Director, I was racked with doubt, convinced that I didn’t have the experience needed to succeed. I reminded myself, however, of the encouragement, advice and support I’d received from my mentors and my new team, and that this was an opportunity given to me by people who saw my potential. My natural curiosity and my ability to adapt to new challenges would see me through, even if I felt a little afraid.
From STEM student to CFO and now President, my career has been both unpredictable and satisfying. This month, I’ll speak to the next generation of women CEOs at Harvard’s Dynamic Women in Business Conference. I’ll look out at the audience of students about to launch into their careers, and I will remind them that with curiosity, adaptability and fearlessness, anything is possible.