This is a tale of two women in business, and how each found her way to the top. One became the head of a national lingerie chain by following her passion. The other wrote a recipe for success, and served it with soup.
Lori Greeley is the CEO for Victoria’s Secret, the $5 billion intimate apparel retailer with more than 1,000 stores across the nation and abroad. Denise Morrison is executive vice president and chief operating officer of Campbell Soup, the 140-year-old, nearly $8 billion food giant that sells soup, crackers and beverages in more than 100 countries worldwide. Morrison is slated to become CEO in August this year.
Both women grew up in supportive, business-oriented families that encouraged them to succeed. Both found strong mentors and learned to prioritize conflicting demands between work and family. Beyond that, their journeys offer a study in contrasts — a lesson that for women today, there are many roads to success.
Their paths diverged early.
“I would never have dreamed of having a master plan to be a CEO,” Greeley told a group of about 200 women at the recent Wharton Women Business Conference, where both delivered keynote speeches. Morrison expressed the opposite view. “I knew I wanted to be a CEO, ultimately. I had that goal very early on,” she said. “I think an idea just formed that I really wanted to be in business. And then, if I was going to be there, I would want to be on the top.”
Morrison grew up in South Belmar, Avon-by-the-Sea, N.J., the eldest of four daughters in what she describes as a “high-achieving” home. Her mother, a stay-at-home mom and later a real estate agent, taught her that “ambition is a part of femininity.” Her father, a high-level executive for AT&T and several regional telephone companies, decided that since he did not have any boys, he would raise his daughters as sons. He took them to his office in the summer and arranged field trips to the New York Stock Exchange. The can-do upbringing groomed Morrison for success as a woman in a man’s world. “I was born in 1954, so that was really a different orientation for a man to say, ‘I think the world is going to open up for women and I’m going to make sure you’re ready for it,'” Morrison said.
Greeley, on the other hand, became aware from an early age that she was different from the boys. Growing up in a big German family in Lehighton, a tiny Pennsylvania town, she was doted on by her grandmother because she was the first granddaughter in the family. “There were 10 grandsons before me, so you can imagine how special I was,” Greeley recalled, “My ‘nana’, my grandmother, made it all about me.”
Business was in the blood. Her grandfather owned the local lumber yard. Her father, not wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, started an excavation and construction business. The lumber yard became Greeley’s childhood playground; her father’s name-emblazoned trucks were a reminder of her family’s status in the community. “I saw my family name almost in lights,” she noted. It was “a subliminal reinforcement for really going after your dreams.”
In between odd jobs at the local department store and nearby restaurants, Greeley crammed her high school years with sports, clubs and after-school activities. “In a small town, you can do everything, and I was doing it,” she said. “I just always tried to do my best, get involved and learn as much as I could.”
Greeley graduated as valedictorian, and won a full scholarship to play field hockey at Bucknell University, about 100 miles away in Lewisburg, Pa. She remembers the excitement of leaving her small town. “I felt like a lot of people were counting on me. It was a really big deal. I think I was the second person in our town to go to Bucknell.”
The excitement soon soured as Greeley went from being “a big fish” to “really feeling inferior” at a large university. Unsure of what to study but knowing she liked math and science, she picked biology, figuring she could become a doctor. At the time, it sounded sexy — but she soon found the classes were not. “I didn’t even like dissecting baby pigs and looking at the eye color of flies,” Greeley recalled. “It just wasn’t my thing.”
Her grades suffered. Scrambling to recoup after a disastrous first semester, Greeley abandoned the thought of med school and decided to become a teacher. Her grades improved to a 3.8 average, but she was bored. Ultimately, a major in psychology offered the right challenge. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” Greeley noted, but the study of human behavior “turned me on.” She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1982.
Strategies and Serendipity
Morrison, too, earned a degree in psychology, plus a bachelor of science in economics from Boston College in 1975. The economy was in a recession, but through a friend she found a job at Procter & Gamble, becoming the first woman to join the company’s sales force.
As a woman in a male-dominated industry, she often had to sell herself before she could sell the company’s products. Morrison recalled one buyer who literally turned his back on her and said, “I don’t do business with women.” She countered with “‘Well, I work for Procter & Gamble, I have $11 million of your business, so if you want to do business with Procter & Gamble, I guess you’ll have to do business with me.’ He turned right around and did business with me.”
Morrison decided to view the obstacles as opportunities, and developed detailed plans for how to surmount them and build her career. “Don’t just let your career happen to you,” she advised. “You need to be strategic about how you define your leadership journey and where that takes you.”
That penchant for planning clearly stems from Morrison’s parents, who pushed their girls hard and turned family activities into lessons on advancement. Chores, for example, were doled out in “job jars.” The four sisters could barter for certain tasks, but had to complete all of them by week’s end. “It taught us that the family is a team, that it is important to have goals, and that it’s important to achieve those goals by a certain timeline,” Morrison noted.
All four sisters took the lessons to heart, and Morrison’s younger siblings also rose to high-level management positions: Maggie Wilderotter is Chairman and CEO of Frontier Communications; Colleen Bastkowski is regional vice president of sales at Expedia Corporate Travel; and Andrea Doelling, now a champion horse jumper, formerly worked as senior vice president of sales at AT&T Wireless. In news articles and public statements, the sisters reflect the belief that planning is a key element to success. “Hope is not a strategy,” Doelling, Morrison’s youngest sister, is quoted as saying in a profile on the Women’s Conference website. “Plan your every move in both your business and personal life, and be accountable for your choices.”
Midway through her career, after working at Pepsi for two years and Nestle for more than a decade, Morrison committed her plan to paper, charting out what she termed a “critical pathway” to career success. Her recipe: Set the final destination, develop the career track, build the skills, secure the experience, set realistic timetables and ultimately reach the goal.
“For me, if I knew that I wanted to be a CEO and I set that final destination right up front, that helped me develop a career track,” she said. “So I actually — literally, being the anal person that I am — tracked everything I had done in every job and how long I stayed, what skills I built, how many people I managed … and then I would circle the gaps…. When I found those gaps, I would say, ‘Who could mentor me on that? Who could help me?’ I’m still doing that to this day.”
Planning strategically “defies that myth that, if I just do a good job, someone is going to tap me on the head and promote me,” Morrison stated. “It doesn’t work that way. I say that good work and positive results are a given, but you need to also have a plan. And you need to be the author and controller of that plan.”
Greeley’s approach to her career was far less structured, as far as she tells it. She attributes her accomplishments at Victoria’s Secret to seeing herself as “a perpetual student” and believes success requires “a willingness to go on a journey, [to] dive into the unknown.” As far back as she can remember, being engaged was as important as being rewarded. “When I was a small kid, I loved school so much that I wanted perfect attendance as much as I wanted straight As,” Greeley recalled. “I wanted to be there. I wanted to learn. And that spirit has never left me through this whole career.”
Although Greeley had worked in retail since she was 15, “I didn’t think of it as what I wanted to do when I grew up.” The prospect of a career in retail became more interesting after she took part in an executive training program at Bon-Ton, a small department store in York, Pa., where she worked after college. “I started to understand that what I loved about retail was that you got a report card every day,” she said. “You either made your sales plan or you didn’t. It was really kind of a high if you’re someone who likes to take risks and likes to place bets.”
She moved quickly through the training program, landed a sales position in the infants-wear area, and about a year and a half later was recommended for a position as a toddler’s-wear buyer for a small chain called Youthland in Columbus, Ohio. The move was a “huge promotion” for Greeley: a 25% increase in pay and the chance to move outside Pennsylvania. “I was really stepping out,” she said.
The move also led to what Greeley calls “one of the most important connections in my career.” Grace Nichols, an executive at Columbus-based Victoria’s Secret, who would later become the brand’s CEO, shopped at Youthland for her two daughters. She would later tell Greeley she was struck by the flair and creativity in Youthland’s girls-wear section, for which Greeley was responsible. Nichols instructed the head of her human resource department to figure out who the buyer was for that department, and recruited Greeley to join Victoria’s Secret as an associate buyer in 1989.
Not surprisingly, Greeley’s career advice focuses more on passion than planning. “Always think about what you’re working on at the moment, and just do the best job you can,” she advised. “It always leads to good things.”
‘Be Here Now’
Greeley and Morrison found similarly different approaches to balancing demands of work and family. Morrison, the mother of two daughters, breaks down tasks and sets priorities; Greeley, mother of one daughter, lives in the moment. “I call it ‘Be Here Now,'” Greeley said of her approach. “Be completely immersed when you’re at work, and then when you’re at home, shut off the office. Really be involved with your family.”
Morrison dubs her approach “work/life integration,” rather than “work/life balance.” “Balance suggests perfect equilibrium. There’s no such thing. That’s a false expectation…. There are going to be priorities and multiple dimensions of your life, and how you integrate that is how you find happiness.” For her, that meant delegating some tasks to others so she could focus on the ones she felt mattered. “I really didn’t care who cleaned the house, but I did care who supervised the homework — and that was me.”
Their different approaches to life and work also come through in their leadership styles and work experiences. Morrison points out the importance of self-analysis: “You can’t lead people unless you’re really self-aware — unless you know who you are, what you stand for … and what your values are.”
Years of overcoming obstacles also has given Morrison the ability to convince others that anything is possible. She recalls an early discussion about sodium content in Campbell’s soups. “We were always the poster child for salt,” she noted. “I can remember sitting around a table with a small group of people, and I said, ‘I’m tired of this. We need to be the poster child for wellness.’ And they all looked at me like I had two heads.” After more discussion, however, the group decided to tackle the challenge. The company eventually identified a sea salt that brought down sodium levels without sacrificing taste, and launched a line of low-sodium soups in 2006.
Greeley said she tries to engage others and “create an environment that’s open to risk-taking.” In meetings, she looks for what she calls “thought bubbles” over people’s heads — indications that they have ideas but aren’t expressing them. She encourages them to open up. “It’s always really important to be a great listener,” she noted. People “don’t always need to have their ideas be adopted, but they like to know they were heard.”
Listening also helps leaders to adapt and change when things go wrong. Greeley recounted a story of one product launch that fell flat — a line of lingerie made of 100% fair trade organic cotton sourced from female farmers in Africa. Victoria’s Secret had partnered with the women hoping the products would be popular with socially-minded consumers. But the price of the products proved to be too high. “It would have been easy for this idea to go away,” Greeley said, but Victoria’s Secret employees who worked on the project wanted to continue collaborating with the women cotton farmers. So the company found a way to use a small amount of the organic cotton in all lines of cotton panties. “The majority of our cotton panties are now incorporating the cotton crops of these women,” Greeley said. “It costs a bit more, but we didn’t pass it along to our customers and we’re not marketing it to [them].”
Both women point out that they could not have gotten to where they are today without strong mentors. Nichols mentored Greeley from the time she joined Victoria’s Secret to February 2007, when Greeley took over Nichols’ position as CEO. “I’ve had strong professional women as mentors since the beginning of my career,” Greeley noted. Having accomplished women ahead of her allowed her to “be who I wanted to be: a woman” and still be successful, she said. “I am so fortunate that I grew up in a business that has been for women [and] led by women my entire adult life, which is really unusual for someone in my generation,” Greeley said.
Greeley reflected upon a personal note Nichols scribbled in her five-year anniversary card: “I look forward to working with you to see your dreams come true.” Today, “when I read that note, it resonates on such a deeper level how fabulous that was,” Greeley mused. “Would a man write that note: ‘Your dreams come true’? Not many, I think.”
Morrison also points to mentors as a pivotal ingredient in her success. She met her most important mentor, Douglas R. Conant, when she was working in Nestle’s ice cream business in Bakersfield, Calif. Nestle wanted to move her division to Ohio, but Morrison’s daughter was a senior in high school, and she did not want to leave. “This is where the integrated life comes in,” Morrison said. “I loved my job and I was good at it, [but] they wanted me to go to Cleveland. I just couldn’t do it.”
She met Conant, then president of Nabisco, in a coffee shop in Palm Springs. He offered her a sales job with Nabisco, which allowed her to remain in California until her daughter graduated. The following year, she moved to New Jersey to run Nabisco’s sales force. About three years later, after Conant had left to became CEO for Camden, N.J.-based Campbell in 2001, “I called him and said, ‘I think I’m ready to change careers and I’d like some advice,'” Morrison recalled, “And he said, ‘My advice is that you come here.'”
Morrison joined Campbell in April 2003 as president-global sales and chief customer officer, getting the international experience she needed. She worked her way up to executive vice president and chief operating officer last year. Her goal of becoming a CEO of a Fortune 500 company will be realized on August 1, when she succeeds Conant.
The journey has taught Morrison that achievement alone is not the point. “I love what I do. I get up every day wanting to go to work,” she said. “There was a dawning on me a couple of years ago, that it wasn’t about just getting to be CEO, it was about building a great company and bringing the people of Campbell’s to a whole different level. That was enormously exciting. It was a turning point for me [to realize] that it wasn’t just about me, it was about the company.”
Greeley still loves being a merchant: “I’m so hooked on this business and this brand…. I’ve never been seriously seduced away to any other business.” Her take-away: Follow your heart and do what you love. “Be really good at what you do,” she said. “That leads back to: Do you like what you do? Are you passionate about what you’re doing? You can’t fake it. You really can’t fake passion for very long.”