How a Literature Major Became Chanel’s First Global CEO

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Former Chanel CEO Maureen Chiquet discusses her new book, her career and the future of retail.

Beyond-the-LabelMaureen Chiquet has followed what she calls a “jagged path” to success. An introverted literature major who had no idea what she wanted to do after college, Chiquet only knew that she had to be in France. She began her career in marketing at L’Oreal Paris, returned stateside and worked as a merchandiser at Gap, and helped launch and build Old Navy to $5 billion in sales within five years. She served as president of Banana Republic before joining iconic Paris fashion house Chanel, where she became the company’s global CEO. Chiquet has compiled her experiences into a memoir titled Beyond the Label: Women, Leadership, and Success on Our Own Terms. She spoke with Knowledge@Wharton about the lessons she’s learned along the way on the Knowledge@Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the greatest lessons you learned during your time with Chanel?

Maureen Chiquet: There are really two big lessons. It was an iconic brand, a historical brand with a heritage and an amazing story. Balancing that with stepping into this new world, this disruptive world, this world of the internet and globalization and millennials was really something interesting. How do you create that balance? How do you go beyond the label of the brand and create a new kind of meaning every day in what you do? That was one of the things.

The second thing is something I learned towards the tail-end of when I was there, which was how important culture is in companies in terms of really tapping into what you do well, where you can bring value as a company and how that connects with consumers of today.

Knowledge@Wharton: Because the brand itself is so well-known and has a connection with so many women around the globe, even that shift to millennials and the internet didn’t seem to negatively impact it. Maybe there was a little bit of understanding and kind of a roll-with-the-punches mentality?

“We’re all walking into a very uncertain, very quickly changing territory. We need to adopt different leadership skills.”

Chiquet: No, I think the last decade has been really interesting because I think the digital revolution is gaining momentum. You’re right that luxury brands in general are continuing to prosper. A lot of that has to do with China. I think the next 10 years are going to be interesting because what I’m seeing is that while millennials love beauty just like we all do, they also care about other things. They’ve grown up with these environmental disasters and social injustices, which they can view on the internet 24/7. Their hearts and minds and souls are slightly in different places than maybe our generation. I think we’ve still got changes that are coming … that we haven’t yet noticed, and companies are going to have to think deeply about how to address those desires and needs of this next generation.

Knowledge@Wharton: You are from St. Louis, Missouri. But it was a study-abroad program in France that got you pushing into this industry and being a part of this culture, correct?

Chiquet: Absolutely. The first time I went to France, I was 16 and just fell in love with the language. My father spoke French, and I had idolized my father when I was young and had a great teacher. I went when I was 16, and it just burst open all of my senses. I landed in the south of France, which is so beautiful. Between the light on the limestone and the smell of the wonderful lavender and the taste of all the goat cheese, it opened my senses and gave me the notion that my senses were something that could lead me somewhere.

Knowledge@Wharton: Having such a different experience than what you had been used to growing up in St. Louis changes your thought process about life and what you want.

Chiquet: That’s exactly right. It really expanded my horizons and got me in touch with something that I just didn’t know existed for me before, which was this idea that my senses might lead me somewhere. It’s funny because people say, “Well, did you love fashion as a young child?” I loved clothes, but I never could connect that to what I’d be doing later. The thing with France just stayed with me in a way and became the thing I needed to go back to all the time.

Knowledge@Wharton: Education is obviously important, but life experience plays an important part in understanding where you want to go, and the beliefs and promises that you have for your life, for your career.

Chiquet: Absolutely. I think sometimes in today’s world, with all this big data and emphasis on STEM [science, technology, engineering and math], we ignore that we are emotional human beings. I was a literature major. The humanities teach us about human behavior, about human beings, connecting the dots and creating stories. In some ways, I really didn’t have a choice. I wasn’t a statistics jock. I didn’t go to business school. I didn’t even take an economics course. I’m sort of ashamed to say, but for me, that was what I knew I could bring and it was what I valued. I think for students and executives alike, consider what you value when you strip away the labels, when you strip away everyone else’s expectations. What value you can bring are questions that you need to continue to ask yourself.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you see better things for women assuming greater leadership roles in companies?

Chiquet: I certainly hope so. I mean, it’s still pretty low when you think about it. I think the statistic is something like 4% of women make it to the C-suite. To be honest, I think we still have issues with pay inequity, work/life balance and arrangements that allow for that. But I also feel like we look at the label of good leadership through a very narrow lens. We look at being forceful, being really determined, resolute, strategic, visionary, and those are important things for leaders. But I think we’re ignoring things that are also intrinsic for women. Those are things like empathy and flexibility and being able to listen and collaborate. And those are 21st century leadership qualities. My sense is, if we can begin to integrate at equal levels what many are calling now masculine leadership strengths and feminine leadership strengths, I think women will feel more comfortable, confident and natural as they climb the ranks.

Knowledge@Wharton: You are very much a believer that you don’t have to be that rock-hard CEO all the time. There needs to be a mixture in terms of the approach when you’re leading a company.

Chiquet: I believe it because I experienced it. I sat at the head of a table of 10 men when I first came to Chanel, and I thought maybe I should emulate the way that they are or look to the models of CEOs that I had seen in the past. When I tried that, it felt fake and didn’t work for me. I think my team had more confidence in me once I could be myself. That meant tapping into some of those things like my own vulnerability, even being able to say, “I don’t know, or I need help.”

Knowledge@Wharton: How did having that understanding and making that shift change the path of the company?

Chiquet: When I realized that this is what was helping me be a better leader, I also started to realize at the same time that the world was radically changing right before our eyes. I mean, the internet was not going to be a small thing and millennials were not a small generation. I thought, we’re all walking into a very uncertain, very quickly changing territory. We need to adopt different leadership skills. So, it really did influence the course of events for the company itself.

“I think we underestimate and we’re a little behind as retailers in considering where this generation is going.”

Knowledge@Wharton: What were the leadership qualities that you picked up from other people or figured out were key things that you wanted to have as you went forward?

Chiquet: I think back then what was valued and is still important today are things like having a great vision and strategy and being able to rally your resources and your teams. I was very fortunate to have worked for two great retailers: Mickey Drexler, who was CEO of Gap, and Jenny Ming, who was president of Old Navy. Both were great leaders in the sense that they had a combination of analytical skills and emotional intelligence. Jenny, who was an incredible leader of teams of people, got us to rally around Old Navy, particularly in the beginning when we were starting with nothing. And she balanced that with great analytical skills, an ability to look at the numbers. Mickey used to say to me, “Buy it like you love it.” He would tap into that emotional part of the business that so many great leaders forget.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you are building out something that is absolutely brand new, like Old Navy, it’s an incredible experience to see something come from nothing and explode into something big.

Chiquet: It was really exciting. You have to remember that when we started Old Navy, I got there before it even had a name. We had taken over these Gap Outlet stores, and there really wasn’t another concept or retailer that was offering chic, hip-looking, great quality clothes at a reasonable price. This is before H&M and Zara and so many others really got the hang of it, before some of them even came to the U.S. It was an exciting moment to tap into a market that was completely opened. And it was a frenzy. In the beginning, we could not keep up with the gross. I think it was five years, we had reached $5 billion in 800 stores.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s talk more about retail in general right now because it is one of the more unique times we have seen for this industry. You’ve got a lot of empty mall space that these companies are trying to figure out. Payless ShoeSource has announced it’s closing 400 stores. We’ve got Ralph Lauren, which closed its [flagship] New York location, which I think caught a lot of people off guard. This is a scary time for a lot of people in the retail industry.

Chiquet: I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s really, really scary and there’s an obvious shakeout right now. What I’m seeing, in some ways, is the beginning hints. But if I look at retailers that are doing relatively well, they’re tapping into something that’s very specific about who they are. They are staying very close to that and joining that with today’s customers.

I look at a company like REI. They have been really true to who they are as a brand. They did that amazing opt-out of Black Friday because they encouraged people to go outside. So, they are reaching new customers, and they are also doing that in a 360-way with the internet. I think about Nike and I get very influenced when I see something like, “Equality has no boundaries.” Nike is a brand that tells us that everyone can be an athlete. They use that platform on the internet and everywhere that touches their customer in a way that’s also very relevant for things that are going on in our world. So, there are hints of things like that I start to see, and I get a little bit relieved there are companies that are actually really figuring this out.

Knowledge@Wharton: But there’s also the social component, which a lot of retailers are figuring out needs to be a piece of this as well. A company like Warby Parker, which has a couple of Wharton grads running the operation, has a very strong social message that it is trying to bring forth.

Chiquet: That’s exactly right. And I think that’s true of REI and Nike as well. These are social messages and things that we care about. I am very influenced by my kids, for example, so a few years ago I stopped carrying plastic bottles in the house. Things like this are important to our kids. My oldest daughter had a job she ended up leaving because she felt like the sourcing wasn’t ethical. I think we underestimate and we’re a little behind as retailers in considering where this generation is going.

Knowledge@Wharton: There’s a term you bring up: jagged career path. Explain this in terms of what you have done, what that truly means and how it is important for people looking forward.

Chiquet: I think it’s really important for your graduates. I studied literature. I had no clue what I could do after college. I did know that I didn’t want to go back into academia. In fact, I took the LSAT, because my dad was a lawyer and I thought, “I guess I’ll do that,” I walked out after five questions and had no idea, really. All I knew is I needed to go back to France.

That led to my first job at L’Oreal in marketing. Then I met the man who was soon-to-be my husband, and we decided we needed to move to San Francisco. I neglected to look at the fact that there really weren’t a lot of packaged goods companies in San Francisco. By the time I got out of L’Oreal, I was sure I was a marketer. I kind of had that label in mind. Not having many companies to go to, I was out of a job again. I was walking down Market Street and I saw this picture of jazz musician Miles Davis with his head in his hands. I had always loved jazz. I look, and it’s Gap. I’m like, “I want to market that company,” and I ended up going to Gap.

I’ll never forget, I sat in this interview with the recruiter and I said, “I’d like to market Gap,” and he said, “Oh, we don’t have a marketing department. We have advertising, but you’re a merchant.” I said, “I’m a what?” And he said, “You’re a merchant.” And I thought, oh my goodness, I don’t think I want to stand behind a counter and sell. I’m an introvert. He said, “No, no, no, that’s not what merchants do.” Without much knowledge of what a merchant was, I ended up going into merchandising and loving it because I could use all of my skills and understanding emotions and how image and product create emotion in consumers.

From there, I took an Old Navy job when Old Navy didn’t actually have a name because I was fascinated by this notion of being able to take my knowledge of beautiful product, of great quality and bring it to a different market. At each turn, there wasn’t an expectation of, “Oh, this is what I want to do next,” it was more staying in touch with what I really loved. It wasn’t defined by a job title or by a role; it was defined by what I cared about more internally and intrinsically in myself.

Knowledge@Wharton: You were really on the forefront of this shift in the thought process of what careers are and the ability to have some flexibility to work from home, for example.

“Sometimes in today’s world, with all this big data and emphasis on STEM, we ignore that we are emotional human beings.”

Chiquet: I think that over time companies are going to have no choice because the values of this generation require a certain amount of flexibility on the part of companies to be able to help these employees, whether they want to have children, whether they have a sick parent at home or whether they have different needs that we’re not even recognizing. I don’t think that is going to go away.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the things that you tell a class here at Wharton?

Chiquet: I have talked to a lot of college students who really don’t know what they want to do. I was at Yale speaking to a student who was a graduate student in economics and [she] said, “I really don’t know how I can make this into a career.” We had a chat and what I said to her is, “Well, what do you love about economics? Why do you love that? Tell me more, think more about where you are in that and what you care about in economics.” She gave me some ideas. I said, “Where do you think you can bring value? What’s your unique talent? What do you do? Where can you make your mark? Can you find a job that allows you to be in the thing that you love the most and where you can bring value?”

I spoke to another student who had an opportunity that she was unsure of. I said, “Why don’t you try that opportunity, see how it goes and continue to be open and curious and have an explorer’s mind?” Students so quickly get fixated on something that they think they want to do, get locked into that. I would say, “Have an explorer’s mind.”

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned that you were an introvert. There is an increasing belief about the important qualities that introverts can bring to the business setting.

Chiquet: I realized that what’s interesting about introverts — and I only can tell you this now looking backwards at my life — is that you’re a keen observer. Because it’s harder to get out there and put yourself out there and connect with great crowds of people, you are a keen observer. That’s one thing. The second thing — and I can only speak from my own experience — is that as an introvert, I am interested in one-on-one relationships. I am pretty good in the one-on-one, where I can create an environment for somebody to feel safe.

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