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An Executive Leaders Forum Diary
By Fawn Germer

Fawn Germer is the best-selling author of five books, including
The NEW Woman Rules, published by NEW. The four-time Pulitzer-nominated journalist has interviewed the nation’s most accomplished and successful women leaders, from Hillary Clinton to Martina Navratilova. Her most recent book, Finding the UP in the Downturn, shows how to turn the recession into an opportunity for success. She speaks on leadership and performance issues and has recently addressed audiences at Microsoft, Kraft, Ford Motor Co., 3M, Motorola, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, Coca-Cola and others.

Tuesday afternoon, July 14

It’s 105 degrees outside, but right now I’m in the coolest place around – the Executive Leaders Forum. Just call it “Elf.”

ELF is an intensive two-day event for senior executives -- some of the most accomplished women (and men) in America. You don’t see these stars strutting their self-importance here because there’s no need. Everybody’s accomplishing something Herculean. With rare exception, the higher a woman climbs, the more isolated she becomes. The women at ELF are often the first or only women to be promoted to their level. Here they’ll share, commiserate, champion and inspire one another.

I trust these people and love growing with them. I first hooked up with NEW in 2006 after a keynote at the NEW Leadership Summit. Attending ELF is a life-affirming bonus. In my three years here, I’ve watched people climb even higher into the corporate stratosphere. Coca-Cola’s Julie Hamilton got another huge promotion. Michelle Gloeckler left a lifelong career at Hershey to move to Bentonville and Walmart. Maureen McGurl has three business efforts going since leaving her job as EVP at Stop & Shop. Tonie Williams and Karen Milley from Smucker's scored big. James White left Safeway and achieved his lifelong dream of being CEO -- at Jamba Juice. Everybody’s doing something, and it’s all good for the advancement of women in the industry.

Tuesday evening, July 14

I don’t think there is a person in this country that isn’t worn out by all the doom and gloom about the economy. Especially for the women here -- who are charged with leading their companies through this mess -- the past year has been trying. What a moment to learn and grow and redefine the challenge of leadership.

“We got through the recession of ’83, the crash of ’87, the recession of the Early ’90s, the burst of the tech bubble and the Post 9-11 downturn. We’ve all been through things like this in the past,” says NEW President Alison Kenney Paul. “We can take this as a challenge and be defeated by it, or we can see it as an opportunity and really thrive.”

“These times will pass,” moderator Trudy Bourgeois promises. "There will be winners and there will be losers. We invite you to spend the next day and a half to set yourself up to win.”


I just got the biggest hug from James White, and it reminds me to give a shout out to the men who support NEW across the country. These are some of the best men I know, and White, CEO of Jamba Juice, is one of the very best. Many of his senior executives are female and he’s brought a huge team of them here. I ask why he cares so much about NEW and why he pushes so hard to advance women. At first, he says it’s critical to the success of his company. But then he says he has two daughters and “I’m really trying to change the world my kids will ultimately work in. It’s my ulterior, long-range motive.” Mike Vail from Sweetbay is here, Erby Foster from Clorox, Bob Dickson from Mass Connections and many others.


A woman hugs me. I have no idea who she is. I nonchalantly check her badge. It’s Luci Sheehan, who connected me with NEW in the first place. It’s Luci who joined me in St. Petersburg for the 60-mile, 3-Day Breast Cancer Walk. It’s Luci who I talked to on the phone two days ago. Yet I have to check her badge? Girlfriend dumped her boyfriend, lost twelve pounds, got new way-fab glasses. She looks oh-so-incredible.


Finally I get a few minutes with Kim Feil. Last year, she was job hunting. This year, she’s CMO for Walgreens and way busy. We haven’t had phone time in too many months and I’m so glad to see her. She introduces me to Katie Baxter, who handles advertising for Walgreens at Downtown Partners Chicago. Baxter’s a real live wire and we instantly decide to get a group to do a cycling trip. Feil’s considering it. We ask Joan Toth, who rolls her eyes and walks away.

Wednesday, July 15

The morning starts off with PepsiCo VP Marie Quintana telling me that she headed to her Dallas home from last night’s reception and found her street lined with cars. “I thought, somebody is having a party.” When she got to her driveway, she saw cars packed there and parked on her lawn. She thought, “Oh my God, it’s my house!” There were at least 40 kids there at the invitation of her 18-year-old twins. She proclaimed the party over and evacuated the house. At 4 a.m., her daughter set off an alarm as she tried to sneak back into the house after sneaking out to go clubbing.

Marie is furious. Helayne Angelus comforts her with a similar story about waking up at 6 a.m. and realizing her daughter’s friends were all still there. Years later, the kids “are still talking about the time when Mrs. Friedman lost it,” Helayne says. Soon, Marie’s fielding apologetic text messages from her kids. Her daughter is leaving for Cornell in three weeks, but Marie’s still steaming. A woman sitting near her overhears her and says, “In three weeks she’s going to be gone and everything is going to change. Enjoy her.” Marie grabs her heart as she tells the story. “Everything’s going to change.”


The morning keynote by Yvonne Camus is a great way to wake up. It’s the dramatic story of competing in the reality show Eco Challenge, a 300-mile race designed to be so hard it is impossible to finish. Yet her four-person team did finish. I imagine myself trying it. I change my mind in two minutes when I realize Camus actually chose to spend 10 days in Borneo surrounded by rats, snakes, bats and other geek-me-out creatures. When she showed photos of her rotted, blister-covered feet, the demands of her mission were obvious. The lessons she learned were profound -- and they make great parables for leaders in 2009.

Camus learned the real power of a team. Since she was a slower cyclist than the others, her bike was attached with a bungee cord to a faster rider. The team always moves faster when a fast one pulls a slower one. She learned about quitting. Once she started contemplating quitting in her head, she fixated on it. How would she quit? When would she quit? What would she say? She played out every possibility. The problem was, if she quit, the rest of her team was disqualified. Once she told her teammate she was quitting, he told her, “Okay, but do it at the next checkpoint.” The knowledge that it would soon be over wiped away her obsession with quitting, and once the idea was out of her head, it was out of her head. She made it to the next checkpoint and then the next. And she wound up marrying that teammate.


Michaels President Shelley Broader laments having to follow Camus. “I know that is a tough presentation to follow,” she says. “Leeches. What I want to know is -- has she ever crafted? Has she ever stayed up all night with the glue gun on high? And, that whole feet thing. I have a pair of size 8 Manolos. I wear a size 9. I can put a picture up there, too.”

Okay, Broader’s rolling. She walks us through the economic insanity that became evident last November. First, Broader said, we all fixated on how it affected us. Then came another mindset – that we’d just wait it out and the customers would come back, the credit crisis would end, and the money would flow. “The whole thing about waiting it out was, we didn‘t want to do something stupid. If we could tough it out and do it with cost control, we’d be ready when everybody came back.”

What happened to the “Wait-it-Outers?” Look at Abercrombie and Fitch, she said. “They sell worn rags to rich kids. They said, ‘Crap. If we start discounting, then we’re going to sell cheap worn stuff. There’s already people in that space. All we’ve got is our snootiness and the fact that, when you wear that shirt, people say, ‘I can’t believe your mother let you pay $79 for that shirt.’ They said, ‘We’ll have a rough quarter. We’ll wait it out.’ And then they had a quarter that lost 30 percent.”

Stop waiting. This is our new reality. What is happening is not temporary. “If you are still hearing, ‘When they come back… 'When lending is loosened up…'  -- things may never come back. We have to plan on this being the way it is -- forever. So how do we take advantage of the fact that the world has changed?”

Employee communication is even more critical than it has ever been, she said. Employees are grateful to have jobs and willing to make concessions to help the company to survive.  “This is a golden opportunity,” she says. “But it’s not a license to kill. It’s not a license to take every good business practice you’ve been shoving off for the last five years and blame it on the economic crisis because, when there is recovery, everybody’s going to want things back.”

Retention is great right now because people can’t find other jobs and leave. “If you haven’t focused on the people you love and need the most, and if you haven’t said, ‘I love you and need you the most,’ what’s going to happen when there is a little bit of economic recovery? Oh my GOD. You are going to hear it. You’ll say, ‘What was that.’ And someone will say, 'That is the sound of your good people running out the door and the deafening sound of the incompetence that remains.’”

Retail customers changed faster than the industry did. Last November, they just quit showing up. They stopped spending. Americans sat out a Christmas? Yes. “It’s not going to bounce back. It’s new people with a new sense of values....I don‘t think people are going to change back even when the money comes back. The style has changed. Groovy has changed. Things that were seen as groovy are now seen as gauche or excess.”

Her team has tried to figure out what their core consumer has gone through in recent months. “Instead of this being a punishment for having to live a different life, how can we say, ‘How awesome for you to create a different kind of vision for yourself and your family.’” That’s how the Michaels brand is changing. There is a different values equation and that’s just reality.”


Finally a break. I ask Joan Toth if she’d like to do an Eco Challenge with me and she runs away.

The World Dinner is international and progressive. At my second table, I sit next to Gail Jordan, a VP at Stop & Shop and Giant. She mentions that her mother is in a nursing home with dementia, and I tell her that my mom has been very, very sick since 1991, when she became permanently disabled by a major stroke. My mom’s now in a nursing home, far away in the fog of Alzheimer’s. Gail’s mother still has times of clarity, and that is painful because one day she’s aware and the next day she’s lost. We have a tearful conversation about this -- a daughter’s conversation. It is hard and it is powerful and it makes me realize I have another sister in my life with whom I can share this hard journey.


I move to my dessert table and sit next to Sharon Edgar, VP of sales for Hershey. I think I stick my foot in my mouth when I say that I love Hershey chocolate, but am a fool for a Snickers bar. The music starts and so does the salsa dancing. I slip out with Katie Baxter of Downtown Partners Chicago to the quieter bar upstairs. Debbie Wildrick joins us. Julie Hamilton of Coca-Cola comes down and huddles with PepsiCo’s Marie Quintana. I introduced them and now they are fast friends. Coke and Pepsi. Girlfriends. I feel like Secretary of State of NEW. I also feel exhausted.

Thursday morning, July 16

We’re talking about last year’s 3-Day Breast Cancer Walk at breakfast. Helayne Angelus mentions she trained by walking 600 miles. Maureen McGurl mentions she trained by not walking any. Helayne’s experience was a testament to the value of preparation. Maureen's experience shows how far grit, determination and human stubbornness will carry you. I walked many, many miles with Maureen on that trek, and despite the heat -- and her body’s reaction to it -- she never quit. I ask Maureen if she’ll do a bike trip. She says yes. I’m going to go ask Joanie again.


Sweetbay President Mike Vail talks about crisis leadership, but the thing I love the most about him is what he shares of himself. He’s got three daughters. He tells us that he lost his only son to SIDS at age 4 months on a day that he didn’t see the boy. At that point in his career he was spending hours driving to stores. He never knew he wouldn’t see his son again. That taught him everything about balance, priority and life.

I have to leave right after he talks. Tonie Leatherberry from Deloitte is also heading to the airport and we share a cab. Her cell phone is firmly attached to her ear and I can tell there’s serious stuff going on, but I don’t listen.

“Drama,” she sighs as she hangs up. Eighteen months ago, the cousin that was raised alongside her like a sister died in a car accident with her daughter. The two remaining siblings -- both boys -- survived. They are 18 and stayed with a friend’s family while finishing high school. Now there’s an issue and one of the boys is about to be sent to Leatherberry’s house. She doesn’t mind.

Toni commutes between Philadelphia and Bentonville. The last time I saw her was at a NEW event in Bentonville, Ark. and I remembered she had two young girls. I ask about them and she says they are well. 

She looks at me and says, “My husband died in March.” I am dumbstruck. “I woke up to take my shower at 3:20 in the morning and found him in the bathroom, dead.”

It hits me that I’ve spent two days talking and thinking about the heavy, serious nature of business in 2009 and suddenly it doesn’t seem so important. “Life is so fragile,” I say. “Life is fragile,” she says. “You just have to live life to the fullest. Business is important -- but it is important as a means to your life. It shouldn’t be your life. My life is still full. I still have joy because I take the time to make and have that joy as opposed to just getting caught up in work.”

I’ll never forget what I learned at ELF. And, I can’t wait to get home to kiss my family.

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