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Chiquet urges women to ‘step into their truth’ at Forum

Maureen Chiquet

Women will not truly be empowered until they live outside the labels others put on them and shape their lives and careers on their own terms, Maureen Chiquet, author and former global CEO of Chanel, told more than 300 senior executives at the 12th annual NEW Executive Forum, July 31 at the Omni La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California.

Women must “step into our truth, give it a voice and be the change we want to see, recognizing we won’t be perfect,” Chiquet said during her keynote, “The Courageous Conversations We’re Not Having”.

Chiquet, whose career in retail and consumer goods began as a marketing intern at L’Oreal, worked her way up at The Gap to executive vice president of Old Navy merchandising, planning and production. In 2000, when the position of president of Banana Republic was available, Chiquet asked a mentor, a white male in finance, for advice on how to ask for the position. Role playing, she listed for her mentor all the reasons she deserved the job, including her role in building a strong team, launching Old Navy and growing it into a $5 billion business, and her experience in many facets of retail.

Her mentor told her, “You can’t ask for the job that way. You’re asking for it like a woman. You need to talk like a man. Men just go in there and assume they will get the job. Women make excuses.”

Chiquet took his advice. “I asked ‘like a man’ and it worked. But it bothered me, because I didn’t feel like I was authentically who I was in that moment.”

Later, in 2006, at the age 43, she became the first woman to hold the title of global CEO at Chanel  at a time when the traditional market for luxury goods was in flux, old ways of advertising and selling luxury goods were not working, and the customer was changing.

She came to Chanel with images of a company created by feminist Coco Chanel, an icon to women in business around the world. But she found herself leading an executive team of 10 European men many of whom had been at Chanel for decades and questioned her legitimacy as a CEO. Chiquet was intimidated. “I realized I wasn’t going to be able to act like a man. They wouldn’t believe me.”

 “I was in a very vulnerable position and so was Chanel.”

Embracing new leadership traits

Recognizing the leadership team needed to be open to new perspectives, she hired six women executives and began modeling less traditional, more “feminine” leadership traits. “We needed [leadership] with more empathy, we needed more listening to the customer and we needed to collaborate in new ways,” she said, adding that the team needed to be more honest with each other and more transparent in their actions.

After one disastrous start at reshaping the team, Chiquet realized there were “courageous conversations” the leadership team needed to have, but were not having. She told them all, “I can’t run this company alone. I need your help.” Other leaders began to share their truths: “I’m an impostor, I pretend to know things I don’t to impress my team,” one said. Another admitted, “I don’t really listen, I just sort of validate.” An third said, “I’m terrified of the unknown, that’s why I’m so slow to make decisions

Form that day on, Chiquet said, “everything changed with the team.

“They could be real people with each other, create trust and tell each other what was in their hearts. There was a sense of trust in the group.”