After spending 12 years at multinational retailer Tesco in 10 different roles, including one in Malaysia, that led to a role on the board, Neela Montgomery had a decision to make.
“It was a great experience and I had a great career, but I didn’t really manage my career,” Montgomery, CEO of Crate & Barrel Holdings, recalled at the NEW Executive Forum, August 1, at the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California. “The company had put me on a career path. I thought, am I going to stay here for the rest of my career, or do something different? I chose something very different.”
She joined The Otto Group, the global e-commerce and retail company, as a group executive and board member, and moved to Hamburg. “I joined a privately held company with a board that was all white, all male and all German, with the average age of 58,” she said. “During the first board meeting, everyone was speaking German and changed the language to English for me. I thought I made a terrible mistake.”
She called a mentor who advised: “This is your choice – you can step out and no one will blame you, or you can step into this.”
She stayed, learned to speak German, and leaned into the culture and learned from colleagues how to navigate it. “Now, I absolutely love my male colleagues on the Otto board.
A year ago, she stepped into the role of CEO for Crate & Barrel, a very different environment, where 72 percent of leadership is female.
Montgomery shared a few lessons about growing beyond self-imposed boundaries:
“Courage in your mid-career is really important,” she said. “To me, it means not examining every outcome before you leap. Doing what is right over what is easy. Not always going along with the group and not always desiring to be liked.”
While many women assume there is more freedom to be courageous as you climb the ladder to more senior roles, Montgomery said she’s seen many people lose courage in their career, because they become afraid they’ll lose what they have. “It’s easier to be courageous if you know that what you do is not who you are,” she said.
Gain global experience.
“Cultural difference is the most enriching experiencing you can have,” Montgomery said, “what you are doing to push your cultural perspective?”
Look inside and know what inspires you.
“Relentlessly seek out what you are passionate about,” she said. “I see women being held back by some sense of loyalty to an organization.”
Deal with that “third person” or voice that holds you back.
“Are you trying to meet someone else’s expectations or really trying to live your best life and career you can with the most courageous decisions you can?” she asked.
Perfection is your enemy.
“I know I do some things really badly and some things really well, and I’m not going to obsess over that,” she said.
You’re a work in progress.
“As an executive, learning and trying to develop yourself takes a back seat, because you are trying to do your job, manage your kids and household. It’s critical to develop yourself and find that thing you [still] need to learn.”