Ladies, if you want to be CEO, raise your hand
Getting to know candidates and how they got to where they are in their careers is something I love about being an executive recruiter. Each person’s story is unique, especially for women, who have had to maneuver different challenges.
That includes CEO Alice Tillett, whose career path was not traditional. She would say that she has been the underdog in most of her jobs, and that in some ways, her career happened to her. I would say she was resourceful, choosing to raise her hand when opportunities came her way.
I was fortunate to meet Alice in 2007, when I contacted her about a search I was working on. Ultimately, she turned me down and decided not to pursue the opportunity further, but I knew as soon as I met her that she would be a valued business contact.
Willing to do whatever it takes
Alice’s early career plan was teaching, graduating from Miami University with a Master of Education. She never did work in a classroom, however, and today she is CEO of Doskocil Manufacturing (dba PetMate), which makes and markets products for the pet industry.
When she decided not to become a teacher and to go into business instead, her father said she would need to be prepared to do anything. He told her that if someone asked her for a cup of coffee, to get the coffee. Needless to say, that was a different era, but that willingness to do whatever was necessary to make a good impression and to get results has been key to her success.
Alice wasn’t thinking about the “perfect” job, especially since she wasn’t sure what her ideal job would be at the time. She was looking for opportunity, and opportunities often come disguised as challenges and problems in settings that are far from ideal.
In my experience, people with rigid lists of “must-have” features for a company or position often miss out on proving themselves in situations that end up being an amazing stepping stone. And in fact, Alice’s philosophy is to step up and out.
Sales as a route to management
Alice’s career path was in sales, which is one common path to the corner office, particularly in consumer goods, which of course is focused on products and branding. What’s fascinating and fun about consumer goods is the variety of product categories it covers. Alice’s experience has covered greeting cards, kitchen products, sporting/recreational goods and now pet products.
She started at Gibson Greetings with no idea what she was doing, but a can-do attitude. It was during the 1990's and the company was in a slump. Not only were sales down – so was the company’s stock price and its reputation, which had been damaged by some bad investments and improper accounting practices. Yet it happened to be when Alice was working for Gibson that its fortunes turned, subsequently leading to being acquired by American Greetings Corporation in 2000.
When Alice joined the company, there were several at-risk accounts, but her thinking was, let me take them on, I’m all in, let’s go.
“Gibson had an outstanding training program. I was a lowly sales rep when I met John Gazola, who was then a regional sales vice president. I guess he saw something in me, because he told me to give him a call. Two weeks later, I took him up on the offer and reached out to ask for his help on some sales calls. He went with me and I learned so much about the selling process and how to interact with clients.”
If she had let fear overrule her decision to pick up the phone, she would have missed out on some invaluable mentoring.
When I asked Alice what he would say now if I asked him about her, she replied, "He would probably say I'm not afraid to go after whatever is put in front of me!"
Learning from founder/entrepreneur CEOs
Eventually, Alice moved into the world of recreation and sporting goods, joining Huffy Bicycle Company, where she developed programs for national retailers like Toys ‘R Us, Target and Sears.
Alice stayed in bicycles but moved to Madison, Wisconsin to join Pacific Cycle, which represented national bicycle brands like the iconic Schwinn. Pacific Cycle was founded by entrepreneur Chris Horning. She believes her experience working for him truly shaped her as an executive, as he helped her understand the value of taking risks and making decisions with confidence.
“What I’ve learned throughout my promotions and career advancements is that fundamentally, there is a difference between managing and leading. I get that today. Leaders listen and respond to get everyone else on board. Everyone has an opinion but not everyone makes the decision. As a leader, I will make that final decision. If someone on my team differs, I acknowledge that they have an opposite opinion, but that I need to make this decision.”
People need to be heard and want to be acknowledged. Alice feels this approach has served her well, and it’s one well-suited to most women.
Once they get input from their teams, she says leaders must make decisions with confidence, remembering they can self-correct. While it’s true that some business decisions can have grave consequences, Alice says it’s worth remembering that business people are not surgeons. No one is going to die, things can be fixed.
Leadership styles of men and women
I asked Alice about other qualities she feels are different when it comes to leadership styles of men and women.
“It is harder for women to step away. We make ourselves too readily accessible, which deprives us of that thinking, planning, strategy time. Men do a better job of this. They seem to have the ability to say, ‘I’m not available from 8-noon; if I don’t take that time, I’m not doing what is best for the organization.’ Men prioritize strategic planning in a way that women do not.”
Another difference she sees between men and women in the workplace is family and child-rearing responsibilities. Not a mother herself, she says she didn’t fully appreciate the balancing act required of women who had a hectic work schedule similar to her own, yet also had to contend with their children and spouses.
“Today, the people I admire the most – men and women – are raising families. They are raising the people who will sit in my chair. So it’s important for them to give their children the time and attention they need. It’s important for their employers to say it’s OK to go to the soccer game.”
Nobody moves up without helping hands
Alice is grateful to the people she has worked with who were willing to teach her and take their own personal risks helping her, and she encourages women to always be open to asking for help. She feels women have a general fear of not doing things perfectly and not being 100% capable, which keeps us averse to risk. When you don’t know, ask for help, seek out opinions and advice.
I asked Alice for advice she would give to women to advance their careers, and in her typical no-nonsense way, she offers:
- Treat people the way you want to be treated.
- Have an opinion and step forward to express it. Better to say, ‘I’m not sure I’ve thought this through entirely but here’s my first thought,’ than to wait for someone else to say it.
- Be willing to listen to the opinions and ideas of others and really hear them, without paying lip service or worse, shutting people down.
Knowing Alice Tillett like I do, her final words of advice are truly the ones worth noting for any woman who aspires to be CEO:
Be strong. No whining. Tell yourself, ‘I’ve got to figure this out,’ then do it.
And above all - be willing to step forward and raise your hand.