Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010

Susan Ivey

What is the best and worst decision you've ever made?
One of the best decisions I ever made was to accept a job offer in London. I had 48 hours to make the decision, and the stakes were high. It would require me to leave the town where I'd been living for 10 years; I would be joining an organization where I knew very few people; and truth be told, I wasn't entirely sure I could succeed in the job! But at the end of the day, I took the leap — I knew I could always come home if things didn't work out, but I did not want to spend the rest of my career wondering "what if." As it turned out, I spent seven years in London, two in Hong Kong, and traveled to 70 countries. It truly reshaped my view of the world and my definition of leadership.

I'm not sure I can name a "worst" decision. Certainly there are things I would have done differently in hindsight, but I believe that we all must collect and evaluate the information available to us, make the decision that we believe best, and work to achieve success. It's almost always possible to course-correct if needed, but agonizing over every single decision will grind an organization down to gridlock. People need to feel empowered to make decisions and take ownership of their accountabilities — second-guessing after the fact is not helpful.

What was your dream job as a kid and why?
My mom was an administrative assistant, so growing up I took shorthand and typing, thinking that I'd at least always be able to find work. When I graduated from college, I took a job that I ended up hating — I had no passion for the category I was in or the products I was selling. So I decided I would change jobs and choose an industry whose products I personally enjoyed. At that age, the range was pretty limited — I narrowed it down to cosmetics, alcohol and tobacco. I quit the job I hated, took a job in the tobacco industry and have worked in the industry now for nearly 30 years.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
I tell female professionals that if they work in an organization where they do not feel they can advance, they should quit. It is unrealistic to expect that one individual can change an organization's culture singlehandedly. Frankly, the last generation of male managers who did not work side-by-side with female professionals is getting ready to retire — some of the barriers to women entering upper management are simply aging out. I don't think the mythical "glass ceiling" is going to be a viable reason for not advancing your career in most organizations for very long.

What woman inspires you and why?
I've always admired two true pioneers in the beverage industry: Madame Clicquot and Lily Bollinger. They built champagne empires through vision, hard work and great marketing at a time when women were hardly the captains of industry. Again, their success is a testament to having vision and passion for what you do.

What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
I would give the same advice to all young professionals, both male and female: find something you have a passion for and be willing to try things you secretly think you may not be able to do. That is the only way to truly learn what it is you can do. As they say, life is not a dress rehearsal — and you will only know your limits if you continually test them. Every generation, every business, every human being faces challenges — that's not the point. The point is what you do with them, and how you adapt and grow through them.