The Alchemy of Great Brand with Maureen Chiquet, former Global CEO of Chanel
Drawing on her broad experience from mass to class, including inside three of the globe’s most iconic brands, Maureen Chiquet details the vital ingredients for creating and sustaining brand excellence. To her, all great brands seem to possess a unique alchemy. They embody a certain amount of paradox by accomplishing things that seem, or once seemed, impossible. They embody a sense of deeper purpose, connecting with people beyond products alone. And they are also driven by a superior product: a base of excellence that makes everything else possible. In this fireside conversation, Maureen will share with us the essence of this alchemy and how we can cultivate it within our own organizations.
Her leadership in very different organizations has allowed her rich ground for personal transformation. Creating a life and career that are truly your own means a willingness to keep pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone and to move beyond staid expectations and definitions of yourself and your life. Sharing hard-won lessons and stories, Maureen intrigues and provokes listeners to play with paradox, reframe the norm, ignore the rules, roll in the deep, and tap the best sources for intuition.
Maureen will share stories of times she has gone beyond the labels of her own life to define and re-define success on her own terms. And she shares key insights and questions that her audience might consider to do the same and find their own path to their most authentic leadership.
Listen to the podcast here:
The Alchemy of Great Brand with Maureen Chiquet, former Global CEO of Chanel
Maureen’s Origin Story
We’re going to get this kicked off. I’m going to start with questions and we’ll see where this goes. Let’s start out this conference. It’s about stories. Everyone has an origin story and where they began. Why don’t you share with us a little bit about your origin story?
I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri just a little bit South of Chicago. As a kid, I was incredibly shy. I’m still shy. You wouldn’t know it, but I was the kind of shy that you hide behind your mother’s skirt when company comes over. She had to pull me out to say hello. When I was at that stage, I read a lot of books. I love to read and I loved stories. I’m in the right place, stories of all kinds. I love books. I would read my parents’ bookshelf. I love movies. I love TV. Anything with a story, anything where I can throw myself into someone else’s life and experience it almost vicariously from behind my mom’s skirt. That was how I grew up. By the time I was sixteen, I developed another love and that was for French. Don’t ask me why. Probably I had a great French teacher. You all had great teachers and you end up loving the topic.
My father had an aptitude for language and I wanted to be like my dad and learn French or whatever it was. I fell in love with everything that was French. I wanted to be French. I asked my parents when I was sixteen, “Can you send me to France to live with the family so I can learn the language and be French?” That I did and I ended up being stationed. I went on The Experiment in International Living. They place kids in different parts of countries and I ended up being placed in the South of France. What could be wrong with that? The golden light on the beautiful limestone, the smell of lavender and that this family had two young boys. I was all set. That sinks my love of France.
By the time I got to college, I decided I’m going to pursue that love both of France but also stories. I ended up studying literature and deconstructionism. It is a weird literary theory that focuses not on how to understand what the author meant to say or the context in which the author lived, but on how the reader interprets a story. I studied deconstructionism and I also went back to France in my junior year abroad. Graduating from college, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life as probably a lot of kids don’t. I didn’t know what you do with the literature or deconstructionist theory literature degree. That didn’t seem very practical. I decided that I would fall in the footsteps of my father.
I was going to go to law school. I went to go take the LSAT. I was one of those kids that studied all the time. You can find me on any Friday or Saturday night in the library, but I uncharacteristically did not study for the LSAT. I bought the book. I couldn’t bring myself to open it. I got to the tests and I’m looking at the questions. I read the question one, I’m like, “A, B or C, D, it could be any one of those.” I don’t know of. I’ll do B. I got to question about 4 or 5 and the words are starting to swim. Have you ever had that happen where nothing is making sense? I raised my hand. I called the proctor. I said, “I don’t want to take the test anymore. I don’t want my results.” I walked out.
I think that was my first step into the big unknown as you might call it. I had no idea what I was going to do. I only knew one thing and that is I needed to get back to France somehow, someway. As luck would have it when I had been living there in my junior term abroad, I had a roommate who was French and his uncle was the CFO of L’Oréal Global. Things worked out. He said, “I will get you a six-month internship and you can go live in France for six months.” I was like, “That is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I moved to France not knowing what I was going to do after the six months, I knew that I was getting to be in the place that I loved. I ended up staying there for three years.
A job opened up while I was an intern and I became a marketer. I started my career at L’Oréal in marketing in Paris. It was an incredible time during which I also met the man who at that point was to be my husband, Antoine. We decided that after a few years of being in Paris, we would change and move to California because he had had an opportunity to go to Indonesia. I didn’t want to live in Indonesia, so we picked neutral territory. I don’t know if that’s entirely neutral, but I thought it was neutral at the time. We picked up and we moved to California. We didn’t have jobs. I thought at this point I have a label. I am a marketer. I’ve had three years of L’Oréal marketing, which as you probably all know is a good school for marketing. I’m going to go find a marketing job.
This is 1989. I don’t know if anyone knows much about the Bay Area, which is where we move. There were a few consumer product companies. Silicon Valley had a lot of trees and grass then. It wasn’t a place. I set out to look for a job. The only two companies where I saw consumer products were Clorox and Del Monte. I thought, “I can work for ketchup or for bleach.” I sent my resume to Clorox. I ended up getting an interview, which is surprising because I’d never gone to business school. They rejected me because I had no background in their marketing. In the end, I thought, “I’m not sure I see myself on photo shoots for toilet bowls. I don’t think that’s what I like.” I realized that what I loved about L’Oréal and the third love that I had was beauty. I needed to be in a more aesthetic business and a business that did something that made beautiful things for people.
I’m walking down Market Street. I have no job and I fall on this poster of Miles Davis. Miles Davis is a great jazz musician. I was a jazz fan. He’s sitting in this black pocket t-shirt and the sign says Gap. I’m like, “That is so cool. Miles Davis is such a cool guy. He’s got a Gap t-shirt on. I want to work for Gap. I want to market Gap.” I went to Gap. I sent my resume and I got a job. Unfortunately, I did not get a job in marketing. They took one look at me and said, “You’re not a marketer. You’re a merchant.” I said, “What’s that?” They said, “You’ll find out, you’re a merchant.” That’s how I started my career in retail. I spent fifteen years at the Gap.
I started at the Gap division as a merchant, which basically is a Jack-of-All-Trades, but essentially uses a lot of the same skills that marketers do only in a very different context. I’m working with designers on the product. We figure out how to get things sourced, how to figure out how much something should sell for, wash it through its selling process, etc. My deconstructionist theory work came into play there because it helped me see things from a consumer’s perspective. Instead of looking at what does Gap wants to sell, it was about what about consumers, how do they interpret and how do they see what we are selling? How do they decide to make those selling decisions?Millennials care about the environment, not the price. Click To Tweet
Jeff was talking about the empty chair and asking questions. I think so often, we get a little lost in our strategies and we forget to start to ask new questions of our customers and our consumers, “What do you want from this brand?” You were seeing that and also knowing that what we intend to message does not always come across in the way we intended because there are so many filters and beliefs that are standing in the way.
That came in handy throughout my career especially later on at Chanel when we started to do work around what we believed our purpose was versus what our consumers thought we were in the business of. I absolutely agree with that. It helped me frame the rest of my career as both merchants but later as a marketer and gone to a leader. I spent fifteen years at Gap. I was at the Gap division. I went from the Gap division to Old Navy. The Old Navy thing came out of nowhere. I got tapped to run a brand that had no name. One of the higher-ups gave me a call and said, “How would you like to be part of a very small team that’s taking over these outlet stores where we used to sell all the products that didn’t sell anywhere else or that was damaged?”
We’re going to put a new name on it and we want to create a product for a consumer who loves fashion. Either doesn’t have the disposable income to buy it in the same way or buy Gap quality fashion or doesn’t want to spend that money on fashion, but they still love it. It was what marketers love to call the white space. At that time, I thought I would belong in Banana Republic because I love luxury. I thought Banana Republic was a luxurious company, but it ended up that that was probably the best move I ever made. I was stretching myself to think very differently about a market that I didn’t know very well. I was at the very inception of Old Navy. I ran merchandising, production and planning for eight years there until I got a call from a headhunter.
I’m at Old Navy, remember $5 t-shirts, $15 jeans. The headhunter says, “We’ve got an opportunity at American Eagle. What do you think?” Gap was at the top of its game. It was the best place in the world. I’m like, “I’m not going to move to Pittsburgh. Sorry, I’m going to stay at the Gap. Don’t call me unless you have an opportunity I can’t refuse.” Two months later, he called me back. He said, “I have an opportunity you can’t refuse. A French luxury company needs a CEO.” It’s a privately held company and there are only two. There were Hermes and Chanel.” I deducted that it was Chanel. In the meantime, I started interviewing. Our courtship lasted a year and a half. I got promoted to become president of Banana Republic. I started running that brand. Finally, after a very long and arduous love affair, I joined Chanel in 2003. That is my origin story.
Philosophy On What Is A Leader
In Maureen’s book, she shares so much texture underneath this journey of her initial love for France, the aesthetics, the beauty, the smells and the culture. You start to see the journey. When I first heard about your story, my first thought was I need a redo on my origin story because it’s not near as interesting as that. Life happens to us. You walk out of the house. You are living and following the next trail. I know Boyd will shed some additional light on how we need to maybe follow the breadcrumbs and not necessarily think we have to have it all mastered. I want to take us into two areas. One is going to be a leadership focus. We are a group of leaders talking about the importance of how we lead. We’ll also talk about branding from the aspect of our marketing lens. From a leadership perspective, a million stories between Gap and Chanel, what a journey and everything in between. Was there an event or two that helped shape your philosophy of what a leader is?
Coming out of Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic, I thought I was a good leader. I understood that leaders are supposed to have a vision, this great strategy and bring people on the bus. I was reading all the great leadership books from Good To Great and all the things that I bet some of you have read and know by heart. I got to Chanel. I want to paint a little bit of a picture for you of what that was like and give you how my leadership philosophy started to change over time. First of all, after the very long courtship, I had a three-year training period. The owner said to me, “We want you to join, but we want you to go through three full years of training before you become CEO.”
That sounds long, doesn’t it? Their idea was that I didn’t know anything about the luxury business. I didn’t know anything about the brand, their culture, the people who had created the brand and they wanted me to be able to come from a place of understanding before going into leadership, which I thought was a great idea. They said, “There’s one thing that you need to know in your first year” because your first year, all you’re going to do is listen and learn, but you’re going to put a piece of tape on your mouth. We don’t want you to have any comments. We don’t want you to have any opinion.” Imagine coming from an active career where you are running a business. You’re a president of a brand and you are going to put a tape on your mouth for a year. It’s pretty extraordinary.
After about three months, I thought it was going to go crazy. It was some of the best experiences I had because I traveled all over the world. I met more people at Chanel than any other person in the entire company, including the owners. I did get a good sense of culture and the people in this story behind it. During my first two weeks in Paris, they did this indoctrination where they put me in a basement and they showed me films about Chanel’s life. They showed me the beautiful products that they made. They introduced me to what this brand was and what this culture was. I came away thinking I had won the lottery. I’m like I have signed up for a brand where this woman so far ahead of her time in the 1800s was when she started designing. It was an iconic class.
She took women out of long gowns, high necklines and corsets. She liberated them. She was a women’s liberer in the early 1900s. I found the right place and I scored. You can imagine my surprise then when I started in my operational role and I found myself at the head of a table of ten men, not another woman on my executive team. They were all in perfect tailored pinstripe suits. They all had the CC logo ties on, spit shiny shoes. At the time when I became CEO, finally, I was 43 years old. All of them were at least ten years my senior, if not more. They had twenty-plus years each of the luxury experience. Me, I was in my jeans with my little tweed jacket and what’s my claim to fame? I was selling $5 t-shirts off the back of a Chevy truck in Old Navy.
I felt completely vulnerable. I felt like there is no way that they trust or that they will trust me as a leader. In a way, I don’t even know that I could trust myself as a leader. It’s incredibly intimidating. I have to say the way the company was run at the time was mostly in silos. I bet all of you know this from your respective companies, but each business unit had its thing and they kept pretty much to themselves. Each region had their concerns. They tried to coordinate, but this is pre-internet so nobody cared if one region did it a little differently, one business unit used the brand logo one way. It was a bit chaotic and there was a lot of infighting. Here I am at the head of this table and I’m supposed to be this company. These guys are looking at me and they were not happy about my arrival, not even in the least.Be more curious, ask more questions, and become agile to face the uncertain future. Click To Tweet
The other thing is I wasn’t supposed to get rid of anyone. I’ve got to figure out how to do this. All those great things that I learned at the Gap from Good To Great and Harvard Business Review. I had to throw that out the window. Do you think I could get up there and spell some vision? There wasn’t any way that anyone would listen to what I had to say. I did look inside of myself and say, “What can I do to make this work?” This is around 2006, 2007. I heard someone mentioned what was going on in 2007 that little recession that we had was on the cusp of happening. We had huge challenges in our business because of the digital revolution in 2006, 2007 is around when social media started to peak. Imagine being at the helm of a luxury brand, which prizes exclusivity control, controlling their image, not selling online, a rarity. Imagine running a luxury brand when all anyone can talk about is the digital revolution.
All the rules are changing. Everything’s that worked in the past is not going to not work.
There’s this little thing called Millennials. Millennials, what do they care about? They don’t care necessarily about $6,000 jackets. They care about the environment. They care about social causes and they’re coming to in droves, not as your customers, but as your employees and there’s globalization. We had been global before, but not to the extent that we were encountering busloads of different nationalities coming to our stores, making lines around the block to by those $4,000 or $5,000 handbags. We were looking from our perspective huge challenges and I was looking at a team that didn’t want me there. It was that point that I started to realize that in fact, they were in a very similar situation that I was in. They were looking at the unknown. They were looking at an uncertain future. They knew they couldn’t go back and do things the way that they had done. They probably would have liked to, but they knew they couldn’t. I knew I couldn’t do things the same way I had done. I realized that in order to work this out I was going to have to change myself. That meant listening to what people had to say, sitting on their side of the table, not sitting at the head of the table, but being with them in their challenges. I was going to have to figure out how to collaborate and get them to collaborate better. How we could all be more curious, ask more questions and become agile to face this uncertain future.
Face Plant Story
I have to ask you this, Maureen, because I know some of the backstories of this. We talked about the definition of a hero. We think as leaders we’re supposed to be invincible. There are no flaws but true leadership and true vulnerability are that sometimes you charge through the door in the wrong way and you course correct. I know you had some growing pains. I’d love for you to share the story of the face plant story. As we had David, I know there’s a story following that of how he helped restore. Maybe you can share those two stories.
This started at work. People started to work with me. I started to feel like I was getting traction. The team started coming together a little bit better. We were opening conversations about our challenges. It wasn’t perfect, but it began to happen. I thought, “This is great. This is the beginning of leadership philosophy.” At the time, a lot of sociologists and gurus were talking about feminine leadership. I thought, “That’s perfect.” Coco Chanel was a woman. I’m a woman. It’s all about bringing feminine leadership into what already know is good practice for leaders. We already know the vision, strategy, and execution are important, but maybe listening, empathy, collaboration and curiosity are equally as important. Let’s merge those two.
I’m all excited. I’m going to get a leadership program going. We’re going to get these guys. I added six women to the team. Pretty soon we were twenty strong. I’m going to get this team to be better leaders by integrating feminine leadership qualities into our lives. I’m all excited about this. I decided to hire some consultants. I found some consultants in California who embraced the hero’s journey. I’m going to hire some consultants. I’m going to do an offsite with my team. We’re going to launch this program. We’re going to step into the future together. This is probably the biggest mistake of my entire career.
I decided that offsite should be in July because I was very anxious to get this underway. Does anyone know what happens in July in France? It is the single worst time to start anything in that country. Why? Because everybody goes on vacation in August and nobody wants to start anything in July because either they don’t have time for it because if they’re wrapping up what they’ve got or they’ve already moved on to their vacation. It’s terrible timing. The day that I schlepped them all out outside of Paris, nobody wants to leave their offices in July because there’s a lot going on.
It is spitting rain that day and that wasn’t my fault. What happened after that was, I decided that we’re going to take them into the garden and do some team-building exercises. We were going to all hold hands and sing kumbaya in the garden. One of the guys on my team, I heard him say, “This is kindergarten.” They were aggravated by this. By the time I got them inside and I get them inside. I get up on my bandstand and I say, “We need to be better leaders. We need to have more empathy and listen better. We need to be more collaborative.” You can imagine how this went over. It’s like a lead balloon. It obviously didn’t work.
The consultants from California, I got a team full of Europeans, who are like, “Who are these consultants from California? They don’t speak our language. They don’t understand our culture. They don’t know that we’re Chanel and we’re different.” The whole thing was a train wreck. After this disastrous meeting, I regrouped with the consultants, with my coach. We all started talking and I decided that I was going to cancel this offsite. David was booked for this offsite that I was going to have to cancel this. In fact, it wasn’t their fault. I still believe that we needed to have empathy. We needed to engage in better listening and collaboration. The way that I went about it was entirely wrong. I wasn’t being the leader that I was asking them to be. I wasn’t walking the walk. I wrote to them all this letter and I said, “I still believe in many of the things I talked about, but I realized that I wasn’t ready. The way you weren’t ready either to step into this work.” I also realized that I made some fundamental errors.
Sometimes it’s not what we say, but it’s how we say it and when we say it that makes the difference.Listen to what people have to say. Sit on the side of their table, not ahead. Click To Tweet
The timing was poor but was exactly right because I was very adamant at that point thinking that’s what needed to get done. In the letter that I wrote to them, I asked them a few questions. I said, “I want to know about how you see our culture.” The whole idea was in order to engage in this very different world of the interconnectivity of new clients, globalization around the world, that we would need to shift our culture a bit to be more open. I asked them, “What do you think about our culture? What do you think needs to change? What would you like to keep the same? What contribution would you like to make? What leader do you think you are and how could you make a contribution?” I spent an hour to an hour and a half with each leader. This is twenty leaders so over 30 hours of talking or letting them talk and taking copious notes. By the end of that period, I collated all their notes. As these things go, there are a lot of similarities.
I created a document called the “Froms and the Tos.” Where do we want to come from as a culture and where do we want to move to? I presented that back to the team and asked for their feedback because they’d given me most of that information. It was in that very different meeting that we decided to co-create something called the Active and Conscious Leadership Initiative. We called it a Journey. It was specific because for me leadership is an act. It’s something that you’re doing all the time. You’re not leading when you’re at the helm of your team. If you’re a leader, you should be consciously and thinking about how you’re leading and where you are when you’re leading. We invited David for our first session. It was incredible learning for me that face plant because I realized that you have to be in it with the team. It’s not about separating yourself out and saying, “I know more. I’m different because I’m the CEO.” I wanted to and needed to take that journey with my team in order for this turnaround to be successful.
We spoke about the fact that we’re entering into this fifth industrial revolution where this whole renaissance of humanity and what does that look like in leadership? In leadership, we are far from perfect. When we have a face plant and we come back and own that, how do we then co-create a different future with our team that sets a very different course going forward with how we’re setting the whole theme of what we’re trying to create together? I know David continued to add to that moving forward.
The idea of this leadership work was that we were going to start from the inside and move out. In other words, when I say start from the inside, what does that mean? Start with ourselves as leaders. Who am I as a leader? How do I connect to the other members of the team? How do we connect to our employees at large and our teams at large? Who are we in our business? Who are we in the world? Starting as David would say, in his very famous poems, starting close in with ourselves. We invited David into our first session. We would have outside speakers with whom we would collaborate specifically to our brand because one of the complaints I got during that famous session was that I had imposed something on the team and they wanted it to be very specific to Chanel.
We would work with leaders’ content that was specific to us. We had outside speakers. We had coaches for everybody. I mentored all twenty people on the team. That was the base of this work. We invited David at first and as much as I have gotten traction in that meeting where everyone was like, “We can do this. We’re going to co-create this.” They were a little surprised when a poet was our first invitee. I could see the skepticism on their faces. I particularly noted it in the same person who said, “This is kindergarten.” He was most of the time before the meeting looking down at his shoes. By the time David got up to speak, you could hear a pin drop. No one moved. No one got up to get coffee. No one went out for a smoke.
It was dead silent and we had designed an exercise for the team to pair off with someone they felt comfortable with. Somebody with they had already a good connection to share some courageous conversations that they needed to have but weren’t having with other members of their teams. Not members in the room, but members of the teams below them. They paired off and they started to do this work. I could see how intense this was for them. They were sharing things they had never shared before because David had brought them to a place of real honesty, integrity and vulnerability. I could see how hard they’re working.
They’re talking about courageous conversations that they’re not having with their team members. During the seminar, what am I supposed to do? I was feeling a little awkward. I took my notebook and I started writing the courageous conversations that I wasn’t having with them. As David was wrapping up, he turned to me and he said, “Maureen, do you have anything else to say?” Has anyone ever been in that place where you do something that you never expected you were going to do and find yourself all of a sudden there doing it? That was what happened. I had this piece of paper in my hand and my hands were trembling.
My legs were shaking. I got up with my piece of paper and I said, “Here are the courageous conversations I’m not having with you, but I need to have. Sometimes I’m scared and I’m worried that you don’t trust me as a leader. I’m worried that you want answers from me that I don’t have.” Remember, this is a very uncertain time in our business. I was afraid and I said, “I can’t and I shouldn’t run this business without you. I need your help.” All of a sudden, I’m thinking, “I totally sunk my career. This is the craziest thing I’ve ever done.” I’m thinking I’m going to be met with a lot of resistance, but I look up from my paper and I see empathetic eyes.
In some cases, I even see tears. Suddenly from the back, this is a part that still blows me away when I think about it, the same guy who did the kindergarten thing, he’s looking at his shoes and I see his hand go up. He said, “I’m an impostor. I pretend to know things I don’t to impress my teams.” A second hand went up. The second guy says, “I don’t listen. I try to validate my own point of view.” These are all guys. A third hand went up, another guy said, “I’m terrified of the unknown and that’s why it takes me so long to make decisions.” That day changed everything. It was a catalyst because I started but also because the team became vulnerable enough to admit where they were and to be human together.
What that did is created a sense of safety. That sense of safety helped us iterate new ideas, bring innovation without fear and collaborate without that fighting that we had before. It was the beginning of a different era at Chanel that Chanel had ever seen. The great part of this work is that the period lasted a year with this group of twenty. By the end of our leadership journey, with the twenty leaders. They asked if they could take it out to their teams, which is about 200 and I said, “That’s great, you can, but you guys are going to have to facilitate it. I did this, now it’s your turn,” which they were delighted to do. They got to be the teachers of what they had learned. The 200 asked if they could go to 600 people. By the time I left the company, 600 people had started to step into a new way of leading. It all started with David.We set ourselves up for failure thinking there's some perfect model. Click To Tweet
I love that story because one of the things we have tried to do with the summit sometimes successfully, sometimes not, is to create a space where people can take down the mask a little bit because we’re all wearing one. We all have to be in control because we’re the leaders. If we’re not in control, the whole ship is going to go down because the leaders are supposed to have the answers. The fact that we can show that we don’t have all the answers and we’re trying to figure it out and I think the new age of leadership is a place where you don’t have to empower people. You don’t have to give them power, they already have power. You need to let them know that they have power. When they’re invited to the table, amazing things can happen because we’re all suddenly trying to figure it out.
People often ask me, “How far can this vulnerability thing go and is that right to do? Is that not right to do?” They asked me about the notion of power. I have to tell you at that moment in time is when I felt most powerful as a leader. That sounds contradictory, but it was being able to come clean with where I was at that point that gave me and made me feel more powerful than trying to hide behind knowing it all or pretending to know it all. As you go back to your teams and you think about how you’re going to stand in front of your team, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s some kind of coming clean with where you is a great gift to the people on your teams. It’s a gift of vulnerability that works.
Balancing Life As A Working Mom
We might not see in the hero definition where it was like an indestructible warrior. It probably wouldn’t say the person that says they’re afraid. Even having two thirteen-year-olds, I’ve seen every single Marvel movie out there. It’s wonderful to see, even in the movie-making how they’re showing vulnerability with the Spiderman movie. Peter Parker wanted to be a teenage kid. He didn’t want to be a superhero. It took us through that whole journey, which is amazing. I want to open it up to one more personal question and I want to pivot at the end to some commentary on branding for everyone.
One more of the personal journey. For all of us, we struggle to balance our lives. David talked about what are we focused on? If we spent that much time learning how to play a musical instrument as we do at work and how are we choosing how we want to live our lives, that includes as parents, as friends, things for our community. I know that you’ve had to balance working motherhood. Has there ever been a time in this very intense leadership journey where that’s become a House of Cards? How did you manage that?
Many times, but the most relevant one or at the time that’s the most meaningful to me or taught me the most. I have two daughters. One is Pauline, one is Mimi. Pauline, my eldest daughter was eighteen. She was applying to college. You have to understand that I was a working mom. I was the breadwinner in the family. Early on in our relationship, Antoine and mine, we decided that he was going to stay home and take care of the kids. I was going to work. We thought that was working great. I did a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to the emotional stuff because I have two daughters. When it came to schoolwork because he’s French, but he did all the logistics and he got the kids around.
This seemed to be good, even if it wasn’t easy because I’d go to school and other mothers would say, “You’re not a figment of his imagination?” It wasn’t always easy, but it worked out. My daughter is eighteen and she wants to go to college visiting. I decided to take her to Harvard. I didn’t mention this, but I went to Yale. You can imagine with the rivalry thing, I’m like, “Let’s get through this. I don’t want her to go to Harvard but fine. Take her anyway.” She could probably feel that. We’re on this tour, it’s hot. The tour guide is one of these guys that are telling you everything about how Harvard is the most wonderful place in the world and I’m rolling my eyes.
By the end of the tour, we’re both on edge. We go out to dinner. I’m starving. I want a glass of wine. We went to this wonderful Moroccan restaurant in Cambridge. They’re passing around these plates and smelling everything. I’m like, “Pauline, we should get something to share.” I made this random comment like, “Yes, that’s right. You don’t like to share.” It was as if I struck a match and threw it in a pile of dry leaves. She exploded. She said to me, “How can you tell me anything about who I am or what I do when you were never there? It was always daddy. You’re always in Hong Kong or France. You were always with someone else, somewhere else, but you weren’t with me. How would you know who I am?”
Any hunger that I had completely dissipated. I felt like my tongue was swelling in my mouth. My ears started to get hot and I literally had to get up from the table, run and hide in the bathroom. I started sobbing and gut-wrenching. Every emotion you can imagine went through my heart. I felt guilty like, “How could I have done this?” I had no idea how she was feeling. I had no thoughts that this was going on to how dare she do this? If we’re even visiting this campus is because I’ve worked so hard to be able to get her there. I don’t know how I’m going to ever get out of this. I don’t know how I’m going to ever resolved everything. I finally pulled myself out of the bathroom and sat back down.
We never resolved it that night. We spent the rest of the meal in silence. A few months later, we’re doing college applications. My beautiful Pauline with her green eyes is glowing and she’s looking into her computer screen. I walked by the hallway where her room is and she says, “Mom, can you come to help me?” I said, “Sure.” I sit down on the floor, “Helped me with my college essay.” We started brainstorming ideas for an essay. She came up with a brilliant idea. As I walked out, she said, “Thanks, mom.” I said, “Thanks.” Maybe I’m not so terrible as a mother. A few months later, she ended up going to Yale. In the course of being there, I would get invited to speak to students. She would bring all of her friends to come to hear me talk and then she’d have, “I’d have dinner with them and they pepper me with questions about my career.”
I thought, “I’m doing okay.” Finally, as she was graduating college, she texted me, “Mom, can you help me get this internship?” I said, “Sure, honey.” I helped her pull together what she needed to get for this internship. She said, “Mom, you weren’t good at cooking or cleaning, but I’d rather have a mom who could help me get a job.” I probably wasn’t the worst mother in the world like I thought I was. When I think about that story and why it’s important to me is I think we set ourselves up for failure. We think there’s some perfect model. There’s the perfect mom or there’s a perfect work-life balance and I’m not sure that exists. There’s heartache, pain, love, joy and you’ll miss stuff. I missed stuff.Brands are people in a way. It should have alignment between the head, the heart, the body, and, ultimately, the soul. Click To Tweet
For me, what was important was deciding who I wanted to be and where I wanted to spend my time and how I wanted to lead my life. As a matter of fact, I was sitting in a room full of women. Someone raises their hand asked me this great question, “Maureen, if you could do it all over again, would you be a stay-at-home mom?” I said, “No. I loved working. I love my job. I even love the travel to an extent until it got too much, but I loved doing what I did. Was I sorry about missing things like my kid’s first steps or funny words they might say? I was hurt. Yes, but I wouldn’t do it any differently.” She said, “Would you do it part-time?” I said, “No, I loved what I did.” This something dawned on me. This is the truth. I said, “It doesn’t matter if you devote every last minute to your kids or if you’re part-time parent and you work from home or if you’re like me and you had a full-time career. Because at one moment or another, especially if they’re girls and if you’re a mom, they will hate you.” No matter what, but that’s okay. It will change too. For me, it was huge learning about being in this thing called life.
Attributes Of The Greatest Brands
One of the things that I take from that story is no matter who you are and it’s interesting this comes up a lot in women’s conferences, but I think it’s as true for men trying to balance your presence and how you want to be there for your children or for your friends. It covers all domains. It also speaks to the authenticity of our path. You’re on your road. Whether you choose to be someone who stays at home or someone who travels the world or never leaves a certain town, that is your path and your journey. There’s no one else to say that it must be different. We didn’t get into a lot of branding, but I want to wrap up on the branding note. As you think about your career and you look at Gap and Chanel and such different array and changing times, what do you think are some of the attributes of the greatest brands? What’s been your learning from leading such wonderful brands in your life?
I was so inspired by what Jeff had to say about Converse and leading that brand. For me, I think about brands a lot, in the same way, I think about people. Brands are people in a way. It should be treated that way. I think this alignment between the head, the heart and the body, and ultimately the soul. To illustrate that a little bit, the head. What business do you think you’re in? Who do you think your customer is? What do you think they need? All the things that come from the thinking part of our brain. When I was a merchant at the Gap, I learned this lesson in one tiny moment where we as merchants, we would get the designs for our products. Let’s say I’m the t-shirt merchant and the t-shirt merchant would get up and show all these beautiful t-shirts and get to this one tee shirt and say, “We’re going to buy 20,000 units,” which for Gap was very small.
Mickey will say, “How come you did not buy more?” They go, “We don’t think it’s that sellable, but we think it will sell to someone will like it.” We think it will sell and Mickey would say, “You don’t love it? This should be a great t-shirt.” I said, “No, we think it’s somebody. We would go around that.” He said, “We could sell potato chips if we wanted to, but we don’t.” Understand what is our brand? What do we serve? Who do we serve? That helped me with the head. The heart thing is interesting. Miles Davis anecdote I told you about stopping dead on. One of the reasons I stopped and wanted to work for the Gap is because there is something about that communication that pulled on my heartstrings.
It wasn’t about the pocket tee. It’s not about the thing that you’re abiding. It’s about something much greater than that. Something that has the capacity to pull your heartstrings to get you engaged. At Chanel, that was the story of Coco. Gap at the time was great. That was saying to me that anybody could look cool in a pocket tee and you can express your own individuality. It’s something greater than you. For me, the body is quite simple. It’s the actions that we take. When I first joined Chanel, we were supposed to be the ultimate luxury brand. I would tour all these department stores and look at our fragrance and beauty counters. They were dirty. There were missing samplers.
I thought, “Is this the ultimate house of luxury? I don’t think so.” Aligning all those things. I’d say underneath, which is the soul. For me, the soul, you mentioned that. Why are we in business? Why do we do what we do? This sounds easy, but I can tell you having done what we call purpose work at Chanel. It was pretty difficult to get a group of people together and to say for example, I asked the owner this question at one point, he said, “We’re in this business to make money.” I ask another employee, they say, “We’re in this business to sell luxurious things.” When in fact to me, we were in the business to make women feel beautiful. When you start to get that alignment which underneath there’s this purpose, that’s what great brands do.
I would encourage you to read more of what Maureen has written and she’s got much more in store on this next phase of her life that she’s going into. There’s way more to tell than the time has given us. Thank you for being vulnerable with the community, for sharing your wisdom and being here with us.