The secrets of her success

beauty queen deborah himsel

Nick Shanagher looks at what it takes to make a great business leader.

Andrea Jung is less well-known in Europe than in the US, where she was once viewed as the world’s most charismatic and effective chief executive as the result of her leadership of cosmetics company Avon.

When she was appointed in 1999, “the jury was still out as to whether a woman could be the successful head of a major corporation,” notes Deborah Himsel in her book Beauty Queen, which analyses Jung’s 12 years in charge. Today, there is no question at all on the subject.

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Five leadership ‘to do’ points
  1. Look to the top: Approach CEO succession as if your company’s life depends on it.
  2. Manage paradoxes: Weigh up global markets against local markets. Balance long-term sustainability with short-term results.
  3. Work out the perfect blend: Find the right mix of people, policies and processes for your company.
  4. Do you know who you are and what you want to do? Identify the business you’re in and redefine that as necessary.
  5. Become what you need to be to succeed: Align your company’s culture and strategy.

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Himsel worked under Jung at Avon as vice president of global organisation effectiveness and her book sets out to examine the leadership lessons of those 12 years, rather than straight biography. And this story of how big corporations choose leaders, gain momentum and fall apart is gripping in parts.

For UK wholesalers, there are many parallels with their own businesses in Avon’s bid to update a successful business model of direct selling into a new world of FMCG brands. The Avon ecosystem is full of employees, agents and business partners whose effectiveness and interests collide: sometimes working with each other, sometimes against.

Underpinning the whole edifice is the attempt to understand the shopper. In the West, the Avon shopper was older and definitely out of fashion. In the rest of the world, the Avon customer was often at the cutting edge of changing women’s lifestyles. And the company’s agents often made money from selling stuff that only loosely fitted with Avon’s core proposition. If indeed it had a core proposition.

Himsel divides her book in two: six chapters tell Jung’s story and another five spell out leadership lessons and action lists. This makes for sometimes awkward reading, as the parts of the book where Jung is present are often very exciting, while the teaching parts are more academic.

For example, “Early on, Andrea showed a flair for spotting and capitalizing on fashion trends and getting inside the European runway show scene… hanging out with designer Donna Karan and then-Vogue editor Anne Sutherland Fuchs. Though she was slightly young and inexperienced, she had already developed her signature style. She wore exquisite designer clothes and projected an air of confidence and marketing insight well beyond her years. People were drawn to her beauty, taste and bold ideas.”

This is followed two pages later with a note: “Authenticity is crucial to leadership greatness and Andrea came off as authentic because she valued who she was and how she was raised.”

A later example comes just after she got the top job: “If Andrea’s halo started to glow during her first meetings with analysts, it really started to sparkle in the ensuing months… it became clear almost immediately that Andrea required no guidance. She was born to the job and while she may have needed support in some areas, she was eminently capable of leading Avon on her own.”

This is followed by: “Seek leaders who can be both architects of change and its driver.”

Beauty Queen works on two levels. On the one hand, it is an excellent primer for understanding global manufacturers of fast moving goods and how they make decisions at various levels. And how they fail to make decisions. And how excellent executives can sometimes become the fall guys as the corporation battles to survive.

On the other hand, it usefully describes how great ideas are not always enough. Established markets tend to have a momentum of their own. Brands are made by the people who work to keep them alive and through how these people understand how they add value to the world.

Himsel tries to show how to do this. The first item on the to-do list for leaders that closes the book is: Know the organisation’s place in its evolutionary cycle. The seventh is align the culture and the strategy. Himsel sets out the to-do list persuasively and this is a useful book if you are searching for the secrets to success.

Beauty Queen by Deborah Himsel is available from Amazon for £15

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As managing director of Newtrade Publishing Nick has over 20 years’ experience of covering retail markets, Nick helps shopkeepers and wholesalers of all sizes to think about what questions are important for themselves and their businesses, and to find answers that work in their shops.

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