Career Success, Women in Leadership

This 7-Time Most Powerful Woman Shares Career Advice for Aspiring Leaders

By EverwiseDecember 23, 2015

Starting out as a Brand Assistant for Procter & Gamble in 1985, Deb Henretta climbed the company ranks in marketing, eventually reaching a series of roles as Group President for everything from Global e-Business to Beauty. In her three decades at the company, she worked in nearly every arm of the organization, lived on three different continents (US, Europe, and Asia), was named one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women 7-times and acquired a massive amount of knowledge and experiences.

Henretta’s the first to admit that spending 30 years at the same company is far from the norm these days and that many readers might assume her experience won’t be relatable. “Despite my chosen career path, I think having different experiences in different business cultures with different business challenges is a very good thing,” she says.

But this long and successful career looks nothing like what she envisioned for herself when she was starting out. In college she pursued journalism; in grad school it was advertising; after graduation she set out to work at a series of smaller ad agencies. She was very clear on that: she never wanted to stay at the same company year after year. But what she found was that working at Procter & Gamble is like working at many small companies. “By working at such a large company with hundreds of brands in hundreds of markets, I was able to get very diverse business experiences within the walls of one company.”

So we asked her some tough questions aimed at giving young professionals useable advice for their careers: what separates a decent manager from a great one, what your successes and failures can really teach you, and how you can continue to evolve your career while thriving in a busy, demanding role.

Deb Henretta

What advice do you most frequently give new professionals?

Turn your passion into power. Find something you love doing and it will power your success, helping you stay positive and persistent. Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Be someone who sees and seizes the opportunities in life.

And lead change. Change is the only constant in life and its pace is accelerating. Welcome change, don’t hide from it; embrace it, don’t be paralyzed by it. See what is needed in the present to lead others to the future. To effectively lead change you need three things: your head to imagine what’s possible, your heart to inspire others to that possibility, and your hands to turn the possibility into a reality.

Be a leader of consequence. Our fast changing world calls for a new type of leader — those with the ability and willingness to do great right things. Knowledge gives you the competence to do great things but it is your character that helps you do right things. This is what separates good leaders from great leaders.

Enjoy life. Be careful not to let life pass you by in the pursuit of success. Make sure you make enough time to enjoy life. Laugh, laugh hard, and laugh often. It is good for the soul and we are now finding it is good for your health. Life seems to speed up the older you get so don’t get caught waiting and wishing and wondering about what could have been or should have been. Seek out and create moments that matter for you and those you love.

And most importantly, make a difference. Whatever path you choose in life — whether your impact is to be big or small, global or local, affecting millions or affecting one, use your time and talents to make a difference in your world.

How do you continue to learn and grow within the many roles you’ve had at P&G?

In today’s fast changing and dynamic world, you must be forever a student — constantly learning, seeking out new opportunities. I work hard to stay on top of things by being a constant observer, an avid reader, and a perpetual change agent. This was not always the case. There was a time when I lived in a bit of a digital fog. I was one of those moms who thought lol meant “lots of love.” With a handful of digital natives at home and a growing tribe of digital natives at work, I knew I had to get with the times. I needed to evolve from digital novice to as close to a digital native as I can be — with lots of help from my kids at home and the millennials at work.

The fast pace of innovation, ever changing technologies, and “the internet of things” forces learning to the top of your to do list. Without doing so, you risk being a dinosaur in your field and at your job.

What kinds of mentors have you had in your career?

I have been fortunate to have many terrific mentors. I don’t believe that there is one perfect mentor out there for you. Rather I believe in a portfolio of mentors. Just like you wouldn’t put all your money into a single investment, you shouldn’t put your career growth in the hands of one mentor. You can and should add mentors as you need specific skills or experiences or advice. I have been lucky enough to have lots of excellent mentors over my career, and even with 30 years of business experience under my belt, I still have mentors.

One of my most significant business mentors was Kerry Clark. He helped me transform from a marketing/advertising expert into a successful well rounded business leader.

In Asia, Leo Yip, the then Chairman of the Singapore Economic Development Board, helped me find my way around Asia business circles and gave me opportunities to make meaningful contributions to the economic development of Singapore.

Today, I still have important mentors like Scott Miller, former CEO of Hyatt Hotels and now CEO of G100. When I made the very tough decision to leave P&G and try my hand at something new, Scott stepped in as a critically important advisor. He helped me sort through possibilities, evaluate opportunities, and make new connections outside the somewhat insular world of P&G. 

Have you ever been a mentor yourself?

I have had many mentees over the years. I have found mentoring is much less about giving advice and much more about helping the individuals grow their capabilities and connections to help themselves. Mentoring also allows me to give back and help build the next generation of leaders.

Over the years, I have developed several Mentor Up programs. While in Asia, we created a technology Mentor Up program whereby younger tech savvy digital natives were mentoring less savvy senior leaders.

What are your thoughts on success?

First, only you can define what success looks like. Be true to your hopes and dreams. Second, success comes when you are clear on what you want and you are willing to work hard at it. Some people happen upon success, but for most of us, success comes about as a result of lots of hard work. Third, success is not defined by what life gives you, but rather what you make of what you are given.

Any thoughts on failure?

While success can be a good teacher, I have found failure to be a better teacher. You can glean so much from an objective assessment of your mistakes than you ever will from a self-congratulatory look at your success.

Do you have advice for professionals who are not brand new to the workforce, but looking for a change in their careers? 

I can offer them the same advice I am following myself as I make a huge career change: Be open and stay open to new possibilities; think more in terms of skills, capabilities, and experiences than a specific job title or company. Keep in mind, very little in life is ever final.

Today, you can learn so much so quickly — doors which once upon a time may have been shut are now open. I have heard of so many people who at mid-career or even later are not feeling fulfilled and decide to try their hand at something new. One incredible example is Madeline Albright, who didn’t become Secretary of State until age 60.

What advice do you have to those who are just managing their first subordinates or teams? 

I have a few thoughts to share with those who are first time managers:

Take time to get to know those you manage as best you can, know them first as people then as employees. Treat them as you would like to be treated — be respectful and kind especially when times require a tough message. Make sure you take the time to listen to what they know, what they think is working and not working before you blow in with all your own ideas. Be a coach more often than the boss. Both roles are important but my experience suggests a focus on coaching to succeed is a more effective way to lead people.

What expected or unexpected challenges have you encountered in your new adventures since retirement? 

The most significant challenge has been deciding what to focus on and managing my time. I have the good fortune of having a number of very exciting opportunities in front of me. Deciding which of these opportunities to take and how I will allocate my time between them is proving challenging at times.

I am finding that I have to take my priority setting skills to a whole new level all while building my capacity, time management, and productivity skills. Going digital and leveraging the internet of things has proved valuable. It is the foundation for being able to successfully deliver on my new commitments while still finding the time to enjoy my family and passions.



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