Remembering Brenda Barnes

This week Brenda Barnes, legendary Fortune 500 CEO, mother and advocate for working women passed away at the age of 63. It was a sad day for many on multiple levels. She was known most recently for her role as CEO of Sara Lee and was named by Fortune Magazine as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world. She was also a pioneer for finding new ways to keep women in the workforce through flexible work schedules so that companies didn’t lose their critical pipeline of female talent.

Her path to CEO of Sara Lee was not traditional. She worked her way up the corporate ladder to be the CEO and President of Pepsi’s North American business, but she later stepped down to care for her children who were 10, 8 and 7 at the time. This move sparked an international debate on the issue if women could “have it all.” Many looked at her move as a setback for working women, but what came next would surprise many, as her story didn’t end there.

She spent the next several years sitting on several public company boards, before returning to a CEO role at Sara Lee. It gave her unique experience and perspective that she never would have gotten if she had not made the bold move. A creative way to navigate her career path and work life balance.

In her role as CEO at Sara Lee, she created the first Returnship Program, allowing women to come back to meaningful roles after taking time off to be with their families. Born out of the need to solve a business problem, she changed the dynamics in corporate America and created instant advocacy for working women. This triggered many other companies to follow suit and find better ways for women to find balance while maintaining a career.

Back in 2013, I had an opportunity to meet Brenda for lunch and talk about the challenges that we face as working women and how we manage our balance. She agreed to meet with me after I had written her a letter, which was delivered to her through a common acquaintance. I knew this was not something that she did often. Her advice, which I am sharing with you now, was simple but impactful.

Do what’s right for you. It sounds simple, but it’s not always easy to do. Brenda told me that her decision to step down was difficult, but at the time, she said that she wanted and needed more time with her kids. Her decision was for personal reasons, but it was part of a bigger plan to meet her balance needs and stay in the game in a different role. Know your needs, be courageous and plan your next moves with intention.

Create new paths to make change in the workplace. Be an advocate for change. Business problems get solved by voicing new ideas and charting new paths.   Do this in your work and your personal lives, because the two connect in many ways.

Confidence is critical to your success. As a working woman, confidence is something that your employer can’t give you, but you need. Building confidence is hard, even for the most successful women, but it’s like a muscle that builds as you exercise it. Don’t overlook the importance of this, especially in male dominated environments where asserting your needs can be challenging.

Navigate your career path in strategic ways. Know your areas of strength and position yourself in roles where you utilize these skills and solve complex problems for the business. Think out of the box on ways to make your next moves and know there are untraditional paths that can get you to the same place.

I took her advice to heart with several actions to further my own career. When I changed jobs, I took a remote role to manage my balance in a way that was better for me and my family. I hired a communication coach to build my presentation skills to feel more confident presenting at an executive level. I started the first working parent committee at our elementary school to advocate for working parents to participate in school events in new and more flexible ways. Most importantly, I realized that she’s one of us. Brenda and many other women of her stature have the same challenges that we do. Connecting with other women to get ideas on how to work through them is powerful.

I, on behalf of many women thank Brenda for all she did for us, both directly and indirectly. I’ll forever be thankful for her guidance.