Reinventing the Avon Lady

If Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon Products since 1999, had one recurring theme in her speech at HBS on November 6, it would be “reinvention.” Jung, who was ranked 35 in the Forbes list of 100 Most Powerful Women in 2005, stressed the importance of constantly reinventing oneself as a person and a leader, as she addressed a primarily female audience in Spangler auditorium in an event hosted jointly by the Leadership and Ethics Forum and the Social Enterprise Club.

Jung certainly lived up to her own mantra in reinventing Avon, transforming it from an old tired cosmetics brand to a fresh international brand today. Beginning in 1999, she gave the company an extreme makeover, pouring millions into research and development. She pushed new lines of skin cream, repackaged familiar products, expanded internationally and developed snazzy ads with celebrities like Salma Hayek. In her seven years as CEO, sales have jumped 45 percent, from $5.3 billion to $8.1 billion in 2006. In doing so, she returned the firm to Avon’s founding vision as “the company for women” focused on creating economic opportunities for women; that tagline was so successfully reintroduced into the public consciousness that the New York Times used it as the clue for Avon in one of its crossword puzzles. The transformation is unlikely to stop-building on its momentum as one of the first American cosmetics firms to enter emerging markets, Avon is focusing on an aggressive push into India, China and Russia in the immediate future.

As one of the most high profile female managers today, Jung is acutely aware of her status as a role model for women. Although the majority of employees are female, Avon had traditionally relied on male managers. Jung is the first female CEO of Avon in its 118-year history. Jung sees a “sea-change coming” within the corporate world. As more women break out of their staff roles into operating roles, more female leaders will emerge. Already, there are a number of women in number two spots waiting to take the lead as CEOs. However, she does not believe in over-compensating for the gender bias. Rather, she believes that it is important to have a level playing field for everyone.

Jung acknowledges that work-life balance remains the number one issue for most women these days. As a mother of two, she has had to make tough choices balancing the requirements of the job versus the needs of her children. “Sometimes Avon loses, sometimes the kids lose,” she said. “The important thing is not to feel guilty either way.” She continued, “It can be done, but you need to make decisions prioritizing the two.” As an example, she spoke of a time she declined an invitation to meet President Bush at the White House in order to send her daughter off to Paris for summer camp because “she will remember forever that I wasn’t there. [whereas] President Bush would never have even noticed.”

Jung rounded up the discussion by listing the seven qualities she believes are crucial for success as a leader. The first is integrity and character. As she puts it, “trust has to start from the top and there is no second chance.” Passion for the work is the second criteria, and Jung related the story of how she resolved to stay at Avon despite being passed over for the CEO spot the first time around in 1997 because she had fallen in the love with the company. The third quality is compassion and Jung reminded her audience of the need to treat people with respect even in the worst of circumstances because people will always remember. The last four qualities mentioned were humility, pride in one’s identity, courage and a sense of purpose. She ended her speech by encouraging her audience to make a difference by quoting Robert Kennedy, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events; and in the total, of all those acts will have written the history of this generation.”