Pattie Sellers, Fortune’s Senior Editor at Large, and Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc., is back for her fifth Dialogue with Leadership at the recent Forté MBA Women’s Conference. This year, Pattie is joined by Irene Chang Britt, President, Pepperidge Farm, and Senior Vice President, Global Baking and Snacking, Campbell Soup Company, and Kathleen Murphy President of Personal Investing, Fidelity Investments: two women business leaders who are truly at the top of their career game.
Interestingly, both Irene and Kathleen report to women who themselves are on the Fortune 50 Most Powerful Women in Business list. “We’re getting there!” Irene said to the crowd of 400 MBA women assembled for the event.
The Dialogue is always a candid conversation with women leaders willing to share their acquired wisdom. Kathleen (who grew up the third in a family of six kids, with “a lot of brothers”) recalled that after graduating from college, she had no idea what she wanted to do, so she bought time by enrolling in law school at University of Connecticut. She knew she was interested in the intersection of law, economics, and social issues. “As a lawyer, I always gravitated toward the business side of law.” She joined Aetna, where she learned to “get out of my comfort zone and take risks.” In fact, at one point in her mid-twenties, she swore that she’d never work in financial services; yet, today, she oversees the retail business at Fidelity, including a group of more than 11,000 employees in charge of personal investments.
Irene, who grew up in Taiwan, was a self-proclaimed “nerdy cellist” and competitive cyclist as a teenager and studied anthropology at Queen’s University. With her brother, a landscape architect, she opened a high-end bicycle store in Toronto. “It ended up being a profitable million-dollar business,” she noted, with still-evident surprise. At the time, Irene was just a freshman in college. Her mother suggested she get an MBA, and “that started me in business,” she recalls.
“Business school went horribly wrong, at the beginning,” Irene continued. “They probably never should have accepted me. I came in in Lycra. I had ridden my bike 20 miles to the orientation, and I still had stuff under my fingernails from fixing bikes.” She failed her first semester, but eventually graduated on the dean’s honor list. “I finally realized that business was business, and business is people, and I knew selling. It started to make sense to me.”
Both Irene and Kathleen talked about communication, and motivating a team. Kathleen noted: “Communicating to over 11,000 people is challenging from a number of perspectives. You have to get out there. I spend a lot of time on the road making sure I’m close to the field. I insist on candor. To me, candor is a form of respect. But once you invite candor, you have to do something about it. You have to act on the feedback you get.”
Communication with the field flows both ways. When Kathleen joined Fidelity, her team handed her an iPod they had stocked with 20 hours of customer calls for her to review: “It was fantastic,” she says. She still listens to recorded customer calls today, as a way to get closer to the day-to-day business in the field. “You’re learning the business on every single call.”
Irene, too, responded to the idea of staying close to employees, and identifying the next generation of business leaders: “You have to have lieutenants,” she said. “You grow leaders and they go out and listen too.”
“I absolutely agree,” said Kathleen. “And people want to be part of something bigger than themselves. When you’re out there, you have to paint a picture of something bigger than themselves that they can be motivated by.”
Niether woman shrinks from competition. In fact, in response to a question from our audience about how you navigate sexism, both were frank: “Focus on what matters, which is winning,” said Kathleen. “You can get distracted by a lot of other stuff. But what most companies want is people who can win.”
“Kathleen and I are of an era when a lot of women went to non-line roles. Not enough women ran line businesses,” said Irene. “If you can, go run line businesses,” she counseled. “Have the P&L. In the worst moments, put up your P&L. That’s the argument-ender.”
“When you’re asked to be the expert every day, it’s hard to say what you don’t know, but you have to keep pushing yourself to learn,” continued Irene. “I mentor a lot of women around the world who don’t even work for our company, and I do that because I want to build great people.”
On a similarly reflective note, Kathleen summed up: “I want to look back at the end of my life with no coulda/woulda/shoulda. I want to be satisfied that I committed to excellence: in business, in the philanthropic work I do, and, most importantly, with my family. I don’t have any pre-determined course. I just want to have fun.”