Leadership & Management

Brenda Barnes: We Must Support Women Returning to the Work Force

The CEO of Sara Lee Corp. explains why her company recruits mid-career talent that has been out of the workforce for a couple of years.

February 01, 2009

| by Joyce Routson

Brenda C. Barnes never set out to be the poster child for women chucking business careers to have children when she stepped away from a high-powered job heading up North America for PepsiCo in 1997. But she broke the stereotype when she returned to the workplace six years later as president of the Sara Lee Corp., where she became CEO in 2005.


Much has been written about Barnes’ “role reversal” in moving back into corporate life — and whether after years of managing children she was ready to manage a Fortune 500 company. Today the CEO, who was criticized in the investor community for her unorthodox career path, says she “has a role to play” in making sure corporate America is aware of the hidden talents of women who once stayed at home but who today want to re-enter the work force.

“These are women who have been running society, our schools,” she told a Stanford Graduate School of Business audience Feb. 10. “This was a personal choice that was right for me and I never wanted to be a role model, but now I feel I have a role to play.”

As a result Sara Lee has introduced Returnships, a career program for mid-career professionals re-entering the workforce after having been away for a number of years. These paid, flexible internships of four to six months aren’t for women specifically, but Barnes told Forbes last year she expects most applicants to be female: “There’s a large pool of women who chose to leave the workforce. But it doesn’t mean they lost their brains.”

Returnships are just part of the talent equation at Sara Lee, a $4 billion company based in Downers Grove, Ill., and familiar to many for its cheesecake. Barnes, who has two sons attending Stanford, spoke about the corporate culture there, and the effort to transform the former decentralized holding company into an integrated operating company.

“We could have stayed with the status quo, but we would not deliver a quality company down the road,” she said. “Long-term challenges need long-term fixes,” something that she reminds the investor community, which has been skeptical of the plan. The effort, announced in 2005, is to create more value with a more-focused product portfolio, and reduced costs through system-wide synergies. In the next phase, the goal is to drive out $200 million to $250 million in costs over several years.

A big part of achieving success, Barnes said, has been moving the corporate culture towards one based on teamwork and integrity. “As a leader, I need to instill the right culture and values that will stand the test of time.” She has led an effort to redefine the mission statement, which positions the company as one of innovative ideas and continuous improvement.

Another change has been to remake the board of directors, which today has only five members from pre-transformation days. The board, which includes an activist investor, ‘Asks the tough questions and encourages us to make the right decisions,’ she said.

Barnes spent several minutes on lessons she’s learned from almost three decades in the business world.

“Remember that the customer pays the bills,” she said. “Focus on them always and give them what they want and [do it] better than the competitors.”

Listen to your employees. “You have to rely on your people. They have the answers. You can tap into them, and they can help you solve your problems.”

On leadership: “People look to their leaders to give perspective, to answer why they should have confidence in the company.”

Barnes admitted her leadership has been called into question because of Sara Lee’s slumping stock price. “I was blasted in the press,” she said of the analyst community. “But fear is a great motivator, and I don’t like to fail. Criticism motivates me more.”

Barnes’ talk was part of the student-run “View From The Top” series organized through the School’s Center for Leadership Development and Research.

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