Three questions every ambitious person should ask themselves

“We don’t always understand the complexity, the difficulties, the responsibilities. I ask a series of three questions, instead of giving advice.”

Maureen Chiquet began her career in marketing at L’Oreal Paris in 1985. She has worked at The Gap, helped launch Old Navy, and was president of Banana Republic before becoming COO and President of U.S. operations of Chanel in 2003. In 2007 she became its first Global CEO, where she oversaw the business and brand’s worldwide expansion. She left Chanel in 2016 to focus on writing, speaking, and developing new leadership initiatives, including her recent book Beyond the Label. She recently sat down with world-leading business thinker Whitney Johnson, author of Build an A-Team and host of the Disrupt Yourself podcast, to discuss how she developed her signature leadership style.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Maureen and Whitney’s full conversation on the Disrupt Yourself Podcast, click here.

Whitney: You studied film and literature at Yale. How did that influence you as a merchant and as a marketer?

Maureen: I don’t think I could have chosen a better course of study, which sounds strange when you think of marketing and retail—you think of numbers and spreadsheets and pie charts and graphs. Literature [is] all about stories and about human connections. And most consumer products rely on a certain emotional connection, so I think that’s number one.

Number two, film and theater really dimensionalize, and show signs and symbols that get us emotional. So as you’re looking at an image that evokes a certain emotion, there is a way that being very attuned to your own emotions while watching something allows [us] to think about how consumers might see something. How they might view something, and ways that we might change or craft an image to encourage purchase.

“There is a way that being very attuned to your own emotions while watching something allows [us] to think about how consumers might see something.”

Whitney: In your book, you talk about a number of instances where you took on roles that weren’t necessarily glamorous or exciting. You’ve been the CEO of Chanel, but it’s not like it was one straight shot up the ladder. What are some examples where you took a job or got a role that wasn’t quite what you thought it would be?

Maureen: When I got to [L’Oreal,] I was going to be out on the road as a sales rep, basically. I ended up being in the north of France in coal mining country, which is traditionally the foggiest, grayest, most dismal part of the country. That’s where I was stationed to sell cosmetic and hair products out of my little suitcase into hypermarkets, [which are] giant supermarkets like Sam’s Club.

I was supposed to sell end caps—[the displays] at the end of an aisle, the things that are on promotion. I was supposed to negotiate [with managers] at the hypermarket, and the marketing team supplied me with these pamphlets full of marketing speak. I realized I [couldn’t] speak this marketing speak, but I had to speak their language. So I [asked], “What would it cost me to get one of those end caps?” I ended up getting the end caps that I wanted.

Whitney: Your first job is in L’Oreal, then you and your husband move to the United States, [where] you get a job at the Gap. You start in the sample closet, then what?

Maureen: After the sample closet, I was in the accessory department. I was assistant merchandiser of socks and belts. Not exactly what I bargained for, but I found ways within that opportunity to stake a claim and make a name for myself. Belts had been ignored by the Gap. In the stores, most belts sold at $9.99, which was barely above cost. I’d noticed that a lot of women were wearing jeans and wider belts, so I decided that I was going to build this new assortment of belts for Gap. I loved leather, and of course the kind of leather I wanted was expensive, but I took a risk and had all these belts made. I convinced my boss and my boss’s boss that we should price the belts much higher, in the $30s. I was convinced that we’d sell them, and in fact, we did.

Whitney: How did you convince them? What did you do?

Maureen: I had all the data points prepared. I looked at the increases of denim selling, pointed out pictures of women with belts on. I sold it with the line, “Shouldn’t we as Gap, an American company, have belts to go with our American jeans?”

They were willing to take the risk with me, and it was an amazing success. In so many ways, it built my reputation. I became “the belt girl.” For me, it was finding the opportunity in even the smallest areas.

“It was finding the opportunity in even the smallest areas.”

Whitney: That’s a great story—and playing where other people didn’t want to play turned out to be a career maker. What happened next?

Maureen: I was later promoted to the denim department, which was really interesting because denim was an area that relied a lot on sourcing fabrics and figuring out how much fabric to get to the cutter and how much needs to be cut. It was actually very technical and very difficult, [and] led me to one of my biggest lessons when I got yelled at by the CEO of the company for not listening to him.

Whitney: I would love to hear this lesson.

Maureen: I was an associate merchant in denim, and I was seven months pregnant. My boss was actually on maternity leave, and Mickey Drexler, who was then the CEO, called me into an advertising meeting. The goal of these meetings was usually to figure out what products we’re going to advertise at the Gap. I rushed down to the conference room, and I started to show him my brand new finish in a new pant called the wide leg jean. Boy, was I excited. He looks, and [says,] “If this is such a good wash, why aren’t you doing it in the classic fit jean?” I say, “Well, no one wants to wear the classic fit jean anymore. It’s old. It doesn’t fit right.” He asked, “How many classic fit jeans are you selling?” It was [about] 20,000 a week, and at the time we had a similar wide leg jean, and it was not [selling] even a fraction of that.

I kept going, almost steamrolling him and finally he stopped the meeting and walked out.

Whitney: What did you do? How did you feel?

Maureen: I started to cry. I was really upset because I thought I’d lost my job. I went back to my office, the phone rang and it was Mickey. Mickey said to me, “Maureen, you’re a really good merchant. But you need to learn to listen. Really listen. Not to me because I’m the CEO. Listen to your colleagues. Listen to your customers. Open your ears. Take things in.”

I thanked him. And I continue to thank him because it’s such a critical part of who I became as a leader.

“You need to learn to listen. Really listen. Not to me because I’m the CEO. Listen to your colleagues. Listen to your customers. Open your ears. Take things in.”

Whitney: Can you think of a time when you were CEO and you [heard] Mickey’s voice in your head? [A time] where you thought, “I need to listen right now”?

Maureen: When I first came to Chanel, I was the only woman at the head of a table of ten men, and they were really savvy executives. All of them had been in the business for 20-odd years, and many of them were a lot older than I was. I went through about a year of training, so I was traveling around the world, looking at our manufacturing, looking at our sales, looking at our marketing—every department.

By the time I got to be the CEO, I really wanted to institute some strategies, but I found myself saying, “You’ve got to slow down. You’ve got to listen to things from their perspective.”

Whitney: Can you think of one of your hardest days on the job as CEO?

Maureen: Three or four years before I left, I had made a decision based on how disrupted our world was, [through] the Internet and globalization and millennials—all these things were coming at us that had not existed before. We’re standing in front of the unknown. I had decided to launch a leadership program because I felt that the way to address problems [was] to go more systemically to the core and [ask,] “How do you get leaders to change their behaviors to be able to take in this unknown future?” I had practiced a different kind of leadership myself, which was much more about listening and asking questions. So I figured we should all actually embrace these qualities because this will help us with all the disruption in our world.

So on a rainy day in July, I corralled my team into this big dusty ballroom. I first sent them outside to do team building exercises. If you’ve done team building [exercises,] sometimes they’re great, and sometimes you really don’t want to do them. This [was] one of those times they really didn’t want to do them. Then, I bring them back in and I tell them that we are going to proceed with this program, we’re going to learn how to be more empathetic and listen better and be more agile, etcetera. Of course, in that moment, I’m doing everything but that.

At lunchtime everybody was chit-chatting about how much they disliked the consultant I had brought in, about how much they hated the exercises. I asked them a series of leading questions that they refused to answer. I realized that I had made the very mistake that I didn’t want to make. I had actually become what I didn’t want to become. I was trying to force a leadership program down their throats. So I stopped the offsite and I actually wrote a letter to each one of my leadership team members asking them for an hour and a half of their time just to talk to me about what they cared about.

Whitney: Wow.

Maureen: Asking, what in our culture do they want to keep, what did they want to evolve, where were they in their leadership? How did they feel about their positions? Everyone gave input to a document that actually set the course for another leadership initiative that we all created together. But it was tough at first. I was crushed by knowing that I went into it the wrong way.

Whitney: If you were to talk to a college student who says, “Someday I want to be a CEO,” what advice would you give them?

Maureen: I actually don’t love to give advice, but I like to ask a lot of questions. So I guess I would ask the question, “Why? Why do you want to be a CEO? What about being a CEO really attracts you? And what makes your heart sing?”

Because what I’ve noticed is that we have ideas about what these positions are—what you do, what you get to do—but we don’t always understand the complexity, the difficulties, the responsibilities. I ask a series of three questions, instead of giving advice. I like to ask people what makes their heart sing. [I ask,] “If I strip out the label, if I strip away the CEO title, why do you want that job?” And, “What can’t you live without?”

Another thing I like to think about is [asking,] “What do you do well, and where can you make a mark that’s distinctly your own?”

This article first appeared on Heleo.