When Andrea Jung steps down as chief executive officer of Avon Products Inc. , she will end her reign as the longest-serving female CEO at a Fortune 500 company.
Last week, the global cosmetics company announced that the Toronto native, who has carried both the CEO and executive chairman titles since 1999, will step down as chief executive when her successor is found. She will keep the position of executive chair for two years and will have a role in choosing the new CEO as Avon separates the two roles.
From a historical perspective, few companies appear as synonymous with women in business as Avon, which give women the opportunity to earn money as early as 1886. With 6.5 million independent sales representatives in 100 countries, it’s safe to say that Ms. Jung served as a role model for many aspiring women.
But maintaining a positive image includes more than simply sporting the right lipstick and Ms. Jung’s graceful and professional (albeit slow-motion) departure offers some lessons on how to look good while you step down – lessons that do not apply exclusively to women.
“Your legacy in an organization, your ability to lead and be graceful under fire is essential for men and women,” observed Lynn Harris, who runs an executive development practice in Montreal and wrote Unwritten Rules: What Women Need to Know About Leading in Today’s Organizations. “I don’t see a gender issue here,” she added.
Avon’s decision to replace its CEO comes on the heels of a string of bad news for the company, including poor sales in key markets and two investigations by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. To her credit, Ms. Jung acknowledged her faults quickly, and by putting the company’s reputation before her own, she managed to avoid a personal backlash, said Michael Crom, executive vice-president of Dale Carnegie Training in New York.
“With some of [Avon’s]recent bad press ... as well as significant drops in sales, [Ms.]Jung was able to admit that under her watch, the company had entered a downward spiral,” Mr. Crom said. To maintain her image, he said she should continue to be honest and upfront about her mistakes and speak out about how Avon can move past them.
While fashioning a smooth exit remains a skill both men and women must hone, it can be difficult to remove your emotions from the situation. Unfortunately for women, when emotions get involved, it does not go unnoticed.
In comparison, consider Carol Bartz, who was dismissed as Yahoo Inc. ’s CEO in September by the company’s chairman. After her exit, some questioned if firing Ms. Bartz by telephone was the most prudent approach, but that point paled in comparison with the expletives she directed at her former employer.
While both men and women can become emotional at work, gender stereotypes continue to determine what is acceptable and not acceptable behaviour. A similar exit by a male CEO might not have been perceived as badly, Ms. Harris noted.
“What seems to be acceptable is for men to shout and swear and bang the table. If women do that, they are out of control, overemotional and a bit of a bitch,” she said. While Ms. Bartz’s response would still have drawn attention had it come from a man, it’s unlikely to have had the same viral impact.
“One of the things I love about Carol Bartz is she goes against social stereotypes but she has to pay the price for that, which she is happy to do,” Ms. Harris said.
Taking a combative approach may be Ms. Bartz’s signature style, but it comes with consequences. Emphasizing that your online reputation lives on forever, Mr. Crom observed that the top hits in a Google search of “Carol Bartz” are articles critical of her behaviour, whereas many articles about Ms. Jung carry a more positive spin.
Ms. Harris advises soon-to-be leaving executives to seek help if they need advice on how to carefully manage their exit strategy, because it demonstrates their leadership capabilities.
“When you are in your next leadership position, you don’t want that legacy following you that you didn’t have the emotional resilience to manage your exit well,” she warned.
Leah Eichler is a senior editor at Thomson Reuters who writes about women, their careers and success. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org