Andrea Jung | corporate executive

A new makeover for an old retail face

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"The CEO's job is lonely and getting ever more difficult. When you take it to heart, it becomes your life, not just a job."

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Andrea Jung learned the hard way that it isn't easy being CEO of the world's largest organization. Running a network of 5.5 million people, most of whom are independent sales representatives, the head of Avon Products says, "I feel enormously responsible not to let down the people. The CEO's job is lonely and getting ever more difficult. When you take it to heart, it becomes your life, not just a job."

Jung learned just how difficult in the fall of 2005. After Avon had experienced five years of double-digit growth, Jung, 49, faced the greatest challenge of her career: With the company's revenue growth slowing to 5 percent, earnings went flat, and the stock market pounded down the stock price more than 30 percent. Jung was stung by an avalanche of criticism from analysts.

Did she cater to their demands? Not exactly. She eliminated eight levels of management and cut costs by $300 million. But then she decided to reinvest savings and reignite growth, entering the Chinese market and expanding advertising. She also suspended guidance to security analysts about Avon's projected earnings. Two years later, sales are growing in double digits and Avon stock is up 40 percent from its 2005 low.

With the humility characteristic of her Chinese heritage, Jung had recognized she needed a fresh perspective. She recalled the advice of a fellow CEO: "Pretend you were fired and got brought back in new." Jung asked herself, "Can I be humble enough to destroy my own thinking of the last five years and re-create it as if I were a brand-new hire? The thing is, you're not new. You're taking out the same people you put in. Being able to reinvent yourself personally as a leader is just as important as reinventing the company and its strategy."

Discipline. Jung was born in Canada to parents who emigrated from China to practice architecture and civil engineering. She never forgot the discipline she learned as a child. Graduating from Princeton in just three years, she joined Bloomingdale's management training program, only to become so frustrated with menial tasks that a few months later she resolved to quit. But then, she says, her parents reminded her, "We don't quit in this family. We persevere."

Jung stayed, rising rapidly at Bloomingdale's and later at I. Magnin and Neiman Marcus, where she became executive vice president at only 32. But four years later she walked out. After a career focused on selling to the luxury market, she yearned for more meaningful work.

Joining Avon a year later, Jung was once again on track to the top. At age 39, she was considered for the CEO's post but passed over. Ready to leave as a result, Jung was counseled by Avon board member Ann Moore, CEO of Time Inc.: "Follow your compass and not your clock." Taking Moore's advice, Jung stayed and was elevated to CEO less than two years later.

Her first move was to adopt a new vision for Avon. In contrast to the company's first 100 years as just a cosmetics company, Jung called for Avon to become "The Company for Women," an organization that enables its sales reps to achieve economic self-sufficiency. "We elevate women in the community and create commerce that can better their families' lives," Jung says. She has backed up her vision by offering loans to sales reps for start-up inventory, making a $450 million investment in breast cancer education and research, and launching a campaign against domestic violence.

Jung says she is driven by a passion to make a difference. And with Avon, she has found it. "There is purpose in my work: enabling women to be self-empowered, to learn to run their own businesses and achieve the economic means to provide education." At the end of the day, she says, that trumps all things.

Bill George, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, is the former CEO of Medtronic and the author of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership.