Not Her Father's Chief Executive
When Curtis Carlson, a former soap salesman who made a fortune with Gold Bond trading stamps, finally gave up the reins of the $34 billion Carlson Companies at age 84, he did not have in mind a transfer to his vivacious daughter Marilyn Nelson. After all, when Nelson learned she was pregnant with her second child, Carlson had told her to leave the privately owned hospitality company (Radisson Hotels, TGI Friday's, Regent Seven Seas Cruises) to go home and raise her family. She did, supporting the career of her surgeon husband and volunteering her considerable energies to a number of Minneapolis-St. Paul charities. Tragically, she also endured the death of one of her four children in an auto accident in 1985.
But when the time finally came to appoint a new CEO in 1998, Nelson's famously demanding father had changed his mind. "I had the good luck that I didn't have any brothers," Carlson said. "He looked around and decided the best man for the job was me."
Nelson recently talked about life and leadership with documentary film producers Beverly Kopf and Bobbie Birleffi.
Talk about the crisis in American leadership.
It's been said that a people deserve the leadership they get, and I think it means perhaps we need to redefine success. If in our personal lives we think of success as power, or prestige, or money, then perhaps we shouldn't expect that our leadership is going to reflect different values.
What is the personal responsibility of being a CEO in today's corporate climate?
Some people think, "You're the CEO. That must be the most liberating thing in the world. You can rule your world!" The fact is, you actually have to subordinate your own emotions, your own desires, even make decisions on behalf of the whole that might conflict with what you would do on an individual basis. Sometimes you have to let someone go that you care about deeply.
What can you do to change the negative perception of corporate leaders?
I feel constantly the tension of the quarterly cycles, the drive to produce shareowner value at the cost sometimes of customer value and employee value. [But] if you take equal care of the employees, they will take equal care of the customers and then we will get an equal or better opportunity for our shareowners.
You're one of only 11 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. What's that like?
I've talked lately about leaders being a little like the ancients who looked up at the sky and thought, "Oh, it's a beautiful starry night." But it was the leaders who were the ones who said, "Look, there's a pattern. There's Cassiopeia's Chair. There's Orion. And doesn't that look like a belt?" And then the skies changed forever. ... I really believe that we have to respect teams. We bounce things off of several satellites in order to find out where we are. Maybe that's what leaders need to be better at today.
What have your learned from the failures in your life?