After more than 30 years in the C-suite of international conglomerate Alberto Culver, Carol Lavin Bernick has mastered the boardroom. As former Executive Chairperson, she instituted a corporate culture overhaul profiled in Harvard Business Review. Her strength as an executive is equally matched by her commitment to family, community and philanthropy. She spends her time supporting organizations close to her heart, including the prestigious Northwestern Memorial Healthcare Board of Directors, the boards of Northwestern and Tulane Universities and the Chicago Community Trust. In 2005, Bernick was named National Working Mother of the Year by the Moms in Business Network.
She recently published a collection of her insights titled Gather As You Go, sharing wisdoms on topics from business tactics to household tips and family advice She hopes the book will inspire people of all ages and lifestyles with ideas that are helpful, thought-provoking and encouraging.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today? Raised by parents who grew up in the lower middle class and then founded and grew a respected international company is perhaps an unduplicable experience. Living with their values gave me the lifelong respect for people of all walks of life. Then personally having the strength and focus to change that company by adding new products and categories and rebuilding its corporate culture – while ignoring the naysayers – established my bona fide leadership. High risk pregnancies and a still born child, and the loss of a brother to drugs, gave me insights into problems many families face and a deep-seated desire to address them in our own high energy culture at Alberto Culver as well as through philanthropic efforts for decades.
How has your previous employment experience aided your current role? Working with talented boards made up of people with diverse ideas and a willingness to passionately express them has given me an appreciation both for the value of listening and the necessity of being an advocate myself. I would recommend to anyone wishing to move ahead to give serious time to a philanthropic board. People you work with will become your mentors and advocates. For decades this learning experience has guided me through my career.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your current role? We are engaged in a project that enables us to touch the lives of 20 – 30,000 school kids a year and helping to improve the educational process. Improving public education is one of the most significant challenges we face as a country and as citizens. In my past role at a consumer products company, the biggest highlight and challenge was changing the culture of the company from one of no growth with high turnover of our best people, to one where we became known nationally as a place where people thrived as did our brands and stock performance. The hardest ‘new product’ I ever created (which included Mrs. Dash and Static Guard among others) was the culture change of our consumer products business.
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry? I think the advice is the same for women in any industry. Find a company that represents your values. Find a mentor that can guide you through its history and its culture. Listen. Fully commit both to your ideas and to the company’s success while being a great team member. Make sure there are BIG brands, projects, or divisions that when they are big successes people fully recognize it would not have happened if not for your efforts.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date? Individuals create success. Individuals functioning as a team are critical. The smartest people I know ask for help. Every business has big issues. Mistakes happen. CREDIBILITY IS EVERYTHING.
How do you maintain a work/life balance? I prefer the term work/life integration. Balance suggests that you must take from one to give to the other. I think it important to find a company that understands these are not separate choices. If you want to work on an assignment at 5:00 in the morning so you can make it to a ball game or a school play and spend one-on-one time with each of your kids — our workplaces must not only accept that, they must encourage and support it.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace? It of course depends on the workplace, but I think the biggest problem – still – is an institutional unwillingness to give a woman control. They are happy to have her on a team, and value her contributions, but are too often reluctant to have her lead the team.
How can we encourage more women to start their own business? I think every level of a girl’s and woman’s life can be better focused on this. I think groups like Girl Scouts, Junior Achievement and Enactus, focused on business principles, are very important. I think at the university level more emphasis and more courses – across majors – should include elements of how the skills acquired might apply to the business world. I think there is a need for a mentoring organization, freestanding and with a professional staff, that both mentors and identifies resources and opportunities. And for every girl you know, I would encourage the value of risk taking –within means, of course. Building that into our young women from a young age is a good thing.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life? For me, beyond the role my parents played, mentorship has been less of a formal process and more one-off opportunities for a conversation with a senior officer, often in another company, or a board member I respect who will help me test an idea, a concept or a new program. Every board I sit on has 10 – 15 “silent” mentors. I watch them and I absorb the best they have to offer (and also what not to do).
Which other female leaders do you admire and why? I would hesitate to give a single name. Every time I attend a leadership conference, every time I get questions when I am giving a speech, I am incredibly impressed by the quality of thinking that is out there on the part of women at many, many levels.
What do you want to professionally and personally accomplish in the next year? Professionally I want to expand the education program we have launched. I want to continue to work with the great boards I am privileged to be on to continue to pursue important change. Personally (not including my six grandkids aged 2-5 and two more on the way as a part of the answer!) I want to continue to give back to the community, women especially, by accepting more and more speaking opportunities. I had to pass on many of those during my earlier career days and raising three kids. I want to help others grow and to share experiences that might make a difference in their lives and careers.
What are the top three tips you can offer to an entrepreneur starting out? Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t stop once you’ve committed. Discouragement can be part of the process – I remember a new product idea of mine that turned into a big winner, but before it did, was mocked and had NO acceptors in our company. Keep control. True entrepreneurs keep inventing. Some ideas make it, others don’t. Keep inventing. Our world needs it and, more likely than not, each time you try you learn important lessons that will be critical the next time!