Mireille Guiliano on not being afraid

Mireille Guiliano is most famous for her provocative lifestyle books including French Women Don't Get Fat and French Women Don't Get FaceliftsPrior to her illustrious career as an author, Mireille held the post of CEO at LVMH's Veuve Clicquot for over 25 years, where she successfully established and grew the brand to be a powerhouse in the US market. She is extremely open and honest about career progression, the trials of being promoted to senior roles and what it takes to really make it. Her point of view on hard work and commitment are incredibly admirable and something she feels needs to be encouraged in today's generation. Her career has been rich and varied, and it'll be exciting to hear what she does next.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
This is a hard question because I come from a small town in France (Rombas, Lorraine) and we didn't really have an idea or goals like young people have today. Probably the first thing I wanted to be was a hairstylist. Hairdressers are not very expensive in France so you don't bother doing your hair. I saw my mother going for a blow dry and thought it was so glamorous that she could come out of a 15-minute session and look so wonderful.

In kindergarten I did a lot of plays and for some reason always had the mothers part or the main characters role so I wanted to be on stage. In French schools we didn't have any theatre like in American schools, so it was hard to pursue it. For a while I wanted to be a ballerina but that too failed because my parents couldn't afford to send me to the city where I would have to study it and they didn't have a car so I couldn't take the lessons. I remember the teacher saying to my mother that I had great potential. 

Then during my teenage years, my mother, because of her Protestant values, believed in giving and charity work which in Catholic-France was not that well known. In the summer she sent me to do volunteer work. I was also a Sunday School teacher. For a while I thought about becoming a missionary in Africa.

When I came to Boston as part of an exchange at school, I decided that I was not going to go back to my local university and become a professor, and instead become a translator/interpreter. So up to my twenties I changed my mind a lot. The irony of course is that the CEO track was not at all in my vocabulary or vision and certainly not communications or marketing, which I pursued later in life. So it shows how depending on the period/phase in life, the people you're with, what you think and do and study, you can change a lot.

Nowadays it's common to change but in my time, doing what I did, leaving my country and coming to America and switching careers 360 degrees where French was not even the native language, was pretty risky at 25-years old. I had some lucky stars, a supportive husband and good mentors. All that helped.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
It depends on the time, but right now I would invite good friends. I'm not interested in people who don't appreciate food or have particular food aversions. I want people who eat and try everything, from all over the world. I have many chef friends so I would definitely invite a good chef. 

If I have to invite someone, some days I would say Chopin or a great French writer, but now I am just back from Alsace where my grandmother grew up, where I hadn't been in quite a few years, and I thought about Albert Schweitzer who was a doctor, a philosopher, a great giver, a missionary, lots of things... And loved food so I would probably invite him too.

What single book had the greatest impact on you?
I read not only French but also English, American, Russian, Greek, Italian and South American literature. Early on I would say the Bible but if I had to pick one single book it would be The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  It's short and has all the messages in there about humans, love, friendship and silliness of male power. It’s a brilliant little book, and it's probably one of the books I read regularly. It's always timeless and fresh.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
For many years my husband and I were night people and we'd go to bed very late. Now I try to go to bed by 11 or 11:30pm, and as a result I wake up very early which I like because I do my yoga and meditation and it sets me up for a better day.

What is your favorite time of the working week?
I would say mornings. Especially when I wrote all the books. Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm. I try to keep the afternoon or the early evening for friends, family and other things. I try not to do too much on the weekend - that's almost a religion. 

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
It started when I came back from America and finished high school. I went and studied literature at the Sorbonne and to the equivalent of an Ivy League School to get my degree as translator and interpreter. Then I switched 360 degrees when I moved to New York. I joined Veuve Clicquot in marketing to help build the US brand and grow the business. When we started, Italy was by far the largest market. England and the US were tiny. In the 20-plus years that I worked there, we moved it to the number two brand with 25% market share, and I believe if we’d had the quantity we could have been number one. Definitely in terms of image we were number one.

It was an exciting way to build the brand and any brand builder will tell you the same thing. It's very challenging. Especially when you have little money, and we had very very little money. We had to work out of the box and to me that was the most creative part that I enjoyed. Going against the current. I worked at Veuve Clicquot for 25 years, which is a long time but I can't say that I ever had a boring day. It was a wonderful time for luxury brand building and yet, when I left I never looked back or regretted that I left. Maybe it's a good thing in me, that capability of moving on, not looking back and seeing what's good with the present stage.

In the 10 years since leaving Veuve Clicquot I have been writing lifestyle books and have been fortunate to have had great successes by tapping into a part of culture that really resonates with people. I am not sure what the next stage from here is. I'm kind of in transition. I have to decide if it’s the end of writing/publishing and if so, what is next. I have to figure out how I split my time, and how I use it in valuable ways.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
I started as VP Communications and Marketing at Veuve Clicquot and the company had a Sales Manager who was on track to be the President. I didn't want to be President or CEO, but unfortunately there were issues and the Sales Manager had to leave the company. The President in France got fed up and tried to persuade me to take the role. I knew the market, the marketing strategy was working, and I learned the hard way to surround myself with good and committed people, most stayed with us for over 15 years. As a small team we were outperforming our targets and kept growing.

My biggest recommendation for the business was that we couldn’t be a company with one brand forever. We needed to add brands including American wines to our portfolio because we are in America. The President said, “If you're going to apply that, then you're going to become the CEO and you build your own team.”

I was very naive! It was a revelation later on that it was only because I was young and naive that I’d laid out such an ambitious plan because I really knew nothing. Suddenly it was not just Communications and Marketing, which was my strength, but I had responsibilities for things I knew nothing about. I had to hire people, fire people, look for lawyers, an office, do finance, and hire a CFO. I was already working 24/7 and didn't have the time.

Luckily being in NY there were these quick seminars. In three days I learnt how to read a balance sheet and all these other business fundamentals so that I didn't look like a fool. I'm not afraid to admit what I don't know but they don’t teach you how to be a CEO at school. I didn't even know what it meant! I read a lot and when I didn't know what to do my husband was always there. He was a professor so he couldn't really help with the day-to-day business, but he was always very supportive and made me feel like I could do it.

What motivates you?
Ultimately it’s doing a good job. It comes from my childhood and having had a working mother. I believe if you're paid to do something, you should deliver the goods. I don't need someone to pat me on the back everyday and tell me I'm great. I just do what I have to do.

When we were building the Veuve Clicquot brand I seized the good opportunities because we had so little money to play with. There were some great ideas that came along that maybe others would not have grasped, but I picked them and they produced a lot of good results that gave us zillions of publicity for very little money.

One in particular happened at the very beginning of Clicquot. We had a Scandinavian producer who was a great fan of the brand who did a movie called Babette’s Feast - it was a big free ad for the brand at a time when brands weren't doing branded content. I contacted the people, and we did the launch in the US. We picked a very good restaurant in every city. They would produce the meal and we got tremendous press. That was a real turning point in putting Clicquot on the map. I did radio spots to help consumers pronounce the word but that movie was really a smash hit. 

What advice would you give to someone at the start of his or her career?
It would depend if they were male or female.

To women I would say don't be afraid. I still think the big word among women is fear. They are all afraid of something. Ask yourself what's the worst that could happen. Put it on paper. Then you know.

Men tend to take themselves very seriously and I would advise them not to fall into the power/money trap. The higher you go, the easier it is to fall into it and become full of oneself, which is not admirable.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
It's certainly not my working life, it's my personal life. The people I've helped and what I've given. All the values my mother taught me about why we are on this planet.

At work, if I had to sum it up in one sentence, delivering what I promised I’d deliver. Don't promise what you can't deliver like so many people do. Once you promise something, work on it so that you can walk the walk and talk the talk. Don't get distracted. That was not easy in my industry because I had to face men who, for several years, took me for this little girl. It was interesting when the few who gave me a hard time came around to recognize they had been wrong.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Never being afraid to change the course of whatever was necessary and always doing the best for the company and the people I work for.

You have to do the best you can. It might not be perfect, but it's the best you can. I think that's lost today with a lot of the younger generations. They don't care and every two years change jobs and don't really commit. I would have a hard time living with that, because commitment was very important to me. If you don't like your job go somewhere else but if you do and once you found what you like, do it with passion, commitment and service. You're being paid for a service, try to show the people who trust you that you are the real thing.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Don't ever take anything for granted. Count your blessings. Don't get so attached to the small stuff. Have more of a cosmic vision of what you should and shouldn't do in life and be true to yourself.

What do you believe are the personality traits of great leaders?
There are many and being a good communicator would be among them. Even when we write things and when we say things, people have a way of misunderstanding. They also need to have strong listening skills, be proficient at making decisions and be fair. They must try to hire the best people, which is hard. Of course they must have a sense of reality. Even if they don't own the company they must have an entrepreneurial spirit and act as if it were their own.

They have to be strong-willed and be able to fire the people who don't deliver. I learnt this in a 48hr course in HR. There's always a rotten apple out of ten. Don't let that rotten apple attack the other apples. There are lots of average apples, and there are always one or two special and extraordinary apples. If there is a rotten apple in that basket, get it out. Even if you're going to be blamed and be told that you are a bad person. It will spoil the rest of the team. As a female for me, that aspect was really hard because I'm a hypersensitive person and I saw it as hurting a person but it was not hurting a person, it was hurting the company. That's something I learnt and perhaps not as fast as I should have.

As a leader, to walk the walk and talk the talk is very important. Be aware that you can't be loved by 100% of the company. All you want is respect. Nobody has to work like you. If you're very very demanding, don't expect your staff to be very very demanding. They just have to do a good job.

It also helps if you're an optimistic person and have a good sense of humor. At the end of the day, don't sweat the small stuff, it's going to happen and move on. 

What do you believe to be the secret to rising up to the top?
A lot of people are envious of the top and think they can be at the top but I don't think it's for everyone. You have to have a lot of skills but it's a lonely job up there. It takes a pretty strong person. For my husband and me it's amazing because we were both CEOs at different times in our lives but we never had that ambition or that drive. We simply went for whatever was fun and we were passionate about.

In America, you have many more female CEOs than you have in France. Most women in France don't want to get there. They know that it's a job where you have to give so much and in France, family still comes first particularly if you have children. I don't believe in that. I said it plainly in my business book. You can have it all but not at the same time. If you take that job where you're going to travel three weeks a month and you have kids and a husband, something is going to suffer. I talk about the 4 anchors and if one bends, then you're off balance.

The stress-factor is big and looking back I believe I was lucky because in today's world I'm not sure I could do what I did, enjoy what I did or accomplish what I did because it's so much tougher now, and things change so fast. It must be so draining.

For me, the secret to rising to the top is hard work, a good IQ but for most top jobs you don't have to be a genius. A good EQ is probably more important, and I think that's something most women have and, of course, all the things: the vision, the energy, the health and the respect from your staff.

Then a little bit of luck. You have to be honest, nobody is that smart to get all those achievements, there's always a little bit of luck. How we get that luck I don't know, depends what your beliefs are.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
The people I trust. My husband, my best friends and people in the business who have been mentors or I have worked with. I also turn to my spiritual side. I'm not a religious person so to speak, but thinking about it, sitting and meditating or going into a church can give me a lot of clarity. We also used to say, don’t rush, sleep on it.

What's next?
At this point I can't change my entire life. I'm not going to be an astronaut or study to become a doctor. If I could renew my life, I'd like to be a yoga or dance teacher... but it's not going to happen. 

I think there's still a lot to be done in lifestyle and "bien-être" (well-being). Whether it's through weight issues, food, work or whatever you do, there are still a lot of people out there who can be helped. So in my small way, one way or another I hope to reach more people.

I also travel a lot. I have a speaker's bureau and lecture all over the world. I just hope that I can reach a few more people and they will plant the seeds and go on.


As told to Caroline Hugall at Mireille’s home in the West Village of New York, on Tuesday 7th April.