What We Can Learn from Brenda Barnes

PHOTO: SARA LEE/REUTERS

Brenda Barnes made headlines in 1997 when she quit her job as CEO of Pepsi to spend more time with her three children. She returned to the C-suite in 2004, joining Sara Lee as COO and eventually becoming CEO. She stepped down from that role in 2010 after a stroke and last month a second stroke claimed her life at 63.

Her too-short but oh-so-full life offers many lessons for all of us, especially working moms and those who hope to be working again:

Don’t let your choice be a judgment on the choices of others. In leaving Pepsi, Barnes was clear to say that she quit because she wanted to spend more time with her children, not because she thought her children were being adversely affected by her career. It was important to her that her choice not be read as an indictment of all working moms.

Don’t leave entirely. While she was “not working,” Barnes joined seven corporate boards and took on a short-term executive role with Starwood. In particular, her board service gave her new skills and kept her engaged in the business world, while still allowing her more autonomy over her time than she had as a CEO. Most importantly, it meant that when she was ready to come back she had both the experience and the contacts to restart her career with (relative) ease.

Don’t be afraid to take a step down to get back to where you “were.” At the very top of America’s biggest companies it actually isn’t unusual for executives to move between titles — from CEO of a division to COO of a company, for example. I often hear from women restarting their careers that they don’t want to “start over.” But Barnes went from CEO at Pepsi to COO at Sara Lee — a small step back in title — only to eventually become the CEO of that company.

When you can, help others. One of the first initiatives that Barnes took on as the new CEO of Sara Lee was to create a return to work program. She recognized that there were plenty of women — like her! — who wanted to restart their careers after time spent caregiving. When she had the chance to actually make an impact by offering a program for returning professionals, she did so.

In many ways the Brenda Barnes story is a real lesson on how to live a great life. It was a life full to the brim — family, career, community. Yes, there was sacrifice (both family and career) and personal trials. But through it all she lived a life on her own terms and blazed a trail for others to follow. She explicitly said she thought more fathers should consider a break from the corporate fast track to not miss the precious years of family life. She offered a model that could allow anyone — man or woman, parent or not — to live richer and, yes, more balanced lives.

The fact that it was also a life that was much too short makes the story sadder, but no less wonderful.

Thank you, Brenda.

PHOTO: SARA LEE/REUTERS

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