As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jane Miller, CEO of Lily’s Sweets.
Jane Miller has 35+ years of executive experience in the food industry with both start-ups and Fortune 500 companies, is the founder of Janeknows.com, a career advice website geared towards young leaders starting their careers, and she is the author of Sleep your Way to the Top (and other myths about business success), a sassy business book targeted at Millennials. Jane is currently the CEO of Lily’s Sweets and has held several other CEO roles in the natural and organic industry, including Rudi’s Bakery, ProYo High Protein Ice Cream, and HannahMax Cookie Chips. Jane, who spent the first fourteen years of her career at PepsiCo where she rose to be the President of the Central division of Frito-Lay, currently serves as a board member at the University of Colorado Leeds Business School, Watson Institute and Eldorado Springs Artesian Water.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Growing up, I had always thought I would be a lawyer. I received a Russian Studies degree and then worked for a year before applying to law school. I decided to take the LSAT for law school and then the GMAT for business school. As luck would have it, I did great on the GMAT and ended up getting a full scholarship to go to Southern Methodist University for my MBA. Frito-Lay was a big employer in Dallas at the time and that’s where I started my career in marketing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
At Lily’s Sweets, we have done a lot of research to understand consumer trends around sugar consumption. Did you know that 80% of consumers want to try to cut back on sugar but only a third do because it is so hard? We had the opportunity to meet with the senior team at Walmart to share these findings and talk about how Lily’s could really help change consumers’ dietary habits by offering low and no sugar chocolate that actually tastes good. It was thrilling as a relatively small company to have an audience with the top decision makers at Walmart! Now, we’re the #3 baking chip brand at Walmart — and the #1 and #3 chocolate bars at Target — which proves that our dedication to offering lower sugar chocolate products to serve the 80% of people looking to cut back on sugar is a sustainable model.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As you know, my first job after receiving my MBA was at Frito-Lay. On my first day on the job, I stopped in the little convenience store in the lobby of the building and bought my favorite soft drink, a Diet Coke. I got in the elevator with a whole crowd of people, including the guy who was the head of sales and marketing for Frito-Lay. Of course, I didn’t know who he was at the time. He was very sweet and asked if this was my first day on the job…and did I know that PepsiCo owned Frito-Lay? Imagine my horror! My lesson was to always do research on the company before starting a job!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I was very fortunate to have a boss and mentor early in my career who taught me so much about personal leadership and passion for the business. His name is Dale Stortz and he was a Division President at Frito-Lay when I had my first big role running a region. But more than being a mentor, he was a big sponsor for me in the organization and told everyone how good I was! To this day, I believe there aren’t enough conversations happening about sponsorship in the workplace, as it amplifies what you are doing within an organization versus just helping you grow personally.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I’ll answer that question in two ways. First, I always remind myself that I am an expert on the subject at hand and that I am making the best decision I can with the information I have at the time. So, I go into any meeting with the confidence that I know my subject matter cold and what I may not know, I can find out after the meeting. Second, you need to know what really “fills your cup” and makes you feel good about yourself. For me, I have a great love of horses and if I have a stressful situation in front of me, I spend time in my barn enjoying being in the moment. It helps me realize that there are other things in life that are important and to not overly rely on one situation to determine your self worth.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity of team will result in diversity of thought. A high performing team is always challenging itself to be better and if everyone looks alike and thinks alike, you’ll miss critical opportunities to continue to learn and grow as an organization.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
It’s important for me to say at the outset that I am continuing to learn and get better in this regard. For me, the best way to create this kind of environment is to first recognize that it will only happen if you are thinking about it and having open and honest conversations. In the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we launched Lily’s University to bring important training to the organization and offered courses like ‘Embracing Change’ and ‘How to Be an Anti-Racist.’ Beyond that, I think the biggest factor is to have empathy as a leader and to create an environment where voices are heard and people feel safe to share their thoughts and beliefs. Most recently, I hosted virtual Zoom lunches with every employee in groups of 5–7 where we could get to know each other a little better and share our personal stories in an intimate setting. This provided a special opportunity for me to learn about the needs and concerns of the entire Lily’s family face-to-face, and have conversations about those needs in real time.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I like to think of the CEO as the orchestra leader. You can have a fabulous base player, terrific pianist, amazing drummer and incredible flutist, but someone needs to pull them all together in a way that is magical for the listener. My job is to set the vision and direction, be supportive, provide goals and ultimately reward the individuals involved in making the music.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
We don’t have all the answers and we can be wrong! A person doesn’t become perfect when they get the CEO title. They just get more responsibility to make good decisions. Which goes back to two things we talked about: having a diverse team and having strong leaders so that you are equipped to make the best decisions for the organization.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
One of the biggest challenges for women in business is understanding the impact of our personal style on others. For me, I have a very passionate and expressive style and that can come across as emotional or unprofessional. Early in my career, I was fortunate to get feedback about how my style was perceived, so that I could flex my style depending on the audience. While diversity of style and personal authenticity are so important for a successful organization, it is also important that we understand how we come across to others. Once you understand how you are perceived, you can decide which components of your personal style you want to flex based on the situation or audience.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I thought that at the CEO level I would be very focused on big strategic decisions. And while this is a big focus, of course, I spend a lot more time than anticipated working through people and organizational dynamics.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe to be a successful executive you must surround yourself with people who are more talented than you! It takes a very strong self-awareness of what your strengths and weaknesses are to be able to hire and retain amazing executives across the organization. Today at Lily’s, I have had the greatest success of my career and I also have the most talented team. Additionally, I believe you have to have a core value of ‘Assume the Best,’ which means to trust that the people working for you fundamentally want to do the right thing.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Communicate often. Listen even more. Be approachable and transparent.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My key passion is to mentor the next generation of leaders and I am very involved at the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business and Watson Institute, and within the Natural and Organic Industry. I wrote my book, Sleep Your Way to the Top (and other myths about business success), and launched my website, JaneKnows.com, to provide life lessons for young leaders. Now, I am embarking on the most exciting project where I hope to create 5,000 micro-internships by the end of 2021!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The times in my career when I took a chance at a job turned out to be the best. I left marketing to go into sales (no woman had done that at Frito-Lay prior to me) and my career exploded!
- Any job can be a great job. I had two jobs out of college because one wasn’t enough to support me: I was a receptionist at a bank and worked at Lord & Taylor at night. The bank experience gave me the courage to take the GMAT and the retail experience resulted in a full scholarship to get my MBA!
- You don’t have to have it figured out. I thought I was going to be a lawyer, and here I am as the CEO of a sweets company!
- Understand how you impact people. If you are self aware, you will learn to be more empathetic and that empathy is the secret to leadership.
- Enjoy your journey. After 35 years in business, I can say that it goes entirely too fast, so you need to have fun along the way!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My passion is creating jobs for young people by solving the chicken and egg dilemma: you can’t get a job without experience and you can’t get experience without a job. This fall, along with two young co-founders, I will be launching Haevn. We will focus on underserved young people who don’t have access to great opportunities. Our goal is to create 5,000 jobs, build a community and develop professional skills. This is a for-profit business and I am looking for like-minded business leaders to join in the movement. Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to learn more!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Madeline Albright. When I started my career, the attitude from many senior women was that they didn’t want to be seen as women and therefore didn’t want to focus on helping women. I think it is my responsibility as a woman of influence to bring other women along with me!
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Nick Jonas, please! Nick is such a strong advocate for health and wellness, specifically as a diabetic, and I would love to tell him about Lily’s Sweets and the work we are doing to change how people view sweet treats — and get his perspective on what else we can be doing!