Honoring Brenda Barnes
This is a reprint of a guest blog we wrote for Working Mother.
Like many, we’re saddened by Brenda Barnes’ decision to step-down as CEO of Sara Lee in order to focus on improving her health following a stroke in May, 2010.
First and foremost, we feel terrible that Barnes (pictured) suffered a stroke at such a young age (55), necessitating this move. Second, her departure means the number of our precious few female Fortune 500 CEOs is one less. Third, as co-founders of a company focusing on professionals who return to work after a career break, we particularly regret seeing a female executive who creatively managed her career and personal life leave such a high profile business leadership role. Barnes accomplished the rarest of achievements for a senior level professional: she left the C-suite to spend more time with her family, and returned to a similar post six years later.
In 1998, Barnes famously quit her post as CEO of Pepsico North America to be at home with her three kids. Her resignation was controversial. Even the kinder commentators called it a giant step backwards for women in business. Barnes herself said she was unprepared for the intense public reaction to what she felt was a purely personal decision. In an interview on About.com with Katherine Lewis, Barnes said about her decision to spend time with her family, “If I didn’t spend more time now, I would not have that opportunity.”
Of course, Barnes was not a typical stay-at-home mom (not that there is such a thing)! During her career break, she sat on corporate boards, one of which was Starwood Hotels, where she spent five months as interim President and COO in 1999-2000. She also taught business management classes in 2002. Barnes' ability to keep her business network alive and engage in occasional consulting projects, while spending more time with her family, was an excellent and instructive example of how professionals can manage their career breaks.
Then, in 2004, she surprised the business world again when she nabbed the COO spot at Sara Lee, despite the six-year “gap” on her resume, and less than a year later was promoted to the top spot. Think about it for a moment. Would any traditional search firm have proposed her for the job? She probably wouldn’t even have made the “long list” at Egon Zehnder, the firm that’s been hired to find her replacement as CEO.
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Photo credit: Sara Lee