What Can The Reign of Avon's Andrea Jung Teach Us?

Andrea Jung Avon
Palgrave Macmillan/Sarah BrowneFormer Avon CEO Andrea Jung
What lessons can a gorgeous, charismatic, Chanel-adorned CEO teach "normal" career women? We're regular folks who fret over the price of gas, scour Zappos for shoe sales, and spend our tedious commutes wondering why that snarky manager got the promotion we deserved. Andrea Jung's ultra-glam career at Avon may seem only distantly related to the hopes, dreams and frustrations we face everyday. Yet in the book Beauty Queen, Inside the Reign of Avon's Andrea Jung, Avon insider Deborrah Himsel skillfully identifies common ground, uncovering crucial lessons for anyone grasping for the next rung on the leadership ladder.

But first, who remembers the Avon Lady?

You may have had your own personal Avon Lady and ordered your eyeshadow, lipstick or Skin-So-Soft. Then along came the digital era. No more "ding dong, Avon calling." By the end of the '90s, a more apt phrase might have been "Avon falling."

The Internet crashed the door-to-door neighborhood network and kitchen coffee klatches that were the mainstay of the leading direct selling company. Becoming an Avon lady was no longer the lone attractive entrepreneurial option for America's ambitious women. The newly-minted mompreneurs were turning digital, and so were Avon's customers.

The Rise
Enter Andrea Jung. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, the magna cum laude Princeton graduate brought her signature style to a number of glossy retailers (Neiman Marcus) before joining Avon Products in 1994 as head of its product marketing group. She soon began her spectacular ascent within the century-old company which by then was not only in dire need of reinvention but also an infusion of visionary flair. By 1999, Jung had been promoted to chairman of the board and CEO of the famous "Company for Women."

The Reign
Jung's clear genius in marketing and sales could only take her -- and Avon --so far. As Himsel explains, Jung's overspecialization meant that other areas of the company, particularly operations, received short shrift. Initially, Jung's expertise was balanced by her COO who was considered a master at operations. Once the COO retired, Jung was left without her perfectly matched counterpart. Adding to this increasing flux was the company culture, which was clashing with new business realities.

The Fall
"Ultimately, Andrea Jung's story is a cautionary tale for leaders," writes Himsel. "If anyone seemed immune to failure, it was she." Despite her years of success in tackling daunting challenges, "her failure to deal with a critical few" ended her 13-year career with the company. Himsel's insider account of this pivotal time in Avon's history offers insights and lessons for organizations, leaders, and especially women managers.

Among the lessons:
  • The broader the background of the leader, the more successful.
  • Organizations should monitor the C-Suite for the mix of skills and approaches top leaders bring to the table -- and their ability to work well together.
  • Seven to ten years seems to be the optimum length of time for CEOs to serve.
  • Women should rely on authenticity, rather than trying to be tougher or softer or anything other than who they are.
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