In a keynote presentation yesterday at the Women in Retail Leadership Summit in Miami, Paula Bennett, the recently retired (as of this week) CEO of J.Jill, discussed her career journey and the principles that shaped it along the way. (Synchrony, a consumer financial services company delivering customized financing programs across retail and other industries, is the Diamond sponsor of the Summit.)
Learn and Teach, Teach and Learn
As a student at Ohio State University’s business school, Bennett, one of only seven women of the 234 students in the program at the time, had the good fortune of learning from Professor William Davidson. That experience, and Davidson’s teachings, stuck with Bennett as she progressed through her career.
A guiding principle that Bennett took from Davidson is the continual need to be learning, no matter the stage of her career. She’s a firm believer that to be successful in business, you need to remain curious and build upon your knowledge and expertise.
Whether in the Bloomingdale’s training program, Bennett’s first retail job, or as the CEO of a publicly traded company, she continually sought to educate herself. In fact, that need to learn was the reason why she transitioned to multiple companies in the retail industry.
4 Principles to Career Success
Bennett’s 40-plus year career included positions of increasing responsibility at many organizations, culminating at Eileen Fisher, Orchard Brands, and J.Jill. So what’s been the secret to her success, both individually as well as the organizations she has led? Bennett cited four key principles that have been instrumental to her career success:
- having an inherent curiosity and thirst for knowledge;
- finding something that she loves to do;
- choosing company cultures that aligned with her core values; and
- setting clear goals for her teams.
J.Jill had three primary missions, Bennett said: create a great brand; build a successful business; and make it a great place to work.
“We positioned J.Jill as a company dedicated to delighting our customers,” Bennett said.
Overcoming Challenges and Breaking Barriers
During Bennett’s tenure as chief executive at J.Jill, the company has had four different owners, with three of those being private equity groups. So change has almost become a constant. Navigating that change and keeping J.Jill on course was a critical part of Bennett’s job.
In addition to instability in ownership, J.Jill filed for an IPO last year. As CEO of a publicly traded company, Bennett was in a distinct minority. Consider that a female CEO has led only 3 percent of all IPOs over the last 10 years. Bennett joked that more men named “John” have led IPOs in the last 10 years than women combined.
Furthermore, Bennett noted that only 5 percent of the CEOs at top retail companies are women. This is a fact that she’s acutely aware of, and something she hopes to change.
“We have a responsibility to help women grow into leadership positions,” said Bennett. “We have to commit to this goal. I went with my instincts, had faith and took the first step. As female leaders, we have to take the first step and encourage other women to do the same.”
Personally, Bennett has helped lead a compassion fund at J.Jill, which has generated $14 million in grants since its inception, and offers women job training and life skills, among other necessary skills.
“The lack of female retail leadership doesn’t make any sense,” noted Bennett. “We need to get the 3 percent up to 40 percent to 50 percent.”