Forget “Failure,” Get Rid of Guilt, and Other Lessons from Two of Gap Inc.’s Female Leaders

Gap Inc.

In 1969 – only 5 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress with an amendment that made it illegal to discriminate based on gender, and women were making only 58 cents to every dollar a man earned – Gap Inc. was co-founded by a woman. Doris Fisher put up the same amount of money as her husband Don, as they set out to turn a single apparel and record store into a $15 billion retail empire.

For Gap Inc., supporting female leaders and equal pay was never an initiative to push the cultural envelope. It’s simply a principle on which our company was founded.

Cut to 2018 and four of the six brands within the Gap Inc. portfolio are run by female leaders – including Sonia Syngal, president and CEO of Old Navy, and Nancy Green, president and CEO of Athleta.

Recently, Nancy and Sonia sat down to talk with Kellie McElhaney, Director of the new Center for Gender, Equity & Leadership (CGEL) at The University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, which was created to help foster female leadership and advance corporate change. Dedicated to a long-held commitment to gender equity in the retail industry and beyond, Gap Foundation is the center’s founding donor.

One of Kellie’s mantras is: “You can’t be what you don’t see,” so she had a lot of questions for Nancy and Sonia about how they achieved success in their careers. It’s no coincidence that Sonia and Nancy are two women at the top of their game, at the top of their industry. Here’s some of the advice they have to offer women looking to own their success and lead – both in and out of the workplace.

  1. Don’t waste a single minute on guilt. Make the choices about integrating work, wellness and family that feel right to you, adjust them as you need to, and don’t spend time feeling guilty about any of it: “For me, personally, guilt is a useless emotion, and I think women waste a lot of energy on it,” Sonia said. “Think of how much time you spend feeling guilty!” Instead, “Put that energy toward the things that fuel you and drive impact,” Nancy added.
  2. Choose the right employer. A mission-driven company that’s run with integrity and that aligns with your personal values will be an employer that’s worthy of the energy you’ll put into your job. “When you decide to go all in on your job, you want to make sure that the hours you spend away from your kids really mean something,” said Nancy, a mother of four.
  3. Look for big challenges. Taking on big, challenging projects in different areas, especially in a fast-growing company, can mean that you open yourself up to vulnerability. It’s also the best way to stretch yourself and advance your career. “Driving results across a variety of different functions or businesses gives you credibility,” said Sonia, “So if you can — and you can, because you can choose! — join a company with a high-growth environment. You’ll see more opportunities.”
  4. Make yourself valuable. When you’re hyper-focused on delivering outstanding results, said Sonia, “you become indispensable … and everyone will support you. Don’t waste your time on unproductive stuff! Put your energy into the things that fuel you and make a real impact.
  5. Reframe “failure.” When something doesn’t turn out the way you anticipated, it’s a learning opportunity, not a failure. “Reframe that experience by saying, ‘that didn’t go the way I wanted it to, but here’s what I learned,’” advised Nancy. “That’s how you build the resilience to push forward. We all have experiences like that all the time; you just have to be real and persevere.”

As important as taking any of this advice, both leaders emphasized, is self-care. “Women tend to take care of others before we take care of ourselves,” Nancy said. This is one boss who lives her company’s values. “To stay in the game and have a full, amazing life, you have to be healthy — when you’re grounded, healthy and well, you can take on so much more.”

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