“Wherever you are in life and in your career, do it with passion and do it with purpose.”
This was the concluding piece of advice that Sharen J. Turney, president and CEO of Victoria’s Secret and a board member of Wharton’s Baker Retailing Center, shared during her Wharton Leadership Lecture this past fall. It seems to be a principle that Turney lives by in her personal and professional life.
Turney’s career shows that you don’t have to start out with a clear job goal. Just find something that interests you and then pursue it wholeheartedly. Her stories about her early life as one of five children growing up on a farm in Oklahoma, school years and career revealed some of the ingredients that helped her become a top executive in the global retail industry.
Themes in her life include being curious, authentic, open-minded, committed to constantly learning and jumping at opportunities. Like many college students, she didn’t have a clear career goal while studying business education. She was planning on becoming a teacher, a career common for many women she knew. At a career event during her senior year, she talked with recruiters from many industries and companies, confident that she could learn pretty much anything. When an auditing recruiter spoke with her, she admitted that she didn’t know much about auditing but she was sure she could learn it. She ultimately followed her instinct and some great advice from a professor, which was to take a job in retail. Figuring it didn’t have to be forever, she started at Foley’s Department Store (now Macy’s) and never looked back.
Her work as a student at a Hallmark store influenced Turney’s leadership philosophy of listening, connecting and inspiring. It struck her that her Hallmark boss saw more in her than she could see in herself. In her role today, Turney tries to understand people and make them feel that she cares. To her, positive influence starts with being excited about one’s work since passion is contagious and inspires others “to fly with you.” That also relates to customer relationships. She sees her business as connecting with customers emotionally, like making a great movie every day with the 90,000 Victoria’s Secret employees. On the flipside she is mindful about managing negative emotions to prevent them from spilling onto the people around her.
Turney also talked at Wharton about testing moments in her career. One was at Foley’s where she perceived her co-workers as having a more sophisticated upbringing, thanks to overseas travel and regular manicures and pedicures. Her dad comforted her by telling her to not feel intimidated, reminding her that she had expertise that others didn’t. “You are only as smart as the ground you grew up on,” he said.
Turney has embraced learning opportunities. During her Foley’s years, she was on the steering committee of parent company Federated Department Stores and traveled to suppliers in Asia, immersing herself in sourcing and manufacturing. In college, working as a teaching assistant in a high school business program, she took over the class when the teacher had to go on sick leave.
An opportunity later at Neiman Marcus looked less exciting at first glance, but ended up being a door-opener for later jobs. The offer to build Neiman Marcus’ catalog business, a job she figured no one wanted, felt like a demotion after she had been promoted a couple of times. But it turned out to be an immensely valuable learning experience about the growing direct-to-consumer channel. She launched Neiman Marcus’ online store before becoming president and CEO of Victoria’s Secret Direct in 2000, the company’s catalog and e-commerce divisions, and then president and CEO of Victoria’s Secret.
Giving back to the community has given Turney purpose and directed her energy. She has received awards for her engagement with initiatives around children, women, families, education and health, and is proud of Victoria’s Secret’s involvement in domestic and overseas charity programs.