Maureen Chiquet on acting like a man in the workplace and life as her family’s sole breadwinner
It was a horse that helped her saddle more responsibility.
Not long after Maureen Chiquet took over as global chief executive of Chanel in 2006, she found herself face to face with a horse at a Californian ranch. Chiquet began nuzzling the animal, almost “begging the horse to love me,” she tells Moneyish. Then the mare started getting pushy, almost knocking her over. It was only when an on-looking equestrian therapist told her to nudge the horse away, that she took control of the situation.
The idea from this unusual executive coaching session: that horses can intuitively tell what kind of person you are. In the 54-year-old’s case, this meant she was a people pleaser with trouble setting boundaries. Chiquet later introduced “horse whispering” to her executive team at Chanel, where colleagues initially “thought I was crazy,” she says, adding somewhat triumphantly that many of her coaching practices are still used there today.
Appointed head of the most exclusive of luxury maisons in 2006, Chiquet was a rare female top exec in the fashion world. A Francophile who made her name at mass retailer Old Navy, she presided over a lucrative period in privately-held Chanel’s history. In 2005, some analysts valued Chanel’s brand at just over $5 billion. Forbes pegged it at $7.2 billion in 2016, the year she left due to strategic differences with the brand’s owners.
Chiquet won’t say much about Chanel or its maverick designer Karl Lagerfeld, with whom she reportedly had a frosty relationship, but those experiences inform “Beyond the Label,” Chiquet’s part memoir, part how-to manual for professional success, out today.
For her, success means doing things your own way, and not according to gender stereotypes. Chiquet recounts being advised by a mentor to “ask like a man”—i.e. aggressively—for her promotion to president of Banana Republic with distaste. “Qualities like empathy and deep listening aren’t taken as equal to drive and ambition,” she says. “In retrospect, I would have done it in a way right for me; gone in and given reasons why I deserve the job.”
Like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, who has faced criticism for doling out advice from the security of a billion-dollar fortune, Chiquet may find her critics. That’s especially given how her then-husband quit his job to look after their kids when it became apparent her career was taking off. But Chiquet says this didn’t come from a position of strength. “We couldn’t afford a full-time nanny” in high-cost California back then, she says. “But we really wanted one of us at home with the kids.”
However, she’s also comfortable sharing moments of vulnerability, noting the “awkwardness…when the other parents called him Mr. Mom,” she says. She recalls with frustration not always being there with her daughters. Still, Chiquet says she would make the same “not perfect” decisions today. She loved her work, her compensation allowed them to maintain a certain lifestyle and she’s proud to have role modeled professional success for her kids.
That independent streak is how the former CEO went from a Yale literature student who didn’t love numbers to running fashion’s most famous business. “You play to your strengths,” she says, pointing out that the hours she spent in film class proved useful for selling aesthetically pleasing but non-essential products. The taste she developed from studying culture was readily applied to selling beauty. Working in an industry centered on aesthetics also helps, since numbers become “less scary” when translated into bottles of perfume or little black dresses. “It’s more fun when things take on meaning,” she says.
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