Probably the most down-to-earth, warm CEO you could ever meet, Jane Miller tells her career story succinctly: “Poor girl from Peoria makes good, leads industry and becomes CEO.” After running billion-dollar divisions at Frito-Lay, Bestfoods and Heinz, Miller has found her bliss as CEO of Boulder, Colo.-based Rudi’s Bakery. She recently founded JaneKnows.com, where she shares lessons she’s learned along the way. Her new book, Sleep Your Way to the Top (and Other Myths about Business Success), is coming out this fall.
Here are three questions that Miller says shaped her career.
How can I help someone else? It wasn’t until two years ago that Miller, now 54, says she gave this question truly serious consideration. “My `aha’ moment came when I became a mentor for the Unreasonable Institute,” she says. The Boulder-based global accelerator hosts a six-week boot camp for entrepreneurs from around the world who are working locally to change the world. “The founders and many of the entrepreneurs are in their mid-20s and they’re fearless. They’re figuring out the practical things as they’re changing the world.”
Because she grew up watching her single mom work hard for little pay, Miller says, “Rich was my dream.” She set a laser-beam focus on advancing to the top levels of the corporate world. But with Unreasonable, “Instead of always looking up, I started looking across and down and realizing how important it is to do that, no matter how old you are or how much experience you have,” she says,
Do this: “Look around and see how you can help someone now,” Miller says. “Look at networking as a way to connect people, not asking for something.” So how do you create your own serendipity? “As you meet people, think about how to connect them to other people, to help them. It absolutely works,” she says. “Pay it forward is probably biggest concept in business that no one really talks about.”
Is my personal style getting in the way? At age 30, Miller’s outgoing, informal style wasn’t working at PepsiCo. But she had no idea until her manager called her in and told her that although she had obvious talent, people at the corporation didn’t take her seriously as a professional—and asked her to work with a psychologist. “It was a shocking awakening for me,” she says. But she was grateful he cared enough to give her feedback—and calls it a turning point in her career.
Do this: Pay attention to where the person you’re interacting with is coming from, what their agenda is, and where you’re at in the respective hierarchy—something Miller does when dealing with her Board of Directors or a private equity group. “For all that technology has changed the workplace, it still comes down to human interactions,” she says. “It’s really about getting over your internal barriers and being more aware of the other person, rather than being focused on your own view of the world and taking things personally.”
Am I focusing too much on my career? Although we like to think of careers as a linear ladder, they simply aren’t. By focusing too much on getting to that next level, you risk missing the journey, Miller says. Some of her best experience came from taking different kinds of jobs or making lateral moves. “Exploring other possibilities might actually help you leapfrog,” she says.
Do this: “Think less about your career itself,” Miller says. “Worry more about your accomplishments, and think about how those build you as a person.” A self-described “recovering workaholic,” Miller says she’s learned that doing more than just your job is a key to balance.