My name is Irene Chang Britt and I am a retired Fortune 500 C-Suite exec. Now, I'm a strategic advisor and independent board director.
Tell us about your Career Journey
It's been a really interesting career. I am an accidental Fortune 500 C-Suite exec. I didn't mean to be. I was an anthropologist and bike store owner. And then my mom said you better go get your MBA and get a real job. So I did, and I went into a Fortune 500 business. I realized very early on that those aspects of being an entrepreneur bike mechanic really actually made me love fixing things. So, I've done a 30-year journey of transformations and turnarounds and that's what I've done. I’ve work with venerable companies like Kimberly-Clark and Kraft Foods and the Nabisco and Campbell. What I've always done is gone in to fix things that were broken, or semi-broken, and I have loved it all the way. It's been a wonderful journey of turnarounds.
I describe myself as a disruptor. Well, a disruptor and a nurturer. What I do, and especially in my career, is I've always gone in and taken a stat situation and said something can be better. I create a vision out of it, disrupt, pull it apart, put it back together, grow it almost irrationally, and nurture an amazing team that goes along with that vision. That's what I have loved about my career.
What are your Top Accomplishments?
My top accomplishments. Well, besides my gorgeous children and my marriage of 32 years – I'd say my accomplishments are in two areas. One is doing amazing transformations of businesses, taking them to growth levels that no one else envisioned. And the second is, part and parcel with that, is growing amazing teams who do almost superhuman things with businesses.
How has your background influenced your success?
I love to talk about my background as being, ‘fingers in many different cultures’. I'm of mixed origin – 3/4 Chinese and 1/4 British – my mother was British and Cantonese who grew up in Shanghai, and my dad was 100% Taiwanese. We grew up in a very mixed culture. My dad spoke nine languages, my mom spoke seven – slacker. With that huge cultural mix, we were able to grow up with an appreciation of people from all walks of life.
So with that mix of cultures and understanding – it’s served me so well in my career. Understanding people from all walks of life working in the U.S., in Canada, living in either country and living in all parts of the U.S., running global businesses. I think it gave me an empathy that I don't know that I would have had if I hadn't had that background.
I think the P.O.L.I.N.G.® framework is so amazing because it does help you sort out how to think about the many aspects of leadership. And I'll give you one example. I do turnarounds and I remember when I took over a business specifically at the very moment that the government called the recession. It was a food service business – a large food service business – and at that point in the recession, people were not going to restaurants anymore. It was a tough, tough, turnaround situation. And I thought, you never want to let a good crisis go to waste!. We figured it out priorities like crazy, as a team. We really did look at the talent that we had, owned it as a team, sorted out the right team members, really focused on the people, and figured it out how to change the entire business model structure to take advantage of a tough situation to reset the business model.
The neat thing about that, because I had been in a food service business before – but more than a decade earlier than that – was I had to use my network. I had to go back to people I hadn't talked to in over a decade and rekindle those relationships. I really had to lead my team and inspire them to take on this massive challenge, and call on old friends to say we really we need to reset this thing. And it was amazing how people rallied to that. So you take a situation where it could be really, really depressing and people would say ‘we’re in a recession so why don't we just ride it out, and hunker down. I had such great fortune to have a team that really rallied around the idea that we can change this world.
Please talk about a time where your background posed a challenge.
My background really factored into one time when I was an executive – and I'm talking about C-Suite executive in Fortune 500. So this was not a mistake that I made early on in my career. I had this great business that I was turning around, and I had to sell a major capital project. I remember speaking to the CEO and speaking to the Group President of that division, saying ‘we need to go do this’. Because I'm very respectful as an Asian, I was going and working with the hierarchy - talking to this person, and that person, and this person across, and who’s related to that. And somebody told me – very senior – “Don’t be so Asian.”
I said “Wow! What did you mean by, ‘Don’t be so Asian’?” And she said, “what you're doing is successive hierarchical discussions, and what you should be doing is going straight to the top and saying, ‘Hey, we got to get this done.’” And I'm a very assertive person. Please, I’ve done turnarounds my entire career. But it was a huge realization for me that number one, maybe I was being a bit too deferential. But secondly that somebody could just knee-jerk a reaction that ‘That was just Asian and stop it’.
Who are your biggest influences?
Sounds trite, but the people who have influenced me the most are really my parents and my grandmother. We're an immigrant family from Taiwan, but really if you go way back, my mom grew up as a mixed-race kid who was born in Shanghai 1922 - exactly when the Japanese were pressuring China and going to war with China. She grew up not only as a mixed-race kid, but her father – who was British – died in 1929 when she was seven years old. She and her mom were cast out onto the street as rejects, because they were Chinese. The toughness that my mother and grandmother showed – it's a very long story so I won’t drag you through the whole thing – but eventually they ended up owning two mansions in Taiwan. And worked with incredible dedication from living in alleyways in Shanghai, all the way up to incredible success. It's the most inspirational thing I've ever seen. And those stories have helped me through everything that I've done, all the tough situations I've done in my career, all the things that I've taken on – the turnarounds – because in relation to what my mom and my grandmother did and went through, I've never had a bad day.
My dad, was an economist for the Canadian government. I remember when I first got my MBA and I was out there with my blue suit and little red bow tie, he said “Irene”, and this was in the days of the Milliken junk bonds and all that was happening, he said, “Irene, you really need to go into manufacturing. You need to go into a company that makes good products for good people. And that was incredible and it has guided me through my entire career. I have worked on packaged goods that everybody uses, and it's been very satisfying to me because I can see the product of my work.
What kind of advice would you give your younger self?
I think I would tell my younger self to make more mistakes, and celebrate them. Oh hang on, I made a lot of mistakes. Maybe I shouldn't make more mistakes. I should have just celebrated them. I think we feel so bad when we’re young that we're not doing well enough, or we're not doing as well as the next guy or gal, and so we want to be so successful. But what you realize on the other end of your career is that you've learned more from your mistakes than you ever learn from your successes. And if we just took time to reflect and celebrate our mistakes, we would be so much better.
So one of the most formative mistakes that I made when I was very early on in my career... I was a brand manager, and we had this complex mechanism dispensing system that we have brought over from Europe. I was very independent and so I wanted to do this all on my own – so much so on my own that I forgot to involve engineering, procurement, and all the other people who should have really been involved in this thing. I got to the national meeting and I was there on stage in front of a thousand people, and I pulled on it and it didn't work. So, I was embarrassed in front of so many people at the national sales meeting and I fretted about that and I worried about that afterwards. I think in the moment if I had celebrated that mistake and learned from it, it would have been so much more instructive. You know as it was, later on, I apologized to everybody, I sent out a letter to apologize to them. But I think if I had been more comfortable in my own skin, I would have profited so much from reacting in the moment like I was learning, instead of trying to hide what I had done wrong.
What value does iD hold for you?
I'm so jazzed about the Inspiring Diversity community, because it has the potential to bring people from so many different perspectives, with such different voices, into a virtual but ‘common table’ - a common conversation about how do we help each other out, how do we grow each other. I'll give you an example of that kind of diversity and its power. I've always tried to hire people on my team who were different from me – different perspectives, different styles –and I think it's made my businesses is stronger because we had that kind of ‘Team of Rivals’, if you can say, at the at the top. I didn't have to use gender or race or sexual orientation as a marker for that, but I found that many times if I used gender or race or sexual orientation, it actually was a good lead in to find people who actually had different perspectives. So, diversity means so much to me – to give the strength to a leadership team that you wouldn't normally get when you are a unilateral voice. Diversity strengthens the team in that different perspectives always come up with a better answer.
What does 'community' mean to you?
Community is two things for me. First, it’s of course the community that you live in, and who's around you and who do you affect. It could be your neighborhood, your parish if you’re religious, it could be the city that you live in, or the town that you live in, and that's great because I think we should leave a fingerprint – a good fingerprint – on the communities that we affect. Community can also be people that you empathize with and share personal interests with. Again, if you’re religious, it could be your church group or parish, it could also be the Asian community, and the female community. So, I think about community in those different ways. As I’ve gone through more than three decades in my career, I think at the very beginning of my career, I worked a lot on my immediate business community – helping the teams that I dealt with directly or indirectly in my industry. As I've gotten older, I've really prioritized helping the broader community with which I have some commonality. So the Asian community, female executives, rising female business leaders. I've created that idea of community for myself so that I could focus some of my efforts.