Business Strategy Lessons from a Great New Book, Beauty Queen


Business strategy

What’s one productive way of spending a few hours during a 20 hour plane ride to China? Read a fascinating new business strategy and business leadership book about Chinese-American business leader Andrea Jung, the former CEO of Avon. Written by my dear friend and colleague Debbie Himsel, Beauty Queen is an excellent and impactful read for anyone thinking about business strategy and business leadership on a global basis.

There is so much great information and thinking in this book that I am going to share some of the insights in three different blogs this week.

The first will be an overview and analysis of the overall book and key learning lessons, the second will be on the business acumen learnings, and the third will be on the business leadership learnings.

Advantexe is an organization that develops organizational talent and one of our most significant audiences is high potential leaders. For any high potential leader – or anyone else trying to rise up on the global corporate ladder, this is an interesting and useful analysis of Andrea Jung’s reign as Avon CEO and the lessons that accompanied her rise and fall.

Before Andrea joined Avon in 1993, the organization was mature, tired, and on the verge of becoming the company from which your grandmother bought her cheap cosmetics. In her research, author Debbie Himsel suggests that when Andrea joined as a marketing consultant, it was just a kind of pit-stop in a career that was moving upward, but not with a distinct strategy. But very quickly, Andrea’s business intelligence, charisma, and unique physical presence captured everyone’s attention inside and outside of Avon, and she soon began an ascension path that led to being Chairman and CEO.

Andrea was a strategic thinker and understood what it took to change strategy for success. She started to innovate the business and decided that the long term success of Avon could not depend on the loosely organized and mature value proposition of customer intimacy through a direct sales force. Instead, it needed to transition to product leadership through bigger, brighter, and more attractive products that appealed to a new generation of customers and sales professionals.

Her innovative strategy and risk taking stimulated the business, and almost immediately revenues and profit soared. As her performance increased, she was noticed by senior management and the board of directors. In 1996, she was named head of Global Marketing and within a short time after that, she was named President and COO. Interestingly enough, her sponsor – CEO Jim Preston – began to feel the heat and extreme pressure from the board as the market capitalization plummeted and several hostile takeover scenarios came and went, causing a lot of worry and consternation.

Andrea Jung was named the new CEO when Jim Preston “retired” and almost immediately Andrea took her vision of higher quality and product leadership to the entire global organization. She executed big and bold bets of product quality and innovation that could be sourced at local levels to increase operational efficiencies and meet the needs of the local customers. Her vision was expensive, but as long as revenues grew – which they did – she was able to achieve unparalleled growth and expansion. After the ship was righted however, Andrea made another big bet that lost badly: the entry into retail. It was always a risky strategy because of channel conflict and the risk of alienating the more than 3,000,000 sales professionals selling to individual customers. Avon made deals with Sears and JC Penney to sell products at specialty counters but right before the deal was supposed to commence, Sears dropped the idea (they had a change of strategy) and JC Penney was clearly the wrong fit from a customer perspective. (I will share more on this in our next blog, primarily talking about the strategy issues.)

What worked for Andrea Jung in the good times did not work in the bad times. Author Himsel shares that everyone – including Andrea Jung herself – knew that her biggest leadership weakness was trying to please everyone and not making the tough personnel decisions when she had to. When things were good, that was an okay strategy, but when recessions and bad decisions started to make an impact, it became her fatal flaw. The organization was in need of more straight talk and “holding people accountable,” and Andrea shared with the author that she was unable to create a culture of accountability. Essentially one of the key lessons from all this is that great leaders change and adapt; Andrea was not able to do that effectively. Andrea wanted to please everyone and everyone wanted to please Andrea. She was too isolated from the truth and there were too many things going on – bad things going on – to be isolated from the truth.

Eventually, mounting financial losses and several big scandals, including a very messy and ugly situation involving the Securities and Exchange Commission’s probe of financial improprieties into bribes in the China market, led to her resignation in 2011 as CEO and in 2012 as Chairman of the board.

The book is a great read on so many levels and Debbie did a great job of analyzing and summarizing it from a professional and personal level that is a wonderful case study into current day strategy issues, leadership best practices, business acumen best practices, and sales and marketing best practices without the expected gender issues. It’s an excellent book for current leaders and future leaders of both genders!

The next blog on The Beauty Queen will focus specifically on the business acumen challenges/solutions and the blog after that will focus on a few very specific business leadership learnings. These blogs of course are just a few highlights of this book…I urge you to read the full book if you have any interest in these leadership topics.


Robert Brodo

About The Author

Robert Brodo is co-founder of Advantexe. He has more than 20 years of training and business simulation experience.