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Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes Discusses Career Breaks

Former Pepsi North America President Sees Life as a Series of Chapters

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Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes Discusses Career Breaks

Sara Lee Corp. Chairman and CEO Brenda Barnes

Photo courtesy of Sara Lee

Brenda Barnes stunned corporate America when she quit her $2 million-a-year job as president of PepsiCo North America, leaving a 22-year career at the company to be with her three children. After 7 years at home, in 2004 Brenda Barnes joined Sara Lee Corp. as the chief operating officer and became chairman and chief executive officer a year later. Her compensation for fiscal 2008 totals about $10.5 million.

Any working mom wondering if a career break will end her working life need only look at Brenda Barnes' journey after leaving Pepsi to become the 9th highest-ranking female CEO in the Fortune 500. Sara Lee even launched a paid internship program, dubbed returnships at Sara Lee, targeting professionals with a gap in employment.

Brenda Barnes, 54, discussed her own career break in an exclusive interview:

What advice would you have for a working mom who's thinking about quitting a job to raise a family but wants a career down the road?

You need to stay engaged. You need to stay connected to what's going on in the business world, some way, some how. Stay current on your own leadership capabilities. That's one thing I observed when I was taking my time doing my family work.

Women run this society. They're running the schools. They're running the communities. They're running charities. They're doing PTAs. They're doing all kinds of things that keep society going. That should not be undervalued by them or anybody they're going to interview with. To the extent you can have a role in that and demonstrate it, then you have a selling point when you're interviewing for a returnship or a full-time job somewhere.

When you're working, especially in a demanding job, how do you stay connected and contribute to those people who are running the community?

It's all tradeoffs. There might be times in your life when you can do a lot of it and there might be times in your life when you can't do any of it.

At the end of my life, I'd like to look back and say I did different things at different times but in the end it was a pretty good book.

Women should support each other in whatever chapter you happen to be in. If I'm in a work chapter now, I do value and appreciate the women who are keeping society going. I really do. Women who are doing it and have peers that are working, they should be supportive of them too. That's something we all should keep in mind. We'll all make different choices at different points in time and they're all good choices.

What prompted your decision to step down from PepsiCo?

Probably no different than what everybody else goes through. I loved my job. I loved my career. I loved my future. It was all great stuff, but you experience over time, especially in the kind of job I had, that it really is all consuming, lots of travel. My oldest child when I did it was 10 years old. I came to realize after 10 years of doing it that those years went really fast. If I didn’t spend more time now, I would not have that opportunity.

I always say that for me it was a selfish decision. It wasn't that I had trouble with the kids or was worried about them. It was really selfish that I wanted to spend more time with them. I thought about it many times before I did it and I always changed my mind.

You served on corporate boards and taught. Was that part of a specific plan to stay engaged and then ramp back up when your kids were older?

By the way, one of the boards is the New York Times (parent of About.com). I just left that board this past April. I would love to tell you I had it all preplanned and it was well thought out, but that was not the case. When I made the decision, I had to leave thinking I would never have an opportunity again.

That was the test for me. If that's the outcome, would I do this? I came to the conclusion, yes. I would find other things to do and be self-fulfilled or whatever. I had to assume there was not going to be another job. It wasn't a grand plan and it actually worked out great.

What was the transition out of the workforce like for you? I know some moms who scale back feel a loss of identity or that they don't have the respect they used to.

At first that's definitely the case. You realize if you go to a function, if you have a name badge, let's say, there's nothing under it. I'd think to myself, I'm just Brenda Barnes. For me, over time, I transitioned to: that's what I did, that's not who I am. I still am who I am and I will do different things in life.

You have to deal with, at first, that that's not your total identity. Your job is not your total identity. I felt really a lot of freedom. I called it a chapter in life because I filled it with a lot of different things.

What do you feel you gained from that time?

There is no question in my mind I would make the same decision 100 times over. Because what I gained was the ability to enjoy what was a very important part of my life, which were my children. Time. Time with family, and the pleasure of it and the freedom to do different things. It's hard to describe the value, but it was fantastic.

From a professional side, I felt like I went to graduate school. I didn't know that ahead of time, but as I was doing it, it occurred to me that I was with PepsiCo for 22 years and by stepping away from it and engaging at a different level, which was at the board level, I saw different companies. I learned about corporate governance. I learned about different industry challenges. I sat around the table in each of the boards with 10, 12 very smart people. Learned from their thought process. It really, really helped prepare me for doing the job I have now, which is chairman and CEO of a company.

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