10/13/2014 11:17 am ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

Women in Business: Laurie Ann Goldman, Leading Retailing Executive

Laurie Ann Goldman is a leading retailing executive with over 25 years of experience in building global consumer product businesses and brands. She served from 2002 to 2014 as Chief Executive Officer of Spanx, Inc. where under her leadership the Company grew from a startup with a handful of innovative hosiery products into an international powerhouse with thousands of products across multiple brands that defined the shapewear category.

After joining Spanx in 2002, Ms. Goldman played the central role in the fairytale success of the Company. Upon her departure in 2014, Spanx boasted the #1 share in the global shapewear industry. During her tenure, Ms. Goldman led transformative initiatives, including developing new intimate apparel lines and expanding the Company's offerings into new channels of distribution and larger categories of swim, active, jeans and bottoms and even Spanx for Men, and making Spanx available at retailers including Neiman Marcus, Saks, Harrods and Selfridges, as well as the larger chains of Kohl's, Target and Liverpool.

Prior to joining SPANX, Ms. Goldman served for 10 years at The Coca-Cola Company in leading marketing roles including head of the world-wide licensing division. In this role, she oversaw the expansion of the licensing business to 54 countries that reached nearly $1 billion in retail sales and expanded innovative programs with three Olympic Games and The World Cup. Earlier in her career, she held marketing positions at RH Macy's.

Ms. Goldman is involved in a range of corporate, philanthropic and professional organizations. She serves on the boards of Francesca's (NASDAQ; FRAN), SunTrust Bank, AAFA, Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, The Commerce Club, Emory Board of Visitors, Woodruff Arts Center, The Carter Center and is an active member of The Committee of 200 (C200) and CEO (graduate program of YPO). She has received numerous honors for and been recognized for her leadership. She received the AJC National Human Relations and Leadership Award along with Madeleine Albright, JWI's Top Ten Women to Watch, Ad Age Top 50 Marketing Executives and was privileged to run the Olympic torch through the streets of Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. She graduated with honors from the University of Texas at Austin.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Life is all about lessons. Nobody escapes. Sometimes they're big lessons that hit you right in the forehead. Other times they sneak up on you. You absorb them in ways you don't even realize.

One leadership lesson actually started very early. I was in kindergarten and was chosen to be line leader, which obviously made an impression on me because I still remember that day. All my classmates had to get behind me. I took them to the next room. I turned around and looked at everyone behind me and I thought: "I like this!" There were only three rooms, so I had a 50-50 shot at getting the job done right.

Growing up, my father set the bar so high that sometimes I couldn't touch it. He was big on hard work and high achievement and the belief that nothing is impossible if you put in the work to get there. That stayed with me.

In my first big job at Coca-Cola I learned how to navigate the complexities and politics of a huge global organization. The main lesson there: be authentic and speak up regardless of your level. You won't fool the organization for long, so it's much easier to do your job and be yourself.

As CEO of SPANX, every day was a deposit in the experience bank. With a start up, you don't have legacy guardrails. You make it up as you go along. It's a very exciting and rewarding way to get immense leadership experience.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure as an executive?
All of it taught me to obey the first law of consumer products "It's the consumer's world. We just work here." I don't care if you're selling soft drinks or shapers - if a brand isn't part of consumers' lives, you don't have a brand at all.

But brand loyalty is really yesterday's news. The prize today is brand advocacy. It's not enough for people to love your product. We've entered the recommendation economy where people don't believe marketing they believe each other. The younger you go - the more those recommendations count. Millennials have grown up learning their iPads the way previous generations learned their ABC's. They rate, tweet, pin, post, friend and like as a way of life and all of that is well beyond the control of marketers. We don't control the conversation, but we can be part of it.

Every job I've had added new versions of the same lesson. Every time a consumer meets your product, one of two things happens: the brand gets stronger, or the brand gets weaker. You gain leverage or you lose leverage, I never forget that.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure as an executive?
You get a healthy dose of both every day. But I think overall, the biggest highlights and the biggest challenges center on building the right team and taking risks.

I never liked to hire somebody for a job I knew they could already do. I wanted the responsibilities to be beyond their comfort level. The best people like that. I always like to ask for the seemingly impossible. It's a love hate relationship - people hate you when you ask it, but they love you when they achieve it.

A lot of doing the impossible is getting yourself and others to get comfortable with risk. And a lot of that comes down to learning to trust your gut. Often, the numbers don't give you clear direction. You have to gather the evidence, take a big swing -- and let go of the trapeze. I can literally list the good decisions I'm made because my instincts told me what was right. And I can list the big mistakes I've made because that voice inside told me what to do -- but I didn't listen.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
I imagine it's being a better listener. When you put a type-A personality together with career success, two things happen. One - you are obsessed with the idea that there is a single best solution. Two - that single best solution is the one you come up with. Any leader has to let go. Once you realize that there are multiple solutions - and they don't have to be yours -- life gets easier and the solutions get better. You have to keep the windows open. You have to let different ideas and perspectives in. There is a simple reminder I now follow -- if you're thinking about what you're going to say while a person is talking, then you're not listening, you're just waiting your turn.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
There is no such thing as balance. That would assume that there is equilibrium in life. And anyone who has had a full life know there is no such thing. It's not about balance. It's about blending. You should work and enjoy your life from the time you get up until you go to sleep. If you don't have a huge difference in how you experience the two, you are on the right path. I don't care whether you lean in, lean out or lean sideways, perfect balance is not going to happen. Don't aspire to the impossible, and then feel guilty when you don't achieve it.

Sometimes, if something isn't working for you, you have to take action. I loved running global licensing at Coca-Cola. But when you have global in your title, you know you spend a lot of time in hotel rooms. So I quit and went to SPANX. I left a sure-thing that gave me little time with my family for a very uncertain thing that gave me much more time with my family. Changing companies wasn't a career change. It was really a life intervention. And it felt right.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It's forgetting that you are a woman in the work place. I do a lot of speaking to female audiences, and I always get a lot of questions about what it takes to be a successful female executive. What's the secret? How do you crack the code? I've been asked: what's the worst thing that ever happened to you as a woman executive? My reply is: I don't get the question. I never saw myself as a female leader. Just a leader. I think women cause themselves a lot of angst trying to be or act a certain way. It doesn't work. Both women and men have to find the rhythm of your authenticity the same way you find the beat to the music.

So my piece of useful advice: become really, really good at whatever you do. If you are - or if you're not - XX or XY chromosomes don't matter. It's all about the performance. I'm not saying that there aren't still some issues for women. But they're fading fast - especially for younger women. If you look at the surveys of millennial women, they're hungry, and they're confident that nothing will get in their way - including those gender irritations still hiding in the corners of big organizations.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've had wonderful people who have given me great advice and a shoulder to lean on when I needed it. I think mentors are where you find them - it's not always about formal relationships.

Nevertheless, I think you should pick who you work for as carefully as you pick your job. Good boss or bad boss, I've tried to learn something from everyone I've worked for throughout my career. For example, I had a boss who had a military background. She was detail oriented to the point of being obsessive-compulsive. Drove me crazy. But when I presented to her - I would have every question anticipated, every fact checked, every possibility considered, every assumption backed by evidence. I still do and I expect it of the people on my team.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are many to admire There are the trail-blazers like Carly Fiorina at HP and Meg Whitman when she was at eBay. There are the new wave of leaders like Mary Barra at GM. And there are women like Angela Merkel who run countries. But I like to find my role models closer to home. The woman I admire most is my mother. She is an artist, and never had an organizational job. But watching her taught me so much about confidence and trusting your intuition. Those are two things that any leader needs. Her intuition could be scary. One day she woke up and said to my father: "We need to sell all our stocks." He'd seen her intuition at work before. So he did it. That was in 2008 - just days before the market started to collapse.

What do you want to personally and professionally accomplish in the next year?
Right now - post SPANX - I want to enjoy the success and all I accomplished during those magical 12 years as CEO. While I'm looking for my next passion, I want to feed my personal growth and curiosity by learning all I can through new experiences and the interesting people I meet.