Finding Passion in Your Professional Life

A Q&A with Mireille about getting the job you want—and making the one you have even better.

Thanks to your bestselling books, French Women Don’t Get Fat and French Women For All Seasons, women around the globe have learned the secrets of eating and living as French women do.  Why did you decide to write Women, Work & The Art of Savoir Faire?

There is a relative paucity of books by women for women about business. And there is less help for women in terms of mentoring and shared experience from a seasoned, female business leader than the demand suggests. When I spoke at universities or at women’s conferences or simply at one-on-ones, there were a lot of women who wanted to know more about my professional life, were craving advice on both little and big business and personal issues, and who encouraged me to answer their request in a book.  All of my books and writings are designed to help people, and I agreed that through a “holistic” book on women and work—from strategies for career advancement to principles for living a balanced work life—I could reach a broad audience and hopefully help some people.  Et voilà. You spend a lifetime gaining knowledge and experience, sometimes the hard way, and then what do you do with it?  I thought sharing it would be helpful to people at various stages of their professional and personal lives.

What is the definition of savoir faire?

The meaning of savoir faire is know how—literally, knowing (savoir) how to do (faire).  It means competence, experience, knowing the right course of action, and knowing what to do and say and when and how to do so.

Many would say you’ve lived a charmed business life.  You grew up in France, followed your heart and future husband to New York to work as a translator, became a PR executive, and ultimately landed in your dream job as CEO of Clicquot, Inc. (LVMH).  How did you find your passion and career path?

I feel fortunate that I found a career path that made me happy (and still does), but at the beginning I struggled just as much as other women.  Starting out in New York I was a translator, but when I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do, I was anxious and uncertain as I tried to figure out a new direction.  I made a lot of personal SWOT analyses and puzzled over them and, with my husband’s help, finally recognized that my real passions were food, wine, and travel.  Once I figured that out, it got a lot easier.  By balancing my passions with talent and opportunity, I was able to see some potential career paths, and soon enough I was interviewing for the entry-level PR position that led to everything else.  I worked my way up in the PR firm, promoting the Champagne industry, and when my dream company, French Champagne house Veuve Clicquot, came to me with an opportunity for a start-up in the United States, I took the plunge and the rest is history.

Is it ever too late for women to change careers or find their life’s passion?

Not at all.  Passions can fade over time and new ones can always emerge, at any age.  In my book, I tell the story of a long-standing friend who took over the family business after her husband’s sudden death and discovered passions and abilities she never knew existed.  She was one of the happiest and most balanced business leaders I ever met over the years, and she didn’t begin this career until her forties.  Chance opportunities and new passions can come at any time.  I’m living proof of that, too.  After “retiring” from Clicquot, Inc. (LVMH), I’m now in my third act or encore career writing, lecturing, cooking, traveling, and doing all sorts of projects that agree with me now and give me lots of pleasures.  It’s never too late to find and follow new passions.

You’ve taken a lot of risks in your career.  Particularly in the current economic climate, many women are afraid to take chances or give up a “safe” job.  What have you learned about risk, opportunity, and overcoming your fears?

The best decisions I made, both in my personal and professional life, were risky ones, from moving to America to taking the job in PR to signing onto the Veuve Cliquot U.S. start-up.  But, no risk, no reward.  At times of opportunity, risk, and decision-making, I always asked myself, what’s the worst thing that can happen?  Usually, the answer was nothing so bad that it couldn’t be fixed.  I left a fantastic PR job for the Veuve Clicquot start-up, and against a lot of advice to the contrary.  Lots of people thought I was making a mistake, that the start-up would fail.  I didn’t think so, though, and really, what did I have to lose?  Worst case, I’d be on the job market in a year or so, and with solid experience on my resume.  Too often we worry so much about the worst things that can happen that we don’t achieve our dreams or live up to our abilities.  There are risks that are not worth taking, of course, but these decisions should be made out of reason, not fear.

If you had to pick one overarching quality or skill that leads to success in business, what would it be?

I think communication skills are truly the key to career success.  Intelligence, knowledge, or experience are important and might get you a job, but strong communication skills are what will get you promoted.  Being able to communicate effectively—to get points across clearly and effectively in a variety of forms to a variety of audiences—sets people apart in business.  It’s also important to remember that communication is something we do every time we come into contact with another person.  Looking people in the eye, saying “hello” or “good morning,” and addressing people by name are sometimes overlooked, but these day-to-day communications are noticed and are what build relationships within a company.

In your book, you talk about the importance of creating one’s own brand.  Why does it matter, and how have you put it into practice in your life?

One thing I have learned in my career is, if you are not a brand, then you are a commodity and will not stand out from your peers.  You need to be known for your unique qualities, the strengths and talents that make you different from the competition.  This applies to all areas of your image—work quality, yes, but also behavior, manners, and style.  All of these define your brand.  And, though some people don’t like to hear this, looks count for women in business.  A woman does not need to be gorgeous, but she does need to be put together and well-groomed.  I’ve always remembered my mother’s advice that people notice your hair, your eyes and smile, then your shoes, and I’ve also learned to make sure I look presentable at all times.  You never know when you will run into someone important, and you want to give the best possible impression of your brand.

You talked a lot about style in your previous books and showed women how to adopt the French woman’s seemingly effortless sense of style.  What are your top rules for dressing in the workplace?

It’s important to remember that the way you dress sends a very clear message about your brand.  My three golden rules for dressing are: quality over quantity, simplicity in all things, and less is more (but not in the sense of showing skin).  Also, always invest in good staples, wear clothes that accent the best parts of your body and camouflage the less desirable, and stay within the boundaries of your own personal style to keep your style consistent.

You moved up the ladder from entry-level to CEO, with middle management positions in between.  What do you think distinguished you as a true leader and allowed you to break out of the management ranks into a leadership position?

The number one key to my success was beating all of the metrics—sales, revenues, placements, company image, etc.—year after year.  I set aggressive but achievable results and my team outperformed the market every year.  That’s the best way to get ahead in business.  The personal characteristics that made it possible for me to break into the leadership circle were good communication skills, my ability to keep things clear and simple (strategy, vision, objectives, etc.), my decisiveness and ability to make tough decisions, and my capacity for taking risks.  I would say some other important skills that helped me to succeed as a leader were loyalty, hiring talented people (and not micromanaging them), self-confidence, consistency, integrity, honesty, and maintaining a sense of humor.  I also needed a thick skin.

As a woman trying to make it in a man’s business world, what did you learn?

Especially as a woman, you need to work harder and smarter than everyone else in order to succeed.  As I say in my book, there aren’t many shortcuts on the way up, and the best way to get ahead is to produce outstanding work.  Communicating effectively with men is important, too.  For example, women tend to be naturally more talkative while most men like to get down to business quickly.  In a man’s business world, being clear and concise helps women get noticed.  Partly because it’s so much tougher for women, I’ve been troubled by my observation that there is a real lack of mentorship among women.  If women are going to rise to the top, we need to start building supportive communities of high-achieving women and learn to ask for help from and give help to one another.

Including etiquette lessons in a business book is unusual.  Why did you decide to do so?

Manners play an important role in one’s personal brand, and how you embrace and demonstrate them makes an impression and sets you apart.  Over the years I have increasingly noticed a lack of table manners, but in many industries (certainly the luxury industry), these skills are imperative.  At a minimum, anyone who takes clients out to eat needs to know dining-related etiquette, and these skills are not always taught at home anymore.  At Veuve Clicquot we incorporated an etiquette session into the national sales meeting each year.  It was that important to the company image.

Including a chapter on eating is also quite unorthodox.  You are known for loving food and eating well, but how does it apply to the business world?

Eating, dining, and entertaining well are basics of business yet skills that are rarely taught or understood.  Just like everything else, there are soft skills that go into them and can make you more effective.  Eating for business can be a great asset.  Sitting at a table and sharing a meal is a wonderful way to build relationships and solve challenges. Some of my best decisions, ideas, and strategies grew from a meal with people, as did some of my strongest business relationships.

You talk a lot about balance in your book.  How did you find balance while traveling for business and working long hours?

It wasn’t always easy.  Over the years, I realized the importance of taking time to do small things for myself.  Doing so both makes me feel better in the moment and helps me be more effective overall.  I start every morning with a twenty-minute walk before breakfast.  I consider it my “Zen” time and it’s one of my most important strategies for staying balanced.  Over time I also learned how to minimize travel stress, and I set up boundaries to make sure I had quality time with my husband.  Even when both of us were traveling, we agreed to never go more than five days without seeing each other.  It took a good deal of planning and effort at times, but the payoff—keeping our marriage healthy—was more than worth it.

What do you say to people who think some of what you write is common sense or at least well-worn business topics?

The more you bring to the book, the more you take away…and you must bring something.  I am not writing for someone with zero business sense or knowledge.  Some of what I write will be news to one reader, maybe not another.  For some readers, a SWOT analysis will be old hat, but—I learned from the dozen editors who purchased the book in various countries—it is not for everyone.  Everything is expressed freshly for today’s businesswomen and aspirants.  And by a businesswoman to women.  Plus, I submit, there certainly are original ideas, as well.  Take the old adage that you must follow your passion—well, there are passions and then divorces.  Or, my ideas on “the principle of enlightened self-interest.”  Another example of what I’ve never seen or read before is the notion of the anchors in life that help one both cope and grow.  Plage de temps, anyone?  I hope my take on what some people think of as well-worn business topics is both fresh and helpful to readers.  Has what I say about communication skills been said before?  Some parts may go back to the Greeks, but not the key points and not in my fashion.  And there are a lot of topics never before seen in a business book, including a host of all-important soft skills where women excel and men do not.

You don’t get fat and you managed to find balance while juggling a high-powered career.  These are no small accomplishments.  Do you think these skills come more naturally to French women?

Being a French woman, I can tell you these skills did not come naturally to me.  I will say that the French social system provides women with more help in achieving balance—the country is well known for policies like long maternity leaves and better working hours, though some of that has changed in recent years.  For women living in other countries, it can be harder and they may need to put more effort into achieving balance.  Living in the U.S., it certainly took me time and many learning experiences to find my balance, and my hope is that by sharing these experiences and my advice, my book will help make it easier for other women.

Now you’ve taught women how to stay slim, eat with pleasure, live well, and succeed in business.  What’s next for you?

Right now, I’m finishing a book that will be published in 2010.  It rounds out and extends my French Women books (who knew I couldn’t say it all in one book?).   It is a cookbook, though not in the traditional mode but more in the style of my other books with personal stories that illustrate eating for pleasure and maintaining a healthy balance…and what my readers have been asking for all along.