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Women in Leadership Speaker Series: Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes

In a Kellogg School talk, Barnes discussed the importance of building a common culture to drive change

By Shannon Sweetnam

12/8/2009 - When Brenda Barnes became chairman and CEO of Sara Lee in 2005, she announced that it would take time to transform the company. The organization needed a comprehensive change effort focused first and foremost on creating a new, common culture.

“The culture of an organization is one of the most important things [to focus on] when you are going through change,” Barnes told a packed room of students on her Dec. 3 visit to the Kellogg School. Barnes’ lecture was part of the Women in Leadership Speaker Series, hosted by the Business Leadership Club of the Women’s Business Association at Kellogg.

“Creating lasting change requires employees at all levels to dig in deep, to drive the change, to own it, and to realize that nothing can stay the same,” Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes told Kellogg students Dec. 3.
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 “When I joined Sara Lee, the company used a direct-selling model and lots of individual companies were left to do what they needed to do, but there was no common bond that made Sara Lee Sara Lee,” Barnes explained. “We were a coffee company, a bakery, an underwear company, a household and body-care company, and a meat company.”

Barnes believed that Sara Lee needed to create synergy among its divisions and develop a common culture. To that end, she directed senior management to focus on the results of the whole company, rather than the performance of individual brands.

Barnes also concentrated on aligning the goals of Sara Lee team members. “Creating lasting change requires employees at all levels to dig in deep, to drive the change, to own it, and to realize that nothing can stay the same,” said Barnes. “You stay the same, you’re behind.”

Within four years, Barnes helped Sara Lee sell 40 percent of its revenue and consolidate its divisions, shrinking it from a $20 billion company to a $13 billion company. “Today, Sara Lee is a single, focused company with a common vision and strategy,” said Barnes. “We’re much simpler. We’ve taken out layers of the organization. We have a mindset of continuous improvement and a culture resilient to change.”

Barnes said she enjoyed the challenge of transforming Sara Lee. “I don’t like a well-oiled machine,” she admitted. “I like something to work on. Sara Lee was full of good brands that just weren’t nourished.”