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During her Feb. 22 visit to the Kellogg School, Ilene Gordon of Corn Products International told students that it’s possible to achieve a work/life balance and have a successful career. “But it’s up to you to make it happen,” she said.

Ilene Gordan

Smart balance

With a little bit of planning and a lot of multitasking, personal and professional success is ‘yours for the taking,’ says Ilene Gordon, CEO of Corn Products International

By Rachel Farrell

2/25/2010 - When Ilene Gordon took a job as a consultant in 1976, the notion of a work/life balance didn’t exist — or at least it wasn’t acknowledged as an option in the corporate world.

“If you were going into the business world, you’d do what the company wanted you to do,” said Gordon, who delivered the talk “Thriving — Personally and Professionally — in a Global Environment” Feb. 22 at the Kellogg School. “I was warned not to talk about work/life balance. I had to keep it to myself that I had a family.”

But times have changed, said Gordon, who was appointed chairwoman, president and CEO of Corn Products International last May. Based in Westchester, Ill., CPI is a $4 billion company and a leading supplier of starches, sweeteners and other ingredients. “Today, we respect people who can balance it. Companies such as mine can’t hire your generation and expect you to operate the way we operated 30 years ago.”

Gordon urged Kellogg students to embrace this paradigm shift and go after their personal and professional goals. Gordon is proof-positive that one can be successful in both areas: She has been married for 30 years, has two children (one of whom attends Kellogg), is involved with several nonprofits, and has worked for leading firms including Illinois Tool Works, Tenneco, Pechiney and Alcan Packaging.

So what’s the secret to her sense of balance? Along with being skilled at multitasking, Gordon says she stays true to a six-point set of beliefs that she established many years ago: Value your education; get operating experience; find a mentor; get international experience; don’t be afraid to take risks; and take charge of your own career.

Gordon encouraged Kellogg students to write down their own set of beliefs — and to refer back to that list when making career decisions. “You need to be 90 percent true to your framework,” Gordon said. “For the most part, I was adamant about what I wanted to do.

“So my message is, you can do it,” she said. “But it’s up to you to make it happen. It’s not yours for the asking; it’s yours for the taking.”