Ann Mukherjee is not shy about challenging the traditional notions of leadership. She made this clear when she took the stage as part of the Wisconsin School of Business’s M. Keith Weikel Leadership Speaker Series and presented an unconventional leadership survey for the audience.
Mukherjee displayed profiles of two women on the screen. Profile A was a life marred by misfortune and tragedy—sexual abuse, early death of a parent, violent marriage—while Profile B was the American dream—good education, happy marriage, children, success.
“How many think both women were effective leaders?” Mukherjee asked as she watched the show of hands. “The real answer to the story is woman A and woman B are the same person. And that person is me.”
Mukherjee, the first ever global chief marketing officer at SC Johnson and a Forbes Top 50 Most Influential Chief Marketing Officer, spoke and took questions from a group of Wisconsin MBA students, faculty, and staff at the University of Wisconsin–Madison for nearly an hour, sharing her often-rocky journey with humor and honesty.
For Mukherjee, authenticity is the bedrock of being a leader, a foundation that remains firmly in place whether she’s at home or in the office.
“We are who we are because of our experiences,” she says. “We don’t have regrets. This notion of being unapologetic and saying what you really feel…is a philosophy I’ve had in life, and it’s a philosophy I’ve had as a marketer.”
Here are three lessons Mukherjee shares about leadership:
Make adversity your advantage.
Going through hard times taught Mukherjee resiliency, the courage to change course when needed, and the tenacity to never give up on her dreams.
Her first marriage was a violent one, and after her then-husband put her in the hospital for the second time, a cousin intervened. Mukherjee found the strength to leave that marriage and redirect her life by completing an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Told she could never have children due to the abuse she suffered in her first marriage, Mukherjee and her current husband tried in vitro for four years before their twins were born. Later when her daughter had cancer, “We just imagined a world without cancer,” Mukherjee says. “We would try to use the power of positive thinking.”
Today, Mukherjee uses her experiences to help others. She is very active in the South Asian community in Dallas and assists other women who are in domestic abuse situations.
Love yourself so you can love others.
Great leadership means embracing all parts of yourself, the good, but especially the bad, says Mukherjee, because that’s harder.
"My job is a people job and if I don’t love myself, how can I love the people that I have to serve?”
It's also about unconditional acceptance. “God put a gift in everyone,” Mukherjee’s mother used to say. “Your job is to find that gift and learn from it.”
At 14, Mukherjee was traveling behind her mother’s vehicle when the vehicle was struck by a drunk driver. Her mother died within 30 minutes. She was only 36.
"Everything in my life is pre-mother and post-mother," Mukherjee says. "Accepting people unconditionally came from her."
Understand your audience.
Prior to joining SC Johnson, Mukherjee worked for industry giants PepsiCo, Kraft, and Frito-Lay North America. At Kraft in particular, her first job post-MBA, she soaked everything up “like a sponge.”
“I fell in love with consumers, I fell in love with people, I fell in love with what motivated them, I fell in love with brands—I fell in love with what I did,” she says.
In every role, Mukherjee immersed herself in understanding each firm’s brands and consumer bases.
“I’ve never been apologetic on any of the brands I’ve worked on because there’s a group of people that love them.”
As Mukherjee concluded her talk, she reminded the audience that the future is uncertain and that’s not going to change anytime soon.
“The only way to bring certainty to it is if you stand up to be a great leader. Not just in the living you make, but in the person you are.”