How The Former CEO Of Veuve Clicquot Became A Best-Selling Author

Photo: Courtesy of How Did She Get There.

As told to Caroline Hugall


What did you want to be when you grew up?
"This is a hard question, because I come from a small town in France (Rombas, Lorraine) and we didn't really have an idea or goals like young people have today. Probably the first thing I wanted to be was a hairstylist. I saw my mother going for a blowdry and I thought it was so glamorous that she could come out of a 15-minute session and look so wonderful.

"During my teenage years, my mother, because of her Protestant values, believed in giving and charity work, which in Catholic France was not that well-known. She sent me in the summer to do volunteer work. I was also a Sunday School teacher. For a while, I thought about becoming a missionary in Africa.

"When I came to Boston as part of an exchange at school, I decided that I was not going to go back to my local university and become a professor... Instead, [I would] become a translator/interpreter. So up until my 20s, I changed my mind a lot. The irony, of course, is that the CEO track was not at all in my vocabulary or vision — and certainly not communications, which I pursued later in life.

I'm not interested in people who don't appreciate food or have particular food aversions.

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"Today, it's common to change, but in my time, doing what I did, leaving my country and coming to America and switching careers 360 degrees where French was not even the native language, was pretty risky at 25 years old. I had some lucky stars, a supportive husband, and good mentors. All that helped."

Whom would you invite to your dream dinner party?

"I would invite good friends. I'm not interested in people who don't appreciate food or have particular food aversions. I want people who eat and try everything, from all over the world. I have many chef friends, so I would definitely invite a good chef.

"Some days I would say Chopin or a great French writer, but now I am just back from Alsace, where my grandmother grew up, and I thought about Albert Schweitzer, who was a doctor, a philosopher, a great giver, a missionary, lots of things...and he loved food, so I would probably invite him, too."

What is your favorite time of the working week?
"I would say mornings. Especially when I wrote all the books. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. I try to keep the afternoon or the early evening for friends, family, and other things. I try not to do too much on the weekend — that's almost a religion."

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?

"It started when I came back from America and finished high school. I went and studied literature at the Sorbonne and got a degree as translator and interpreter. When I moved to New York, I joined Veuve Clicquot's marketing department to help build the U.S. brand and grow the business. I was there for 25 years, which is a long time, but I can't say that I ever had a boring day.

"In the 10 years since leaving Veuve Clicquot, I have been writing lifestyle books and have been fortunate to have had great successes by tapping into a part of culture that really resonates with people. I am not sure what the next stage from here is. I'm kind of in transition. I have to decide if it’s the end of writing/publishing. If so, what is next?"

I believe if you're paid to do something, you should deliver the goods.

What motivates you?
"Ultimately, it’s doing a good job. It comes from my childhood and having had a working mother. I believe if you're paid to do something, you should deliver the goods. I don't need someone to pat me on the back every day and tell me I'm great. I just do what I have to do."

What advice would you give to someone at the start of his or her career?
"To women, I would say don't be afraid. I still think the big word among women is fear. They are all afraid of something. Ask yourself, What's the worst that could happen? Put it on paper. Then you know."
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
"It's certainly not my working life; it's my personal life. The people I've helped and what I've given. All the values my mother taught me about why we are on this planet."

What do you believe has been the key to your success?

"Never being afraid to change the course of whatever was necessary, and always doing the best for the company and the people I work for.

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Ask yourself what's the worst that could happen. Put it on paper. Then you know.

"You have to do the best you can. It might not be perfect, but it's the best you can. I think that's lost today with a lot of the younger generations. They don't care, and every two years change jobs, and don't really commit. I would have a hard time living with that, because commitment was very important to me. If you don't like your job, go somewhere else, but...once you have found what you like, do it with passion, commitment, and service. You're being paid for a service; try to show the people who trust you that you are the real thing."

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

"Don't ever take anything for granted. Count your blessings. Don't get so attached to the small stuff. Have more of a cosmic vision of what you should and shouldn't do in life, and be true to yourself."

What do you believe are the personality traits of great leaders?

"Many. Being a good communicator would be among them. Even when we write things and when we say things, people have a way of misunderstanding. Strong listening skills. Fair. They must try to hire the best people, which is hard. And, of course, have a sense of reality."

If you don't like your job, go somewhere else...

What do you believe to be the secret to rising up to the top?
"A lot of people are envious of the top and think they can be at the top, but I don't think it's for everyone... It's a lonely job up there. It takes a pretty strong person.

"In America, you have many more female CEOs than you have in France. Most women in France don't want to get or go there. They know that it's a job where you have to give so much. There are some exceptions, but in France, family still comes first — particularly if you have children. You can have it all, but not at the same time. If you take that job where you're going to travel three weeks a month and you have kids and a husband, something is going to suffer.

In America, you have many more female CEOs than you have in France.

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"For me, the secret to rising to the top is hard work, and a good IQ — but for most top jobs, you don't have to be a genius. You have to be honest and see that nobody is that smart to get all those achievements; there's always a little bit of luck. How we get that luck, I don't know — depends what your beliefs are."
Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
"The people I trust. My husband, my best friends, people in the business who have been mentors or [whom] I have worked with. I also turn to my spiritual side. I'm not a religious person, so to speak, but thinking about it, sitting and meditating, or going into a church, can give me a lot of clarity. We also used to say, 'Don’t rush; sleep on it.'"

What's next?

"At this point of my life, I can't change my entire life. I'm not going to be an astronaut or study to become a doctor. If I could renew my life, I'd like to be a yoga or dance teacher...but it's not going to happen.

"I think there's still a lot to be done in lifestyle and bien-être (well-being). Whether it's through weight issues...food, work, or whatever you do, there are still a lot of people out there who can be helped. So in my small way, one way or another, I hope to reach more people."

To read more about Mireille Guiliano and her career path, click here.


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