Marilyn Carlson Nelson – Author & Chairman, Carlson Cos

Marilyn Carlson Nelson

Marilyn Carlson Nelson, one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs and philanthropists, dishes on running a business (and giving back) during tough economic times.

By Taylor Mallory

What does the owner of the $40 billion Carlson Cos. have to say about surviving the recession? The picture is bleak, says the stunningly honest executive, yet she’s hopeful. “We’re streamlining our businesses and have had to let some employees go,” says Marilyn Carlson Nelson, author of How We Lead Matters (McGraw-Hill, 2008) and chairman of one of the world’s largest woman-owned companies. (She recently stepped down as CEO.) “We cut costs through greater efficiency, process engineering and company downsizing.” Though the company came in almost on budget last year, “which was amazing,” she doesn’t think that will happen this year given the prolonged downturn. The silver lining? “This is a great time to hire some really great talent because a lot of talent is available.”

Here she shares how her faith gets her through, the advice that has served her through the years and how to give back when it’s hard to pay the bills.

PINK: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Marilyn Carlson Nelson: When I was 13, I told my dad I wasn’t going to Sunday school anymore because the class was too chaotic. He said, “You can’t quit. If you don’t like it, fix it.” So I made a list of how to make it better. My mom took me to the church, and we changed Sunday school. It was my first lesson in change management. When I became CEO at Carlson, I quickly realized there were only two women executives. I was determined to build a meritocracy. Today 49 percent of the management team at Carlson are women – and so are 40 percent of executives. I could have accepted that it was a male environment. Instead I institutionalized succession plans and training so both women and men receive the coaching they need to be successful. I implemented an executive leadership program, built an on-site daycare and offered adoption services – amenities that both women and men appreciate as family-friendly. But if you’re in an environment that compromises your values and you really can’t change it, then have the courage to leave. You are defined by what you tolerate.

PINK: What’s it like being chairman but not CEO any longer?
M.C.N.: It’s challenging, but I’m trying to be disciplined about not meddling – trying to stick to governance and not management. But I did leave the CEO position with a flourish. We had 4,000 employees, customers and partners in Las Vegas for an event last February. Some big names were there like Maya Angelou (one of my personal heroes), Nestl√© Europe CEO Peter Brabeck, Tony Bennett and Regis Philbin. That’s where I officially turned the CEO role over to Hurbert Joly.

PINK: Who or what inspires you most?
M.C.N.: My faith has been the center of my life. I’ve come through the loss of a child and my son’s liver transplant. And I truly try to live out the Golden Rule. No matter what your faith, I wish more leaders in business and politics would recall this simple principle of doing unto others as you would want others to do unto you. Thinking about this economy and those leaders who would allow whole companies to collapse while they collected enormous salaries, I wonder how they could do that. If you aren’t religious, find some other transcendental inspiration that reminds you we aren’t unto ourselves. We’re all in this together. Each of us is a living link between the past and future.

PINK: What was your New Year’s resolution?
M.C.N.: To resist the nuts. [Laughs.] If there’s a dish of nuts in my vicinity, I’m vulnerable. I also want to travel more. I’ve traveled all over the world in my job because I like to see people face to face. I meet people all over the world and see how much we share, and I love the differences. But I’ve been to so many places where I didn’t get to go on a tour or see the sights. I want to play more.

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