A conversation with Mireille Guiliano

By Sara Kopamees

It’s a rare treat to speak to someone who’s inspired me professionally and personally, so when author Mireille Guiliano agreed to a phone interview (despite her jam-packed schedule) in April, I was elated.

Guiliano is a mentor and a true professional who first drew accolades after she published a book that has helped change the way women view eating and weight loss: French Women Don’t Get Fat. But Guiliano’s real gem, in my humble opinion, is her first crack at a business book: Women, Work & the Art of Savoir Faire: Business Sense & Sensibility (see my review at www.abjusa.com or Mireille’s personal website www.mireilleguiliano.com).

Former President and CEO of Clicquot Inc., Guiliano has been recognized as a champion of women in business, and for that reason I am so appreciative that she interviewed for George Media.

Guiliano talked candidly with me about growing up in France, the chances her mother gave her to gain independence, and how all those seemingly small things have shaped the way she lives today—whether she’s promoting the release of her brand new cookbook, or cooking for a dinner party. 

Sara Kopamees: You said in Savoir Faire that gaining your career launching position at the Champagne Bureau was a “combination of luck and skill.” How important, when combined with all other factors in getting a job, are both of those elements?

MG: Well, the better skilled you are when you start, the better off you are.

But unfortunately not many universities, or even MBA programs, really teach you how to work in an office.

SK: Or, in a professional/social setting….

MG: What I talk about in my book (very important) is how to behave in a restaurant, for instance, and how to deal with your guests. This is seemingly mundane but crucial—especially for us women. These are the events on which we will be judged. [But regarding skills] you have to recognize what you are lacking, and what you need to be better at.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your human resource person to find out how you can improve. There are skills you can learn if you’re willing to go out of your way. Try to learn the most you can. Ask questions. I was never afraid to ask questions and say “I don’t know this.”

SK: Yes, and you also mention in your book that you have to make your own luck.

MG: You have to create what I call your social network. There are groups who can help you, you just have to go out of your way to find them—that’s making your own luck. You don’t know, it might bring you much, much more than you ever expected. Maybe it’s time now to take an evening class?

SK: You say in the book that you have to be prepared to seize new opportunities and work harder and smarter than the next person. What about the tendency for people to try to work faster, because technology has made it easier to do so? I’ve found that speed can work against many people. What about the art of detail and thoroughness?

MG: This is one of the 20th century traps: we have all these gadgets and we think that they are solving all of our problems—but, actually, we’re working more, not less.

Secondly, we’re not being as thorough. We’re working much faster because everybody wants something much faster, but our brain is just not made to do this.
These distractions are not good. They [require] a whole new etiquette and education. The world is so competitive now that you have to “do it all”.

But a lot of people are not good with details—and some mistakes cost a lot to companies. The multi-tasking is not a good thing. You need to embrace progress, but there are risks and disadvantages.

SK: How can we slow down this unmanageable pace?

MG: The key would be, like everything else in life, to find the balance. How much do we really need to be on? 24-7? If you answer [that late-night email] you give that person the liberty to know that you are working, so he or she can do that.

To me [balance] is more important than work.

SK: What about taking risks? How important is it to take risks, if you’re really unhappy with your career?

MG: When you want to take a risk, ask yourself what’s the worst thing that can happen—and make a list! At least for work, most of what will be on that list is not that big of a risk.

SK: But if you don’t do anything….

MG: If you stay at home and sit, nothing’s going to happen.

SK: Can you learn to be a leader as you go? Is leadership ability innate?

MG: Part of it is in you, it’s not something that you can always learn. There are many CEOs, for instance, who are not good managers. You can learn a lot of these things, but some of it comes from your childhood.

SK: How so?

MG: For instance, when I was growing up, my mother would let me take the bus, twice a month, to the big city nearby to visit my aunt, by myself. People must have thought that this was crazy. But my mother couldn’t [take me there], and she knew my aunt would enjoy it—she would say, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’ Maybe she was taking a risk, but in a way, it gave me confidence to be independent!

SK: What’s one way that we can gain back some of that control that we’ve lost, with more work in our lives?

MG: Cooking. We control our time—there are not too many things in life that we can control, but we control our time. But if you get organized, you can make a meal that would take a few minutes to prepare. Maybe you have to leave work a little bit earlier.

[With eating a meal] it’s sitting down, it’s conversing, eating more slowly, enjoying fresh foods.

How you manage your relationship with food can guide how you manage your relationship with work and life. We have to control our time or other people will.

SK: As a female in the business world, how important is sharing your successes at work?

MG: You can’t be loved by 100 per cent [of people at work]. You’ll always find someone who will misunderstand you. To me, you must walk the walk, and talk the talk. If my staff sees how I behave and how I talk and what I do, I think it sends a message.

Sometimes you can share your success in an indirect way, but not the way guys brag. We are judged differently—what will pass as fine for a man will not for a woman.

There are ways to do it without being aggressive or arrogant.

SK: How important is it to hire people that challenge you?

MG: I think it’s great. I’ve never been afraid to hire people that are smarter than me. To me that shows a sense of strength, not only for you, but for the company. If you want to have a good company you should get the best people, and you shouldn’t be threatened by them. We are all unique and different but we shouldn’t shy away from looking for the brightest.

SK: What was your favourite part of doing the cookbook?

MG: When people first asked me to do a cookbook, I thought, ‘I’m not a chef’. But then I got tonnes of mail from the first book [French Women]. Someone said to me, ‘Even if you only change five women’s lives, you have to write the book’.

My husband recently asked, ‘Is there one book you have written that you like better [than the others]?’ To be honest, the business book…I never wanted to write. But now, many men who have read it claim it’s a very good business book, and say it will have legs.

SK: I agree completely. It’s helped me learn how to turn off my BlackBerry at a reasonable time at night.

MG: [chuckles] Thank you.