Avon CEO Sheri McCoy Talks Turnaround Truths

Maxon Lectureship speaker emphasizes universal best practices in business.

Sheri McCoy
Avon CEO Sheri McCoy emphasized teamwork, strategic planning and people as pillars of effective turnaround management.
March 20, 2014

By James Irwin

Whether you are running a global company or a startup, there exist universal truths to leading change, and those truths often provide the framework for successful turnaround management, Sheri McCoy, CEO of Avon Products Inc., said Wednesday night at the George Washington University.

“People drive change,” Ms. McCoy said. “Change takes teamwork — diverse points of view are critical. You need a roadmap. And culture really matters.”

Staying true to organizational values while providing the right dosage of change to the right areas of an organization were among the topics Ms. McCoy addressed at GW’s 15th annual Robert P. Maxon Lecture, hosted by the School of Business and the Institute for Corporate Responsibility.

“A vision tells you where you want to go, a strategic framework tells you how you will get there,” Ms. McCoy told a capacity crowd inside GW’s Jack Morton Auditorium. “We remind our teams all the time, ‘If it doesn’t support the framework, stop doing it.’ We are that literal.”

The Maxon Lectureship, established through Dorothy Maxon's endowment gift to the School of Business in honor of her husband, former Mobil executive Robert P. Maxon, B.A. '48, features prominent executives and academics making presentations on contemporary global management issues. Wednesday’s event featured welcoming remarks from GW President Steven Knapp, a question-and-answer session with Ms. McCoy facilitated by School of Business Interim Dean Christopher Kayes, and showcased Lemonade Day D.C. 2014 presenting sponsor PNC Bank.

Ms. McCoy, the parent of a current GW student, compiled a distinguished 30-year career at Johnson & Johnson before joining Avon in 2012, and recently was named to Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business list for a sixth consecutive year.

“Under her leadership, Avon is rejuvenating its business model, and empowering its 6 million Avon representatives to become more successful entrepreneurs,” Dr. Knapp said.

GW President Steven Knapp, Avon CEO Sheri McCoy and GW Interim Dean for the School of Business Christopher Kayes.

Drawing on Avon's story, from humble beginnings to global brand, and sprinkling in a few anecdotes and videos, Ms. McCoy highlighted her turnaround management philosophy during a 35-minute keynote speech, including the need to create a culture where employees aren't afraid to ask questions.

“Asking why is like asking for directions, and I believe being willing to ask for directions is a critical factor in leading successful turnaround,” she said. “We’ve worked very hard over the past two years to create a culture where raising your hand for help is a good thing.”

Balance, Ms. McCoy said, is key when introducing change. Avon was a revolutionary business model at its founding in 1886 — “It was the birth of modern-day direct selling and an important step in women’s empowerment in this country,” Ms. McCoy said — and boomed in the 1990s and 2000s, especially in emerging markets. But the company underinvested during this expansion and didn’t modernize its direct-sales model, allowing growing retail competition to encroach on the market territory it once occupied. Ms. McCoy and her leadership team have identified solutions to modernize services to customers, while still maintaining the core pillars that have helped Avon thrive for more than 125 years.

“We need to make sure we stay true to our core, which is direct selling, but make sure we contemporize it,” she said. “We believe marrying e-commerce with direct selling is important. If a representative can send a tweet or text to her customer, that’s a way the representative can still earn commission and bring customers into the company.”

Effective turnaround management, she said, isn’t linear, and ranges from making personnel decisions to strategic planning. It’s about reinforcing the type of behavior that will advance the business.

In the case of Avon, that meant putting the company’s worldwide representatives and consumers at the center of any solution.

“It’s about solving problems and finding great people,” Ms. McCoy said. “Unless you are going to do something on your own and never talk to anyone, you’re going to need people.”