Despite inequities that persist in the corporate world, women in leadership continue to make remarkable contributions to their respective industries. As executive search leaders, we at JM Search have the honor of meeting these incredible individuals each day. Our Women Rising Series allows me to further explore their career journeys and insights.

In this edition, I had the pleasure of speaking with Laraine Miller, who has proved her outstanding business and marketing prowess for nearly three decades. Laraine has made her mark in the consumer-packaged goods industry through numerous leadership roles—most recently, President, North America at LIPTON Teas and Infusions and President & General Manager, Tea Americas at Unilever.

Laraine’s proactivity and entrepreneurial spirit has helped her continuously elevate her career while driving growth and award-winning results for brands. Here are some of her insights and learnings from her remarkable career.

How would you summarize your career to date?

I think of my career in three phases. In the beginning, I grew up in a house where my dad ran a family business. I would sweep up the warehouse on the weekend, file things, or help with math. It wasn’t unusual for me to answer the phone, then hand it to my dad and hear things like, “Oh, no, that’s not my new secretary. That’s my 8-year-old Laraine.”

That was part of everyday life. I grew up in a hardworking household, and I appreciate the ethic that I have taken with me. I learned about teamwork, rolling up your sleeves, and the pride you can take in a job well done.

After college, I wanted to find a career that was creative and varied but also offered some structure. My limited view sent me to Madison Avenue to work at an ad agency. There was a lot for me to learn there, but I happened to join the year TiVo, the original DVR, was invented. I remember thinking, “This is going to be the death of this industry. How can I keep up and modernize this company?” It was ambitious of me, not even a year into my career, to think I could do that. Instead, I struck out and started my own small consulting firm centered on marketing, such as loyalty programs, for small businesses in Manhattan. I had a partner who was like-minded with an entrepreneurial streak. Long story short, we learned a ton.

We ended up working for a larger consulting firm called Sterling Brands, which is now owned by Omnicom. Through that experience, I collected more functional expertise. We did everything from brand positioning and naming to innovation and brand design. A lot of my clients were people in brand management, and I got exposed to that world. I grew hungry for that side of the desk.

To help achieve that goal, I set out to get an MBA, and attended Harvard Business School. From there, a wonderful opportunity to move to the Midwest for General Mills presented itself. It was a great place to start my career. They have a tremendous arsenal of capabilities and smaller brands. That’s where I cut my teeth in product development, brand management and P&L ownership. I spent about seven years at General Mills.

Then, I joined Unilever, which is in a similar space but runs very differently at a global level with large brands in large categories. In my first several years at Unilever, I continued to build my marketing prowess. I think of the last 10 years as the third phase of my career: more about employee empathy, learning how to build stronger teams and supporting them to deliver on bigger challenges. There have been a couple times when I had to start from the beginning and turn around a business or inherit an acquisition and ensure it landed well with a strong roadmap for success. It’s been really rewarding to manage and inspire these large teams to take on what, in the business context, might seem impossible.

As you think about your career, was there a very difficult career moment you overcame?

One that comes to mind goes back to my time on Breyers when I just got promoted to director. There were a lot of firsts. Breyers had been a billion-dollar brand at one time but had lost its way, become commoditized and lost distribution as a symptom of that. But it was a local jewel in a company (Unilever) that loved global brand priorities.

The brand still had a lot of latent equity, consumers felt better about buying Breyers than the competition. Yet when we would talk to consumers—we focused on moms—Breyers was so easily substituted that $0.10 on the unit would make them change their mind. I believed we needed to restore Breyers brand equity so moms don’t just buy Breyers—they feel compelled to buy Breyers at any premium.

We got down to the basics and did old-fashioned consumer research to understand what could move the needle. Our team, thinking very insightfully, found the right nugget inside of a nugget: the conversation about artificial growth hormones. This was a hot topic in the dairy industry for milk, but no one had talked about it for cheese, yogurt, or ice cream.

When we started probing on that, moms had an aha moment, like, “Oh my goodness. I think about this with milk. But I didn’t think about it with ice cream.” If Breyers could be the first to pioneer a more humane way of treating cows and families, that could make a big difference.

The easiest part of this assignment was finding the insight. The harder part was creating buy-in and stakeholder alignment for going against the grain—the grain being the concept that ice cream makes people happy. All ice cream does that. We needed to tell people something specific about Breyers, and the real challenge was staking my career on this.

Breaking through took a lot of time and conversations. I also had to understand my internal audience and leverage consumer empathy and data for senior leadership. I had to show up for what I believed was best for the business and hope it would pay off.

I’m happy to say it kicked off a massive turnaround in the business. It created different conversations with our customers. It changed our supply chain and the way cows were treated on a pretty grand scale. It had tremendous ripple effects in the business and sustainability. Breyers won an Effie Award, entered a different playing field than most of the competition, and was able to continue to grow. They’re still running that ad campaign today.

As you think about people you worked with throughout your career, what do you believe has made them successful? What characteristics have you tried to emulate?

In my career, I’ve been surrounded by a lot of smart, good people who were role models. One that jumps out is my first boss at the ad agency on Madison Avenue, Kim Bealle. She was well-known in the industry and the head of account management. She had one of the most important jobs in the firm, but she was also one of the most down-to-earth and practical, balanced people I had ever met. She treated everyone at work with respect and fairness.

Amidst a notoriously competitive industry, she set such a good example from the top. It helped me realize that no matter what I saw on TV about ad agencies and business, there is a place to be a great leader with principles who puts people first.

If you were counseling professionals early in their career, what would you advise them to do beyond establishing and leveraging networks?

We need to ask for what we want. When I started working at Unilever, I knew I would get immersed in the job, grow excited about what I was doing, and hope the work would speak for itself. But in the first meeting with my new boss, I forced myself to say, “I’m so excited to join this team. I want to let you know what I’m looking for in my next role now so we don’t have to talk about it again for a while.”

Nine months later, earlier than any of us expected, the perfect role opened in another part of the business. I walked into her office and said, “As you might recall, when I first showed up, there were three things I was looking for in my next role. Something just opened. Would it be OK if I take a shot at it?” Because we were on the same page, I got tremendous support to explore what would come next.

A very special thank you to Laraine Miller for sharing her journey and advice!

For more insights from women in executive leadership, read the previous installments of our Women Rising Series:

Women Rising: Pursuing Professional Goals with Confidence – Learnings from Oksana Woloszczuk, Amy’s Kitchen Chief Supply Chain Officer

Women Rising: Unleashing the Power of Trust and Self-Advocacy – Learnings from Brigette Wolf, My/Mochi CMO

Women Rising: Taking Risks and Embracing Self-Confidence – Learnings from Helayna Minsk, PPI Beauty Board Director

Women Rising: Staying Agile in the Path to the C-Suite – Learnings from Zena Srivatsa Arnold, Sephora CMO

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