During her rise to the top ranks of Corporate America, Ann Fudge always had an eye to life outside work. She was a wife and mother before she got her college degree and later walked away from a high-powered job at Kraft Foods (KFT ) to take a few years to herself. In May, 2003, Fudge returned to full-time work as chairman and CEO of Young & Rubicam. BusinessWeek Associate Editor Diane Brady recently met with her several times to discuss the impact of her sabbatical and her strategies for fixing the troubled ad and communications giant. Here are excerpts from their first interview:
Q: What was your dream job growing up?
A:I never had a dream job growing up. I was interested in retailing because I had always worked in department stores during the summer and thought I wanted to be a buyer.
When I was at Simmons College, I had this great professor -- Margaret Hennig. She was the one who encouraged me to think about business and apply to Harvard Business School. She and Ann Jardim wrote the first book on women in business, called The Managerial Woman, and founded the Simmons Graduate School of Business. I applied to Harvard Business School my senior year.
Q: One thing that has grabbed a lot of attention recently is the number of female Harvard MBAs and other professional women who are simply dropping out of work to stay home. Some people think that's a waste of great talent.
A:You know what I think is great? The fact that women are making choices. If you go back 30 years, we didn't even have the choice of playing. Now, we have the choice to play, and we have the choice to decide when and how we play -- whether we play in Corporate America, whether we play entrepreneurial, whatever. Women are making choices. We can still do a better job of making Corporate America open to women.
Q: Do you think that dropping out will hurt their career prospects?
A:When I talk to people, their concern is about getting the best people. They want to get that talent. If anything, the competition revolves around: How do I keep these women moving through and feeling as though they have career opportunities now?
I'm not going to say that's a universal point of view, because it's not. But the more enlightened companies are understanding that, and acting upon it.
Q: Some executives question if the new crop entering the workforce are willing to make the sacrifices needed to rise to the top.
A:A lot of young people today have expectations that they're going to move quickly through. And you know what? There are a lot of roadblocks and hurdles and challenges.
They're not going to go away. You've got to prove yourself. You're an Olympian. They're going to keep making it harder, and you're going to have to jump a higher hurdle. But when you do that, the sky is the limit. The question is whether you want to go through it.
Q: You had your first son before you even finished college. Did you ever consider staying home for a few years after getting your degree?
A:My mom never stayed at home, so it wasn't my model. She worked in the government. She was my mom. I love her to death. She was very cool, and she knew how to operate in a very complex environment.
We didn't talk about what she did as much as my observation of her. I didn't have a stay-at-home model. My model was: You get married, you have kids, you work. Maybe it was being an African-American woman but I have to say that most of the women I knew worked.
Q: Did you and your husband have to make a lot of trade-offs to keep both your careers on track?
A:The answer is probably yes. I think about when I went back to business school and he left his job. He was working at Wesleyan, setting up a program there. He had just finished at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. We had to decide whether he would leave or stay in Connecticut with the kids. We decided we really wanted to be together, for moral support.
People try to look at the trade-offs from a career standpoint. I think marriage is about trade-offs, even if it's one spouse staying at home and another being at work. That's what relationships are about. You have to think about what's really right for the whole. What's best for us as a family. Not what's best for my career.
If I weren't so publicity shy, I would tell you about it. I've got the most wonderful family in the universe. It brings tears to my eyes. I have such great kids, and they have such incredible spouses. I love my daughters-in-law. My grandchildren are wonderful. Nothing matches the fact that my kids are such good people.
Q: Did you intend to take two years off after leaving Kraft?
A:I was getting job offers. In fact, I had something tentatively lined up when I left. Then 9/11 happened. We had just come back from a trip. That really pushed me down the entrepreneurial route.
I thought about how people saw one another differently and couldn't communicate. That's when I started to think about media -- and children's media, in particular. Maybe if we saw each other differently, we could make different judgments about people different than ourselves. It's just lack of knowledge. When people really spend time with one another, they discover we're really not that different.
Q: What did your sons think about the move to Y&R?
A:I definitely talked to them about my options for the entrepreneurial thing. They got really excited about it, but they understood some of my feelings about the challenge of really making a difference and turning around a company. They said, "You know, mom, what you really like is to turn around things, like turning around Maxwell House and other brands." And they know me.
Q: Why did you leave Kraft just one year after being named head of a $5 billion division?
A:I hadn't planned to leave Kraft that early. I planned to leave in the summer. What really sparked the change was we were about to start the road show, and I knew that I couldn't in good conscience do that. That would make it bad timing.
I knew a while back that I wanted to leave. But it was important to leave things in a good place. I always tell that to people: Never leave a mess. Make sure the hand-offs are smooth.
Q: But why leave at all?
A:I left for a whole host of reasons. It wasn't really one thing. I remember, years ago, saying to our financial adviser, "Can I retire before I'm 50, and what do we need to do?" That was when I was in my late 30s. So there was always this thing in the back of my mind.
Then there was both my parents getting sick and passing away. It makes you think about life, and you realize that nothing is forever. I had a sister-in-law who got MS in her 30s.
And two other things were the final incentives: the loss of a friend my age, who had an aneurysm and was a business school section mate -- not just a class mate but a section mate -- who died suddenly. I was teeter-tottering, and then those two things happened. So I said, "O.K., now is the time." It was more about life.
To be honest, I still haven't figured it out. It was definitely not dissatisfaction. It was stepping back and saying, "What are you really here for? What do you really want to accomplish?"
I don't know why I've always had this sensitivity to life as a gift and the belief that the next day isn't guaranteed. The thought of not waiting until you retire to do the things that you want to do always appealed to me. You're so busy on the day to day.... It's very easy to get caught up in it. Having kids early could have been a factor. Once they're in college, that big expense was out of the way.
Q: You spent more than two years away from full-time work. How did that affect you?
A:Everybody who was really close to me said I just looked different. Maybe it was being away from the day-to-day stress. Maybe it was as simple as, I finally, after years, enjoyed my home.
I would spend the afternoon in one part of the house. Things like going out on the deck and writing in my journal. I've been writing in a journal for years. Reading books like God in All Worlds [by Lucinda Vardey], which is an anthology, and Soul Mountain [by Gao Xingjian]. I love that book. It's about China. It's about life experience. It's about being changed, connecting with friends. It's great.
It was great –- doing things I never had time to do, traveling to places that were always on my list: Thailand, Bali, Morocco. Being around different cultures and being able to step back and absorb it all. That's one of the things I know I like about this business -- we touch so many people in so many places with our messages.
Q: Did the time off affect how you're approaching this job?
A:I bring a clearer perspective of business in general -- what's really important. I'm a different person than when I left.... I'm much more wise and aware of myself. My knowledge of myself and what I can bring is greater.
Being a CEO is less the ego badge and more about what can I do for the people of the company. I'm not sure I would have had that two years ago. I don't know if I would have jumped at this job two years ago. If I did, it would have been for different reasons. It would have been to have the chance to be a CEO. It's far less important to me now than making a difference.
Q: You're coming in as an outsider, and a lot of people aren't won over by your vision yet. That must be tough.
A:When people have questions or criticisms, it doesn't bother me. Because it's not about me. I might have taken it more personally before. I look at it from their standpoint and try to recognize why they're there. And then what do I need to do to bring them along. It's not "Get on board, or you're dead!"
I don't get worked up about the fact that they're not buying into it right away. I think that wisdom and thoughtfulness came with the time out. Real leaders, the more self-aware they are, the better able they are to separate the personal-ego thing of the role from what they ought to be doing. For real leaders, it's not about them.
Q: You were such a role model and high-profile executive before you left. Did it bother you to lose that status -- to go from power lunches to reading on the patio?
A:Are you kidding? I loved gaining anonymity again. I loved it. You drop off the map, and nobody cares about you anymore. Some people don't like it. I cannot tell you -- I loved it.
Q: But you talk about wanting to make an impact. It's harder to do that if you're anonymous.
A:I struggle with that. I don't think people have to be out there to make an impact. A lot of people who have impact never have it made public. It doesn't have to be public. If I knew I impacted the lives of kids through volunteering, that doesn't have to be public. But being public gives you a broader platform. Absolutely.
Q: Does it bother you to be called a role model for other African-American women?
A:I don't shy away from it. I don't mind it. I even love it to the extent that there are some people who feel they can do things that they didn't think they could do because they have seen somebody who has done it.
I have had lots of people who called me and I've guided through the process. Saying, "You'll be O.K." In that respect, it's exciting -- to help people develop a new model.
Q: And that extends to having families and taking time off?
A:Absolutely. That's one of the things I said to young women at Harvard on Saturday -- your generation can develop a new model. We don't need to talk about work/life balance. We can talk about leadership in our lives and taking control. It doesn't have to be a women's issue. There are a lot of men who want the same thing.
Q: Have you ever been intimidated in your life?
A:My first response is no. My first boss said: "I have never had somebody in an entry-level job who's so cocky. You definitely have a point of view, and you're not afraid to state it. That's good. Just make sure you balance it appropriately."
Have I been intimidated? Probably. Have I been nervous before presentations? Absolutely. But intimidated by somebody in power? No. There were times when, from a work/life standpoint, I would have to leave work. And none of my peers had children. I felt self-conscious, because I was definitely not in the norm. And, at times, I was maybe reticent to address the issue. But when the rubber met the road, I was incredibly fixed.
Q: Have you ever felt racism?
A:I've felt it all my life. Every day. It's not different from any person who grows up black in this country. You understand who you are. You deal with it. When it's really blatant, you sometimes think about how you're going to deal with it.
Part of being raised as a black child in America is developing skills to cope with and understand reality. Some of it is separating ignorance from [malicious] intent. If anything, it really helps you to know who you are, so you're not reactionary.
With two sons who happen to be black, I would absolutely talk to them about that. My biggest fear was when they would go out as teenagers at night, knowing how the world is: Telling them to call home. Having to instruct them to not put their hands in their pockets or things like that because their lives could be at stake. You have conversations like that.
Q: Now you're back in a position where people are monitoring your every move. That can't be comfortable.
A:At this juncture in my life, it's so much not about me. I'm in service. That's how I feel. I can be an instrument of change in a positive way -- for an organization, for how people look at themselves.
I do think about what I want my obituary to say. I don't want it to say, "She did this job and she did that job." I want it to say, "She made a difference in how people view themselves individually and how they view themselves collectively" -- over and out.
Q: Are you pleased with how you've done so far here?
A:I think I can continue to do a better job, but I've made progress. If I didn't wake up tomorrow, I would feel pretty good. I'd feel more than pretty good. I would feel great.