As vice president for design at Sara Lee Branded Apparel, Gloria Falla is in charge of seeing to it that the lingerie that Playtex sells, which millions of women around the world wear, is both beautiful and comfortable. In her executive role, Falla heads up a team of fashion designers, expert fitters, tailors, and fashion consultants. And as a designer herself, she creates many of the concepts that become new lines of intimate wear.
I begin here with Falla not because of the glamour associated with her work—indeed, although the product is glamorous, the process of creating stylish lingerie appears as prosaic as any other task—but rather because she articulated so clearly the special attitudes and dispositions of all the successful men and women with whom we spoke. Falla’s passion for her work, her sense of purpose, the spiritual source of her inspiration, her devotion to her colleagues, and her commitment to ethical behavior may be extraordinary in the overall scheme of things (unfortunately), but they are commonplace among those who find both meaning and success in their work.
The morning that I spoke with Falla, her office was humming from the reverberations of a major fashion show that it had just put on. The office walls glowed with pictures of models wearing the latest in underwear fashions. Any notions I had about the simplicity of designing intimate apparel quickly vanished when I met Falla and listened to her speak about her work. Creating a bra, she said, “is almost like building a bridge”:
You have to hold these things up! . . . I know that a bra has a function, you know, like a car. But how do you camouflage the mechanics of a car to be beautiful and functional at the same time? So that’s what I try to do in the product that I design. Make it beautiful, but functional, because it is the first thing you put on in the morning. It’s got to be comfortable enough, and pretty enough, that you forget that you have it on. So, to me, it’s just great, I love doing what I do. I never get tired. I could be here forever. And there are times when I say to myself, “I’m going home at 4:30,” and it’s 6:30 and I’m still sitting here, right? So, I never, never mind the time that I put into this because it never seems like work.
I treat all my jobs as if the company was my own, because I give it 110 percent all the time. And I’ve had wonderful jobs, and worked in different companies, and I’ve always done something unique with each company, and learned a great deal, and evolved. For instance, when I worked at Lily of France, I was the first designer in the industry to create a bra with a stretch lace back— something we named Lace Embrace. For this I won the 1984 Dallas Fashion Award for innovation. I believe, as a designer, I should strive for innovation and pragmatism on each garment that I create.
This enthusiastic statement of purpose—even to the point of devotion—comes from a woman who was brought to the United States at age nine as a refugee from Cuba, speaking almost no English and hating the strange northern climate with its early dark evenings. But Falla adapted rapidly. She worked hard in school, and she found her special love during the after-school hours: “I would come home from school, and make myself a dress to wear the next day. And I would do [special] things. I remember making a blouse that had lacing in the back, and now lacing is in fashion. So, you see, I was ahead of my time and creative way back then! It was a question of putting my talent to use where I could be the most creative and effective.”
Falla discovered her creative niche early, guided by the advice of a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. The advice was both well given and well taken. One of the characteristics of successful businesspeople is their lifelong receptivity to guidance from those whom they admire: “When I started at school, I remember one of my professors said, ‘Gloria, if you want to be an evening wear designer, there are a lot of evening gowns that have built-in bras, and you may want to take the course in foundations.’ So I did. And I loved it. And I never went back to evening wear. I thought this was so exciting because not only could I be creative, but technical as well. So I’ve always liked the challenge of combining creative and technical design.”
Although Falla enjoys the technical parts of her work, the real thrill, she said, is in creating something new, beautiful, and useful. She can hardly be contained when she talks about a new product: “I wanted to do something unique, technology-wise, and beautiful. I saw a pretty Playtex bra with a unique performance feature and thought, ‘Here’s a company that I would love to work for. A company that would encourage me to use all of my talents, both creative and technical.’ So, that’s what I try to do—I enhance people’s figures, I lift their spirits as well as their bodies.”
With her mission always clear in her mind, Falla searches for new ways of achieving it. This requires creativity, imagination, and, above all, focus. The best ideas often come at unexpected times, serendipitously, as part of a constant process of mental exploration and experimentation. It is a highly generative process, productive and energetic, motivated by a deep belief in the value of one’s work. Although this process requires extraordinary amounts of effort and attention, it does not feel hard or burdensome. Rather, it feels absorbing, inspiring, pleasurable—much like engaging in a thrilling recreational activity. (My colleague Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term flow to describe these kinds of creative, high-energy states.)
Many of the businesspeople profiled in this book describe their own work experience in similar ways. Falla spoke for many of them when she told me: “I’m always thinking, always, always, always. I’m looking at magazines, movies, people on the street, and I can get inspiration anywhere. I can be in church, and think of something. I wake up during the night and jot down ideas, and say, ‘I’ve got to do this.’ Inspiration can happen anywhere at any time. It doesn’t have a set time.”
It was no accident that Falla mentioned “church” when she spoke about where she gets new ideas. For her, devout religious faith offers a crucial source of inspiration for her creativity. This is not as unusual as it may sound. As mentioned in previous chapters, in our study we found that religious faith was strongly associated both with ethical and creative work in business. The relation between belief and ethics may seem obvious, since all major religions promote rigorous ethical codes. But what may be less obvious is the way that many business leaders draw creative inspiration from their religious beliefs. Their faith imbues their work with a sense of purpose that energizes their imaginations and enables them to take the risks necessary to explore new and unknown directions. These business lead- ers generally keep their faith to themselves, exerting care not to use their positions to proselytize for their own particular beliefs. Falla was typical of many when she described the personal benefits of her faith: “I always think that I got my creative talent from God and that He’s always been very generous to me. I always thank God, because I feel I’ve been able to do all these things because I was given a great talent; I was able to go to school, expand and learn.”
Falla also credits the people she has worked with, including some key mentors, for further expanding that talent. In turn, she “spreads the joy,” not through proselytizing but through sharing her expertise and enthusiasm with those working underneath her: “I’ve been very lucky that I’ve worked with some very talented and generous people that I’ve been able to learn a lot from. And now, of course, I try to do the same. I try to give back and teach. The designers that I work with see and hear the things that I do and how I do them, so that we spread the joy.”
Ethical behavior—honesty, fairness, adherence to the common moral codes that make up one’s social contract—is the foundation of an honorable life in business. In its absence, things fall apart— not always immediately, but eventually. If anybody needed a reminder of this (and, unfortunately, people often do because the pressures of competition and ambition have a way of squeezing ethics out of one’s consciousness during eventful times), the corporate catastrophes of the early twenty-first century should have shaken them out of their stupor. For business leaders such as Falla, however, ethics is an intrinsic part of work, inseparable from all the other tasks and responsibilities. A commitment to ethical behavior seems natural and inevitable to such leaders, impossible to ignore because this is an essential part of who they are. It is a defining element of their moral identities.
Falla traces the incorporation of ethics into her sense of self back to her early childhood, and she credits her religious faith for helping to sustain it: “I think honesty is the most important thing. Because I remember my mother saying, ‘You know, you should never lie, because you can always get caught. And, at the end of the day, God knows what you’re doing. So, who are you going to hide from?’ . . . and I also think, first and foremost, that respect is very important. And I treat all of my coworkers with respect, regardless of their position or their age. And I treat them the way that I would want them to treat me.”
Here Falla implicitly alludes to the Golden Rule as a touchstone for her ethical behavior, as did many of the leaders we interviewed. In the minds of many successful businesspeople, the idea of treating others—whether partners, clients, customers, or subordinates—as they themselves expect to be treated set a binding standard for their behavior. They realized that the Golden Rule serves to both demand and provide a spirit of common decency in their workplaces.
Unlike Falla, however, not all of the people we interviewed traced their ethical commitments to early childhood: some came to their values relatively late in life, perhaps as a consequence of a close relationship with a respected mentor, or perhaps because of a revealing and memorable experience, sometimes negative in nature. Nor did everyone credit a religious faith with sustaining their ethical behavior under pressure—although, as I have noted, the degree of religiosity among these business leaders went far beyond my expectations. But, like Falla, all saw ethics as so much a part of how one conducts one’s business that it was not even perceived as a matter of choice. That is, there was little sense of agonizing over whether to do the right thing versus cutting corners. That choice had been made long ago by our leaders, and now the ethical behavior is almost automatic.
Living the Golden Rule promotes not only ethical behavior but also humility. I have a lot to say in this book about humility. Of course, it is an admirable virtue that has been celebrated at least since biblical times. But beyond that, humility serves many psychological functions that help a person thrive intellectually and emotionally. Humility promotes an open-mindedness that enables us to continue learning throughout life. It provides us with a healthy perspective on our importance in the scheme of things. And, in an interpersonal sense, it enables us to build a sense of teamwork with our colleagues.
Falla refers to this last function when she describes how she never lets herself act or feel that she is better than her subordinates: “If our meeting room is a mess, I say, ‘Guys, we’ve got to clean.’ And the first one that gets the sponge out is me! And I do it because I always want to let them know that we’re all the same. . . . We all pitch in and do it the same way. I want everyone to feel that we are a team even though we have different titles. I don’t want them to ever feel that, just because I sit here, that I’m better than they are. Because, at the end of the day, I’m not.”
Another occasion that Falla describes reveals her abiding determination to maintain her humility in the face of a constant onslaught of executive perks. To achieve this requires attention to detail and the inadvertent messages that small, overlooked signals can send: “For example, the designers and I went to a luncheon recently and when it was over, I didn’t want them [her design team] to think that I was going to have a car service to take me home and they wouldn’t. So I got cars for all of us, because at the end of the day, I don’t want them to think, ‘Well, she’s the boss, and she’s the only one to have a car to go home.’ So, lo and behold, wouldn’t you know it, my car comes first. . . . I felt like two cents because we couldn’t switch cars. I immediately called the car service to confirm that the other car would be there soon because [the dispatcher] probably thought, ‘She’s the boss, she gets the (first) car,’ and that’s the last thing I wanted the designers to think. I have been in similar situations, and I’ve seen people do a lot of things that I said, ‘God, I will never, ever do that.’”
It may be difficult for those who have not been exposed to the highest rungs on American corporate ladders to appreciate the constant drumbeat of temptations to feel superior to other mortals. The power can appear absolute at times. Tom Wolfe’s phrase “masters of the universe” captures the psychological reality, if not, as his ironic tale indicated, the ultimate reality. All throughout a corporation, workers compete in a mad scramble to reinforce the executive’s sense that he or she deserves plush privileges of every imaginable kind.
Another of our interviewees, Glen Hiner, who later became the CEO of a large building-supply company, told me about a revealing incident that occurred while he was a vice president and general manager at GE:
One of the lessons of leadership that I was able to learn rather early on in my career has to do with the use of power. I think a lot of leaders don’t understand the power that comes with the position and how to use that power, or how power might be used incorrectly.
I had just been made a vice president of the company, and had just moved from Europe back to our U.S. headquarters, and on the first or second day on the job, I walked in early in the morning, and the maintenance people had just finished painting a wall. And I casually walked over to the maintenance supervisor who was standing there, and I said, “Gee what a nice wall, but it’s too bad that you didn’t paint it light blue. But we’ll do that next time.” The following morning, when I walked to work in the building, the wall was light blue. And I never forgot that. It made me very cautious and very careful in recognizing the authority and power that I had in my position, and how to utilize it and how not to use it.
Executives with a less-than-secure sense of who they are, and those who have not learned to appreciate the personal and social benefits offered by the virtue of humility, may be persuaded that they are cut from a different cloth than the mere commoners around them. They come to expect special treatment, fully believing that they are entitled to it. They come to think of themselves as the business, rather than as part of the team that makes the business possible. This kind of ego inflation can be an early symptom of a fatal dis- ease. Contrast it to the way that Falla credits the success of the lingerie that her department at Playtex produces: “Ours. It’s not mine, or yours. It’s ours. Because, at the end of the day, it’s every- body’s contribution that brings the products together. It’s not just you—or me. Because I don’t contribute all by myself. Even if I came up with this product concept all by myself, and didn’t have a support staff, it wouldn’t go anywhere. It would have remained an idea. Because we need each other to make it happen.”
M. Csikszentmihalyi, Good Business, New York: Basic Books, 2003.