Angela Cretu is the CEO of Avon, a Natura&Co company that specialises in direct-to-customer cosmetics, skincare and fragrance. Avon works with more than 5 million sales representatives around the world: women and men who are brand ambassadors in the company’s 60 different markets. Cretu was appointed to the top job in 2020 having joined Avon as Area and Division Sales Manager in her native Romania in 1998. A passionate advocate for the empowerment of women, cooperation and co-creation across communities, cultures and industries, she is an alumna of London Business School.
In February 2023, Cretu addressed the LBS EQUALL Conference: Beyond Barriers to talk about her personal leadership journey, and to share insight and advice with other aspiring female movers and shakers. The LBS team had the chance to put some questions to her.
What drew you to Avon and did you always dream of making it to CEO?
I joined Avon early in my career, just a few years after graduating. It certainly never occurred to me that I would ever become CEO of the company. I’m an Eastern European from a small Black Sea city and I was raised within a post-communist dogma that embraced the principle of equality but did not encourage much aspiration among women. Throughout my career, I’ve never aimed for “titles.” Rather, I am consistently focused on what creates value in the moment: the decisions and actions that matter and that follow your purpose. Following this compass and finding a home within a company that nurtures my values has led me to this point of convergence in my career. The title, the role of CEO, is a consequence rather than an aspiration. And this is something that I share with my mentees too: be very clear about where you can have impact, and where you can connect and collaborate to add value. Promotions or titles will come as a consequence of the value that you bring.
How have you been able to identify where you add value as you’ve advanced in your career?
I’ll share a nice story. Back in the early noughties, I was appointed acting country manager for our new Serbian market, and as such I was invited to an EMEA management team meeting. I remember opening the door to the meeting and almost feeling a wave of testosterone from the room pushing me back. At the time I was a 27-year old woman. The other managers in the room were men in their 40s or 50s, all of them sharing inside jokes that were clearly a continuation of bar discussions they’d enjoyed the night before. I was unnerved by the experience and called my mentor at the time for advice. He acknowledged my loss of nerve, and then he asked me to try to articulate what I thought the barriers or obstacles were that stood between me and being successful in this role. There were three. First I was too young at 27; I felt my colleagues would understand far more about business than I did. Then I was Eastern European, whereas they were all Western-educated. Finally, I told him I was a woman; that I didn’t talk about the same things as men, and that I didn’t fit in.
My mentor replied that these three barriers were in fact my three greatest multipliers. Here were three unique sources of power and value creation that I should embrace. First there was my youth. Here, my mentor reminded me that there is no difference in IQ between young and old people. And he stressed that by being young, I was likely more open to learning. Meanwhile, my perspective could bring great value; after all, what company doesn’t want to create value for future generations?
Then there was my nationality. Again, my mentor pointed out the value of my perspective as someone from an emerging market. Don’t all companies want to succeed in emerging markets, he asked. And couldn’t my upbringing inject some of the resilience and resourcefulness missing perhaps from other markets?
Finally, he reminded me that being a woman within a company that sells predominately to women gave a unique value to my perspective, my values and my approach to creating partnerships.
I mulled over this feedback for several months and years afterwards, and it has proved to be a defining moment for me: a challenge and imperative to find those unique attributes you have that bring complementary value, and embrace them.
How would you encourage other women to capitalise on their own unique multipliers?
It’s very important to make time for the introspection that you need to define your purpose and identify those things that make you feel happy and engaged with your life. When you find them, curiosity will flow and expertise will follow.
As a leader, you also need to identify where other people have their multipliers too. When you understand the value that another person or a team brings, you can build the bridges that connect and empower them. And be careful to clearly articulate the value that co-creation brings, whether you are co-creating with a team or asking another party for investment capital. If I ask someone to invest, for instance, I never say: I need £100K. I start by asking them if they want to see an incremental value of £20K, or if they want access to new customers. And to do that, I’ll need a cash investment.
As a rule, I’d say start with the value that you can bring to others. Show curiosity, demonstrate that you understand their values and can see their perspectives. Never ask, always offer, because no one can say no to a gift. Of course, there’s no such thing as a free gift [laughter].
You’ve built your business around the world, forging connections across cultures. How do you manage differences as a leader?
I’ve worked with thousands of women from Russian to South Africa to Saudi Arabia and the differences are enormous. Yet if you show respect, curiosity and you learn with humility you build value and you connect people. You also get to the understanding that there’s more that unites us than divides us. Women all over the world want the same things. We all want wellbeing, financial independence, dignity and equal chances. Sure, we express ourselves differently. When I moved to the US I had to coach some of the Eastern European out of me and smile more [laughter]. When I then moved to Russia, I learnt the hard way that if you smile people think you’re an idiot [laughter]. As a leader, you simply have to acknowledge that even if we share the same values, we come from different places and express ourselves differently.
You took over Avon in 2020, during the company’s acquisition by Natura&Co and in the midst of a pandemic. How did you navigate this period?
I didn’t actually apply for the role of CEO in fact. Three months before acquisition applications were taken and the only contenders were men. I got a call from the founders of Natura in Brazil who wanted me, as a company veteran, to fly out and advise them on whom I thought would be the best fit for the job. When I got there, it turned out they’d already asked many of my colleagues who had enabled them the most. And my name came up repeatedly. I was appointed CEO because I had the vote of the people.
To be honest, when I got this job, I didn’t feel ready for it. And I still don’t, today. But it’s a feeling I welcome because it keeps me fit and it keeps me focused. I continually ask myself: if my people could vote today, would they still choose me? And it’s a question I’d invite all leaders to ask themselves. If you were up for re-election, would you win? Would you still be the people’s choice?
Remaining people’s choice, continuing to bring value, do you still have a mentor who supports you?
Leaders always need mentors and coaches, and I am deeply connected to my LBS alumni peers who offer me vibrant support. Today, I try to practise reverse mentoring. I seek out young, diverse people who can advise me on new markets. And I’m careful to ensure they feel comfortable and confident to speak up and share their expertise – their social habits and learning sources. My role is still to be an enabler, connector and multiplier – and to empower others to succeed and to have the impact they want.
What advice would you share with other women looking to stand out?
It’s critical to really live in this moment; to leave aside the pessimism and gloom, and understand that this is an unprecedented moment for you to make an impact. Understand too that there is no one, prescriptive way to meet needs or to create value.
I’d encourage other women to be purposeful about things like social impact. Think about how your choice might help more than just your need. I think that new consumer traits and expectations will redefine how companies create future services, so there will be greater need for leaders with agility, curiosity and multi-disciplinary awareness; with an appetite to explore more. So keep your curiosity sharp and learn continuously as you look to have impact. And remember: if you are the CEO of your own purpose, no one can ever fire you.