Only 21 CEOs running a Fortune 500 company are women, and two of them are sisters.
Denise Morrison, the chief of storied food company Campbell’s Soup, and Maggie Wilderotter, the chief of telephone giant Frontier Communications, grew up as part of the Sullivan clan in Elberon, N.J.
Success “was in the drinking water,” said Morrison, the elder sister by 13 months, at the recent World Business Forum in New York. “It was a high-achieving household.”
Their parents were strong proponents of education, work ethic, and responsibility. Morrison said each of the four children had “job jars” with weekly household assignments, and she and her siblings would barter for the chores they liked.
“We also had to make business cases for things we wanted,” Wilderotter recalled. “When we wanted to get our ears pierced, we had to do a cost-benefit analysis.”
Ultimately, their parents signed off on a two-for-one piercing deal and a promise to share earrings.
The Sullivans instilled determination in their kids and exposed them to a variety of experiences. They took acting, ballet, and skating lessons, Wilderotter said, and each got paying jobs at age 15.
When Morrison tried out for cheerleading and didn’t make the cut, her parents told her never to use the word “can’t” and asked, “How can you?”
With a new resolve, she became a baton twirler instead.
Both sisters attribute their love of business to their father, an AT&T marketing exec who took his daughters to work with him once a year, planned a family field trip to the New York Stock Exchange, and talked about his latest projects at the dinner table.
“He was very strict on grades,” said Morrison, noting that he incentivized success. They got money for making A’s and were docked pay when they made C’s or below.
Indeed, they were enterprising youngsters. The pair organized events for the kids in the neighborhood to raise money for charity, hosting carnival games and shows and charging admission, which they donated to find a cure for muscular dystrophy.
That drive helped them later in their journeys to the c-suite. While Wilderotter stumbled onto the executive track working for startups in Silicon Valley, Morrison, having always wanted to run a business, took the corporate route. She worked her way up through the sales and marketing departments of major consumer goods companies, including Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, and Kraft, before joining Campbell’s in 2003.
When she was tapped for the top role in 2011, Morrison excitedly called her parents to share the good news. “I achieved my life goal,” she said. “I’m the CEO of Campbell’s!”
“Congratulations, Denise,” they said. Then, after a pause, her dad asked: “What’s your next goal?”
Today, Morrison is leading a turnaround at 144-year-old Campbell’s, which has $8 billion in annual sales, and Wilderotter is nearing a decade at the top of $5-billion-in-sales Frontier, which has quadrupled in size under her leadership.
Growing up in a high-achieving household clearly set the sisters up for success, and having a sibling at the top has its own unique benefits. Over the years, Morrison frequently called her younger sister for business advice, she admitted, and even now the pair take long walks together to discuss their work and personal lives.
“There’s no one way to the top,” Morrison concluded. “Make your own opportunities. See around corners. Raise your hand for assignments.”
“You have to figure out what you’re good at and stick to a path,” said Wilderotter.
And on your way, consider offering some guidance to the next generation following behind you.
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