NEW's New Chief Looks to Guide Next Generation of Leaders

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NEW's New Chief Looks to Guide Next Generation of Leaders

By Melissa Kress, Convenience Store News - 08/21/2017

CHICAGO — It's been a busy summer for Sarah Alter.

Stepping into the role of president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women, Retail, Consumer Goods and Services (NEW) in June, Alter jumped in with both feet as the Chicago-based organization prepared for two main events: the NEW Executive Leadership Forum and the NEW Leadership Summit.

Speaking with Convenience Store News just days after the Executive Leadership Forum wrapped up, Alter said the event "was truly phenomenal."

"I had been warned by many of our members that it would be an experience like no other and it truly was," she said, explaining that the sold-out event brought together more than 300 leaders from all areas of the consumer packaged goods (CPG) and retail sectors.

Those gathered at the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Aug. 1 included CEOs, c-suite executives, vice presidents and more. Speakers included Condoleezza Rice, PepsiCo Inc. Chair and CEO Indra Nooyi, Target Corp. Chair and CEO Brian Cornell and Chobani CEO Tim Brown.

"The theme of the event was 'Our Daring Future.' What we focused on was the daring future; our mission to create a workplace with no limits for all," Alter said. "What are those bold decisions or actions that companies and leaders need to take to drive greater parity? There has definitely been progress, but we need to be bolder in what we do going forward."

LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE

Alter brings 30 years of experience in the business world to NEW. She held several key leadership roles where she built and rebuilt digital platforms, divisions, teams, channels and brands. She has "worked at the best of great companies," she told CSNews.

"That experience has definitely made me well-versed in how to guide a company or an organization to navigate change and the need to grow," Alter said.

"I am thrilled to be in this new role. I humbly appreciate that, as the new CEO, I need to be the voice and the champion behind advancing women and diverse leaders," she added. "I've always had a strong passion for helping women and diverse leaders throughout my career. I've been the first to raise my hand and say, 'Absolutely, I will be a mentor.'"

As a big believer in paying it back, Alter noted that you never know when you will be in a situation where you need help.

"I have definitely had those points in my career where I had to reach out to others. I benefited from so many female business leaders and mentors," she said. "They've truly taken me under their wings, they've guided me and they've challenged me. Women need to help women and sometimes the best way you can do that is by challenging each other in a very positive and productive way."

Her time spent serving on several nonprofit boards in key roles helping to develop marketing plans, public relations plans, business plans and fundraising plans are core skills and experience that she will need to bring to the table as NEW's chief executive. 

"I look at those roles as a hybrid role: it's half not-for-profit and half for-profit. We can only continue to thrive, and continue to grow and serve, and provide even more value by continuing to be a productive organization from a financial perspective," she explained.

WORDS OF ADVICE

With Alter's years of business experience comes wisdom. Among her words of advice: "Be open to change. You are working in a world of great transformation. I think the best thing you can do to serve yourself well in your career is to be open to change and even more importantly, be the change agent. Be the leader that helps guide your company or your brand through that transformation." 

Women looking to advance their careers should also "seek a nice long runway," according to the exec.

"You want to find a company — and I benefited from this several times — that can facilitate leadership growth by giving you a variety of opportunities and experiences; they are willing to take a bet on you," Alter said.

Taking on roles in various areas of a company presents growth opportunities, she added.

"Seek a role in sales; seek a role in technology, especially digital; seek a role in marketing; do a field job; do a corporate job. You make yourself that much more attractive and that much more eligible for that promotion at the end of the line," she said.

Alter likewise recommends seeking "a P&L" role. "You have to be able to, at some point, identify where your contributions tie directly into revenue, or you [have to] own a couple of line items on the P&L," she advised. "When you look at that point of promotion, when you come in at a junior level and you become a VP and you want to get into the c-suite, you have to have managed line items on a P&L."

DARE TO CHANGE

Diana Nyad, a record-holding swimmer, was one of the guest speakers at this year's NEW Executive Leadership Forum. On her fifth attempt — at the age of 64 — she became the first person confirmed to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage. She swam 110 miles from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Fla.

Taking the stage at the event, Nyad reinforced this year's "Our Daring Future" theme with three key messages: be daring, never give up and you need to work together to make history.

These messages resonate with Alter. "To me, that really speaks to another key focus I am going to try to bring to our organization, which is we need to work in partnership and we need to forge alliances with all of the other phenomenal groups that are focused on women's issues. It needs to be the power of us, not the power of one," she said.