The Former CEO of Lululemon's Lessons In Creating A More Equitable Work Environment

How Christine Day, the former CEO of Lululemon, learned how to stand up for herself and created policies that improved the working lives of both men and women.

After 20 years of climbing the career ladder at Starbucks and five years as CEO of Lululemon, Christine Day recalls clearly the moment she realized her success as a female executive hinged both on companies with policies that were supportive of women in ascending roles but also on her own confidence, and that she had to stop being so darn agreeable.

"My boss [at Starbucks] came into work early in the morning and he decided that he was going to have all the meetings at 7:30a.m. Well, I had a 45-minute commute to the office plus I had two kids to get ready in the morning," she says. In order to accommodate her boss' schedule, she says she woke her children up even earlier and caused "a tremendous stress in the house. I was always late to the meetings and I was short at home," she says.

"This went on for about two months and there was one morning where I was standing at the bottom of the stairs with my daughter and my son was upstairs and he was late and I yelled ‘Kevin, get downstairs’ and my daughter put her hands on her hips and said ‘get downstairs god-damnit’. I realized in that moment that that’s who I am to my kids every morning. I went into the office and I was really mad and I said to my boss ‘I can’t do this anymore. If you don’t move the meetings back to 9:30 you can do them without me, I quit’ and he said ‘whoa, why didn’t you just ask?’" she recalls.

Day realized that by not asking for what she needed to be successful, she was sabotaging her own success. "I think the thing we have to get over as women is being agreeable," she says. Speaking up about how her work environment could help her produce her best work is something she encourages all employees to do, especially the young women she coaches who struggle with the same competing demands of home and work that she did when she was starting out. When Day became CEO of Lululemon, she fell upon her experiences as a woman moving through the ranks to implement family-and-female-friendly policies.

Creating More Equitable Practices

Fifty percent of Lululemon's board was made up of women. "[I wanted] people to see women in power. They were regularly reporting into that board and saw that [gender equality] mattered there," says Day. She also set a goal that 50% of the executive team would be made of women, although simply by coincidence, the team ended up being 80% women. "I hired the best people and it just happened this way," she says.

To ensure no one had the same troubles Day had in her early days, she made it a practice that meetings could only be held between the hours of 9:00 to 4:00, allowing young professionals especially the freedom to manage work and family demands. "That was a direct reflection of my own experiences," she says.

To help young families, Day filtered salary increases into the mid-tiers of management — anyone who made under $85,000 a year—jobs typically filled with young workers who are forming families, buying houses and planning the next stages of their lives—would have the opportunity to make up to 16% in pay increases for top performance, while anyone who made over $250,000 would only receive up to 3% in pay increases, since these individuals would reap larger rewards for their performance in bonuses and equity. She also gave male and female employees maternity and paternity leave.

Now, as the CEO of Luvo, a healthy frozen foods manufacturer, Day is implementing the same policies. "We just implemented six-month maternity leave and have our first employee taking it in a couple of months," she says. The company is also bringing on their first female board member and the management team recently hired one of their first female senior managers.

Crossing the Confidence Line

Although Day has broken through the illusory glass ceiling, her ascent to the position of CEO wasn't without its struggles, many of which she says were the result of a lack of confidence, something she says many women, even those in positions of power, struggle with.

Day can still recall the moment she crossed the confidence line and began to make decisions based on the direction she wanted her career to take. She was a senior staff member at Starbucks, but had ambitions to lead a business unit – a job she was turned down for. "I knew if I did another staff role it would be harder for me to move onto the next step - to become a CEO," she says.

So, Day made a bold move and handed in her resignation. "Orin (Smith, President and CEO of Starbucks) wouldn't accept it and we did this dance for about three weeks and finally he said ok," says Day, who became President of Starbucks’ Asia-Pacific group.

Looking back on her career, she now sees that decision as a defining one and a shift in her attitude to knowing the direction she wanted to take her career and be willing to put herself on the line in order to attain it. "If I hadn't stood up for myself in that moment, I don't think I'd be a CEO today," she says.

[Handshake Image: via Flazingo Photos]

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3 Comments

  • janet

    Such an inspiring example of a woman working on her own terms and succeeding. A dozen paragraphs and gold in every one. We share Christine's point of view. We recently wrote a book on it - Darling, You Can't Do Both (And Other Noise To Ignore On Your Way Up). Don't let anyone tell you can't fulfill your ambition and still have kids. In the words of Shelly Lazarus, for Chairman of ad agency, Ogilvy, "maybe women can't have it all, but we can have it a whole bunch." Thanks for the article, Lisa.

    Janet Kestin (@janetkestin) Partner, Co-Founder Swim

  • As a female business owner I still struggle with the confidence mentioned in this article. As women we tend to be "agreeable" and have a hard time breaking the barrier of trying to please everyone. We need to do what's right not what's expected of us. Great article.