Kathy Walters – Executive Vice President of Global Consumer Products at Georgia-Pacific

Kathy Walters

Career Chameleon: For Kathy Walters, change has been the only constant in her zigzag climb to the top.

By Taylor Mallory

“Always be learning and improving.” That’s Kathy Walters’s motto, on which she’s based her entire career. For Walters, executive vice president of global consumer products for Georgia-Pacific (in charge of a business with a $10 billion P&L and 20,000 employees), her career path has been more like a winding road – moving in different industries and corporations, from Kimberly-Clark to Chase Manhattan Bank, in a variety of leadership positions across the U.S. and Europe. But as diverse as her career choices have been, Walters says she made all those sideways moves on purpose – to become an expert in as many roles as she possibly could.

Most recently, she’s been overseeing the teams responsible for the redesign of Brawny paper towels. The company invested $200 million for paper machines and equipment to make the product – not to mention unspecified millions in new advertising. “It’s a big investment,” Walters says. “We know that improving the product is a risk worth taking.”

She talks to PINK about change – and how it will (as the Sheryl Crow song goes) “do you good.”

PINK: Why have you favored so many twists and turns in your career?
Kathy Walters: I’ve based my career on having multifunctional experiences – really diving in and running different functions of different businesses, sometimes for three or four years at a time. I’ve worked in areas I have no formal training in. I started out studying physics and math as an undergrad, then ended up at Wharton [where she got her MBA] learning about finance and strategy planning. I started in financial roles, then did market research, then manufacturing, then labor relations work, then logistics. I did all this so I could really understand the tradeoffs you make in leadership and talent management – and how you develop a vision people can rally around. If you want to lead, you’ve got to understand people and know the skills that are necessary for different jobs. I’m hiring senior-level executives to run major functions of our business, so the more understanding I have about what it takes to excel in those roles, the better leader I am.

PINK: What’s the biggest career mistake you’ve ever made?
K.W.: I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I would say it’s about 80/20. Eighty percent of the time I’m OK, and the other 20 percent of the time I make mistakes – which usually have to do with hiring or not making a decision quickly enough. A common mistake is to do nothing. When it comes to career risks, I think anybody who’s moved up in a corporation has had to make some big decisions and take some major risks – which means being open to making mistakes. But if you’ve done your homework and thought about the risk mitigation if something goes wrong, then it’s OK. If you find yourself not making bold decisions, then you’re not taking risks, and how will you grow?

PINK: Many professionals are dealing with major changes right now as the economy worsens and people are laid off. What advice do you have for women on how to deal with change?
K.W.: Look at it as an opportunity. With everything you do in life, there’s always something new or different that’s interesting, and if you can focus on a way to use that change to make improvements – in your life or career or whatever – then it’s a good experience. Then you’ll be calmer about it, and most importantly, you’ll learn from it and grow.

PINK: How do you define success?
K.W.: I’m totally biased toward being involved in something that can be improved. So if I get into a situation where there’s no improvement being made or it’s not capable of being changed, then I consider that a failure. I’ve defined my whole life by finding the next thing to make bigger, make better and improve. And I’ve moved my family all over the world so that we’ve experienced different cultures and ways of thinking.

PINK: How did all of that change and moving around affect your family?
K.W.: In the positive sense, I think my children [both grown now] are extremely adaptable. They’re much more aware of the world, having lived overseas. On the negative side, every time we moved, they had to integrate back in and find a new way, and I’d say that for most everybody, that’s a pain in the neck. But they’ve learned how to meet and interact with new people, and that will serve them well.

PINK: How do you balance your professional life and your family?
K.W.: It depends on the decade. When my children were young, I found a way to get home earlier and worked at night when they went to bed. And my husband and I both traveled a lot, so we had a rule that we’d never both be out of the house overnight at the same time. Then as they’ve gotten older, balance has become more about having more personal time. When I had my children I didn’t care about personal time because I’d already been married for 10 years, and personal time wasn’t a priority. Now I try to make sure that my weekends are more or less free so I can spend them with my family when I’m not traveling. During the week, it is what it is. I don’t even pretend to balance it anymore.

PINK: How do you motivate employees? Any advice there?
K.W.: First and foremost, let employees know that you value them, and recognize them when they do something good for the company. And remember that most people want to be with a company that has a vision of where it’s going. When you’re changing a company, that’s easier said than done, because communicating a vision isn’t as easy as writing down a statement and sending it out. You have to help employees see their contribution – and how it will help them move up the career ladder.

PINK: Have you done any mentoring?
K.W.: I’ve mentored a lot of people over the years, and that mentoring has always been about listening to where they are in their careers now and then trying to help them figure out what their next big challenge should be. There’s no right path to success; it’s a matter of getting down to what a person really wants to accomplish and coming up with specific steps to help them get there. I try to give everyone on my team a chance to develop and learn. Most people are motivated by learning.

PINK: What’s your best advice for women hoping to become as successful as you are?
K.W.: Always look for an improvement in yourself, in your house, in your product, in your company, in the way you interact with people, in the way you learn about what goes on in the world. Improve, improve, improve – and believe you can accomplish whatever you want to.

PINK: What’s the best career advice you have ever received?
K.W.: My very first boss told me to change your circumstances so that you learn something new.

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