Women in Business Q&A: Michelle Atkinson, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Energizer Household Products

'I came to Energizer fourteen years ago because of the brands. Energizer Household Products has two strong, global brands -- Energizer and Eveready -- which I am more enthusiastic about today than ever.'
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Michelle has an extensive background in global brand and business leadership, including brand and product development, strategic planning and sustainability for Energizer, H.J. Heinz, Ore-Ida Foods and Albertson's Inc. Additionally, she spent three years in sales leadership at Energizer working with major U.S. grocery, mass and electronics retailers.

Over the past 18 months, Michelle has been actively involved in the NEMA primary battery association's stewardship efforts in developing a U.S. solution for establishing a collection and recycling program.

Michelle is a graduate of Boise State University, with a Bachelor's of Science in Marketing.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Throughout my life I have been surprised when people say one thing and do something else, or change their behavior depending on the audience. My frustration with this inconsistency has been the key to my leadership style, which is to ensure my words and actions are aligned.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Energizer?
When I was a young mother, I had the opportunity to job share a brand manager role at Ore-Ida, which in 1993 was very progressive. That experience made me realize every individual has unique needs -- not only those visible in the workplace but also in whom they are as mothers, fathers, sisters, sons or daughters. At Energizer I draw upon this to ensure I am seeing the whole person and not just the colleague who is part of a team working toward a goal. This experience has been invaluable when creating organizational design, developmental opportunities, recognition and rewards or just during my daily walk-a-rounds to check in with the team.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Energizer?
I would say that the biggest highlights also have been the biggest challenges -- because I find the most reward when I am learning, and I learn the most when I am challenged. A recent example of this was our move last year from a mostly decentralized model to a centrally led model. My concern was that colleagues who had felt a great deal of autonomy prior to the change would find the new model less motivating. The key to successfully leading the change was to establish a global marketing community in which colleagues had a voice at the center to influence the plans. We call this a market-in/global-out model which involves engaging with colleagues around the world to understand the needs they have in common with the rest of the world and then focus on those that are unique to their markets. Ultimately this has resulted in strong global plans that are locally relevant.

How are you using your research to address your consumers' needs and expectations of your brand and its products?
Consumer research is at the heart of all of our decisions. While many brands draw upon consumer insights to ensure they are meeting consumers' needs, we are taking our understanding of consumers a step farther. We are using the insights to deliver on consumers' Needs and Wants. By doing this, we are providing rational and emotional reasons to choose our brands. For example, we know that consumers "need" long-lasting batteries and they also "want" batteries that are reliable and safe. By delivering on their needs and wants, we are able to give consumers a better overall experience.

What advice can you offer women who want to follow a similar career path?
The traditional career path may not always provide the best opportunities for growth and exposure. Therefore be open to those experiences that challenge your skills and abilities as that is where you will find personal and professional growth. In 2003 I was asked to move from brand marketing to a "career-expanding sales leadership role" -- a role that I had little interest in taking. Luckily for me, the organization was persistent and finally I seized the opportunity. While in this position, I not only gained new skills but also was afforded the opportunity for broader exposure within the organization. I firmly believe this role was a key to my success today because I was willing to take a risk that was good for the business as well as provided significant personal development.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I struggle when I am asked this question, because I am not sure there is one definition of work/life balance. I believe there is the balance that works for your life. In reality I have found that sometimes there is more work and other times there is more life.

The key is to ensure you and your family are defining balance for yourselves and not letting others define what works. This hit home when my children were in grade school and people would tell them how awful it was that I worked and travelled frequently -- obviously our family's balance did not work for everyone. Today my children are strong, independent, interesting and
fun-loving people, and part of that I contribute to the choices our family made.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Women tend to accept situations we do not like more readily than men; often times without even asking why the situation exists or what it would take to change it. I believe that life is full of choices -- many times these are very hard choices -- but if you want to change the future it requires courage and action.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I define mentorship as a "wise and trusted counselor or teacher." I have been blessed with many wise and trusted teachers throughout my personal and professional life. Interestingly many of them would not know they made a difference in my life. From Laura in the fourth grade who excelled in math and science, I learned that being smart was okay for a girl. The Admissions officer at Boise State University who believed in me, teaching me it was okay to believe in myself. Those people that I see every day that, despite huge odds, find a way to be positive and persistent. They focus on what matters and they go about achieving their goals with a positive attitude. And of course, my husband, Rick. Rick is the most honest and dependable person I have ever known. He helps me see things as they are and not how I might want to see them and has always believed in me.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I always have admired Golda Meir, the first female prime minister of Israel. She had a strong sense of purpose, was willing to listen to her trusted advisors and be personally accountable for the actions she took. She was strong-willed and straight-talking, which I believe were attributes that were critical to her ability to influence others and to achieve many milestones in her life.

What are your hopes for the future of Energizer?
I came to Energizer 14 years ago because of the brands. Energizer Household Products has two strong, global brands -- Energizer and Eveready -- which I am more enthusiastic about today than ever. My hope is that future generations will know and love our two brands and the iconic Energizer Bunny and Eveready Cat as much as I do.

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