Finding Your Work-Life Sweet Spot: A Conversation with Victoria Mars, First Corporate Ombudsman and Former Chairman of Mars

January 25, 2021
We speak with Victoria Mars, the former chairman of Mars, about her career in the family business, how we can better navigate our personal and professional lives (hint: it’s all about life stages), and Mars’ focus on sustainability.

“You can’t be superwoman. You need to realize that, and then think about how you can thrive.” That’s just one golden piece of advice Victoria Mars, former chairman of Mars, has for women as they navigate the worlds of work and home – and the intersection of the two. Founded 110 years ago, Mars is a $40 billion family-owned business in pet care, confections and food. We recently sat down with Victoria to discuss her career in the family business, how we can better balance our personal and professional lives (hint: it’s all about life stages) and Mars’ focus on sustainability.

It might surprise some people who don’t know the company well, but Mars is a 110-year-old family-owned business. Tell us about how you have successfully navigated a career in the family business.

My father and uncle believed very strongly that, as a family member, you started at the entry level, so I joined the firm as an assistant brand manager, and then I evolved over time, moving to new job opportunities throughout the firm as they opened up.

Mars is the only company I have ever worked for, and that’s not necessarily a good thing in a family business. Now, we encourage family members to get outside experience first. One of the difficult aspects of being a family member in a family business is that you often wonder whether you are doing a good job and receiving true evaluations of your performance. That can hurt your self-esteem. Being able to say you were successful somewhere else first helps you understand your strengths and capabilities and be more confident in your success within the family business.

The other challenge in a family business is the discovery and then acknowledgment of who you are in that family business. My father and uncle always taught us that we were just like everybody else. We didn’t have any special privileges and were expected to blend in. But as I started to gain seniority (about my mid-30s), I realized suddenly this was no longer the case. As much as most wanted to treat me that way, I knew I was being watched more carefully and that what I said and did mattered. You need to be conscious of your actions – both in and out of the office. For example, you don’t want to give the impression that you have favorites among the associates. When I came to this realization, it was a sad moment. I had to temporarily (until either they or I retired) create some distance in my friendships with colleagues. I found this to be challenging and isolating.

One final point: We realize that if family members are going to work for the family business, then the end objective is for them to be successful. The worst possible outcome is for a family member to work in the family business and fail, because that causes all kinds of problems. We are focused on developing a family employment system for the next generation so that if they do join the business, we are setting them up to succeed.

You were the first corporate ombudsman for Mars, an innovative program you founded in 1997 and for which you served as leader until 2014. Tell us about that role and why it is important to Mars and its associates.

I had taken a few years off and was trying to find my way back into the business. I was at the annual M&M Mars sales meeting, and my father and uncle announced that we were starting an ombudsman program and that I would be the first ombudsman.

The first thing I had to do was find out what an ombudsman was. I did some research and pursued training through the Ombudsman Association. I learned about the role, expectations and how you start an ombudsman program, and then off I went. We started the program in the U.S. as a test. It was successful, so I expanded it globally and hired other ombudsmen as the program grew. We learned along the way how to adapt the program to the needs of our corporation and developed a best-in-class corporate program.

There are four key elements to an ombudsman program. First, it is an informal process, and therefore, coming to an ombudsman is not putting the organization on notice. Second, it’s confidential. The confidentiality lies with the person coming to see you, not with the business. They own the confidentiality, and that’s really key to building trust in the program, because you’re trying to get people to talk to you about whatever work-related issue they’re having. Third, an ombudsman is independent. Ideally, they report into the CEO or the chairman of the board so that they are not blocked by the hierarchy when communicating issues or influencing change. Fourth, and likely the most difficult part of the job, is that the ombudsman is neutral. You’re not advocating for the person or the organization. You’re advocating for fair processes.

In order to have a successful ombudsman program, you must build trust with both the associates as well as management. It took a long time to build the trust so that associates were comfortable coming to the ombudsman, and management was able to believe that the ombudsman wasn’t looking for fault, but rather we are all on the same team and share the common objective of making the workplace better for everyone. You must persuade them that you are not the enemy trying to point out that they are doing a bad job, but that you’re there to help and support them in having engaged and happy associates.

The epiphany for me really was that this is where I found my passion. One of the things that I think is important in your work life is to find an area that you can get excited about. When I was in high school and early on in college, I wanted to be a medical doctor, and I spent much of my career thinking about changing course and going to medical school. As I developed the ombudsman program, I discovered that my real passion was helping people, which that job is all about, so the thought of medical school finally disappeared. Not only had I found what I was passionate about – I was able to then really thrive and grow at Mars.

Your immediate family was dominated by women, growing up with three sisters. What did your childhood teach you?

Because we were only girls, there were no boys to do the traditional tasks that would have fallen to them, so we did it all. Our parents never implied, and it did not occur to us, that we couldn’t do whatever a boy could do. It was never even a consideration that we could not pursue any career we chose.

My mother is also quite a strong person. We moved all over the world, and she was the glue that held everything together. She had to figure things out whenever we moved, often in another language, and she led by example, without us knowing. We never saw her complaining or saying that she couldn’t do something.

So the combination of having no boys, meaning there wasn’t an option that you weren’t going to be able to do it, and a mother who was so strong was how we were taught that whatever we wanted to do, we could do. That breeds strong, independent women.

I have heard you reference in other forums that you believe women have felt the need to fit into a male model for workplace achievement – to varying degrees of success. How have you found ways to reshape the definitions of achievement within the workplace that work for women?

My perception from role models I had when I was younger was that, in order to be successful, you had to behave and dress like a man. For my generation, it wasn’t a question of acting like a man, but it fell on us to figure out how to navigate the systems, policies and behavior expectations that surrounded us – which were not set up for women. We had to adapt and just manage our personal and work lives to the best of our ability – which was far from ideal.

It’s no longer acceptable to make women figure out how to be successful in a biased environment. Now we are at the phase where organizations are asking: What do we need to change about our policies and the way we do things in order to help women be successful? Organizations are looking at what they need to do differently to help women succeed not just at the beginning of their careers, but throughout their careers. We have a lot of women in entry-level jobs. It’s when you get to the top that there are very few. Along the way is where the changes need to happen in policies and expectations so that women can continue to develop and thrive.

Women bring a lot to the table, and when you involve them, the results are powerful. So companies need to focus on how to enable women to bring their full potential and selves to the workplace.

You're going to need to make different choices at different times during your career and life, and that's okay. It's not failure - it's life. You grow with it, and you can make those decisions and still be successful.

Speaking of which, you have had a tremendous career – and you have four children. Tell us about how it all worked for you.

That’s the first thing that successful women need to talk about: It didn’t always work. From outside, it may look like it was easy and everything was well under control, but it wasn’t. It’s important to know that it’s okay to feel like you can’t do everything. When you have responsibilities pulling at you from 15 different directions, how in the world can you possibly feel like you’re doing everything well? As I often say to women: You can’t be superwoman. You need to realize that, and then think about how you can thrive.

One of the important pieces is realizing that we will all go through various life stages. Most of us start our careers saying we can have it all. Then, our priorities change as the demands on us change. Many different things can force you to say that this isn’t working so well and that you want to reprioritize for a while. You’re going to need to make different choices at different times during your career and life, and that’s okay. It’s not failure – it’s life. You grow with it, and you can make those decisions and still be successful. If I had known that it was okay to feel that way, my confidence would have been much higher when I was struggling through my own choices.

The businesses and organizations that we’re working for also need to understand and appreciate this. If, for example, you started off with your career as your top priority, and all of a sudden, you’re in a plateau stage because you can’t give the organization more, that doesn’t mean the company should discard you. Businesses need to work to keep women engaged and connected while they’re going through those different stages and make them feel valuable – whether they stay at the company during that period or take a few years off. There are so many things organizations can do once they understand that things ebb and flow.

Well-being and healthy living are important to you. How have you been able to invest in wellness during the busiest times in your life, and how has it changed over time?

I think a lot of this is about leading by example. If people can’t visibly see that you’re prioritizing self-care, it’s going to be difficult for them to voice their needs.

Life needs to be balanced. It does get out of kilter at times, but your own personal health is critical to your long-term career success. If you can’t bring your full self to work because you don’t feel well, then you’re not going to do the business much good.

For me, it is critical to find time every day to exercise so that I can bring my best self to work. Even as time evolves and the pressures come, I’ve learned to say that this is part of my life, and I need this. That may mean telling someone I can’t meet early in the morning because I need time to work out. There are times where I have had to give in, but in general, I do not compromise on starting so early that I don’t have time to get my workout and breakfast in – my sense of well-being – so that I arrive feeling prepared. I’ve been able to voice that, which is important.

Then, I set some boundaries for the end of the day. Sleep is critical to me, and attending business dinners and events that went late all the time was not working. As I rose to a more senior position, I said that I was happy to attend these dinners and events, but 9 p.m. was my cutoff time. I generally stuck to it and built up a reputation. There were others who appreciated that I was leading by example because they were struggling too.

I realize as a senior leader you can set these boundaries, and it will be more challenging for those coming up the ladder to do the same. However, if they see the senior leaders doing it, they’re going to feel empowered to voice their needs. That is important because setting your framework and being clear about your needs is going to help with the balancing of everything that is coming at you. It will help you feel empowered, successful, energized and committed so that you can bring your best self.

Life needs to be balanced. It does get out of kilter at times, but your own personal health is critical to your long-term career success. If you can't bring your full self to work because you don't feel well, then you're not going to do the business much good.  

Mars has a serious focus on sustainability. In fact, your sustainability program, called “Sustainable in a Generation,” has been instructive for sustainability at BBH. How did the program come to be?

The family’s passion for sustainability is really the power and influence behind the program. We are passionate about running a good business, and a good business cares about sustainability. Sustainability has to do with not just the environment, but with the people we impact and the impact of our products on others. It’s a very holistic view of how our business is our way of giving back to the world in a positive way. It’s about more than just being a business that is financially successful. It’s how we do business – what we want to be known for, and how our values and principles show through our actions.

Our management team is passionate about this too. They have taken the program from an idea to a commitment with meaningful goals and measures. When we talk about sustainability, it’s not just the footprint of our business – that’s a very small part of our impact. Generally, we’re an agriculture business, so we need to look at all levels of the supply chain, not just what happens within our own four walls, if we want to have a positive impact.

This has expanded even more. As a family, we developed the Mars Compass, which is really a governance tool used to communicate and measure our expectations of the board and management. It has four quadrants, two of which are financial, and two that are very much about our impact on the world. This tool enables conversations about potential choices we may need to make in order to achieve the goals across all the quadrants. If I want to invest $2 billion into a sustainability program, how are we going to do that? We need performance on the other end to have the necessary funds. The Compass helps us find balance across all aspects and to be more successful.

It’s also a great way to engage and keep the next generation connected. Having a positive impact on the world matters to me, but it’s going to matter even more to them. They’re looking at the business and asking what we are doing to make the world a better place. It drives our whole program and our commitment.

What advice would you give your younger self?

First, you’re going to have to make choices. If I had known it was about accommodating different life stages, I probably would have been less frustrated at times. If I could have told myself this is not going to be a straight upward path, but one that has plateaus and goes backward and sideways, I think that would have been really helpful.

Second, find where your passion is in your work. Figure out what motivates you and gets you excited. This is a career that spans many years, so the sooner you can find what excites you and what makes you get out of bed every day, the better.

Victoria, thank you so much for your time and insights.

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