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Leadership lessons from CEOs at WFF 2013

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Three leaders from the top of the food chain on Monday shared lessons learned on the way up at the Women’s Foodservice Forum’s annual Leadership Development Conference.

WFF President and CEO Fritzi Woods sat down with Carla Cooper, president and CEO of Daymon Worldwide; Clarence Otis, CEO of Darden Restaurants; and James White, president, chairman and CEO of Jamba Juice. Each gave an overview of his or her career path, as well as some of the mentors, advocates and sponsors who inspired them. Here are three lessons that stood out.

What you’re doing is more important than your job title. All three executives mentioned times when they knowingly made either a seemingly lateral move or pivoted to a new industry because of the content of the role offered. Cooper mentioned that she once choose a senior vice president role at PepsiCo versus becoming a CEO of a smaller organization because she felt the PepsiCo opportunity offered a larger scope and greater overall impact.

“The titles matter less than what is actually happening” with your job, Otis said. He chose to move to the restaurant industry for a more meaningful role, and he emphasized the importance of “looking at the substance of the matter” when choosing assignments.

Every career has wins and losses. It is a journey to get to the corner office — and even the most successful of us face setbacks or make moves that don’t work out as planned.

White described a potential setback in which he found a silver lining, saying, “Sometimes you need to play the hand that is dealt.” He once found himself in a position he had not advocated for but that allowed him to build a necessary skill set in a place where the industry was headed. “Stay focused and don’t give up too soon,” he advised. “Play through the disappointment.”

Build your own direction. What the leaders shared through their career paths was a clear sense of purpose — to the point of writing it down. “Always have a written plan for yourself — it’s a way for you to maximize your own potential.”

Otis agreed, adding that emerging leaders can demonstrate that they are prepared to make a bigger contribution — and not to over-focus on the next role or move.

For Cooper, it is about self-awareness and independence. “Know thyself,” she said. Simple but crucial advice. Recognize your abilities, create a plan that acknowledges those strengths, and look for avenues to contribute on a larger level — simple ways to build a career worthy of you.