What does it take to become a leader—and to ascend to the helm of two major international companies? To hear Sally Beauty Holdings president and CEO Chris Brickman ’86 tell it, "Leadership is a journey. You’re going to learn along the way, and you’re going to make lots of mistakes." But, he added, "Your will to carry on—your will to persevere—is what will define you the most."
Speaking to about 70 students, alumni, faculty and staff in Choi Auditorium on September 25, Brickman—who majored in economics at Oxy and has served as president and CEO of Denton, Texas-based Sally Beauty Holdings since February 2015—encouraged his audience to "focus on growing as much as winning" in their own leadership journeys. "Beware of the successes—celebrate them and move on," he said. "Learn from the disasters, because they are your best teachers."
True to his liberal arts education, Brickman began his remarks with a quote from one of his favorite poems, "If" by Rudyard Kipling (published in 1910). Of the three stanzas he recited, one in particular went to the heart of his message: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same."
"Both triumph and disaster are impostors," he said. "So you will meet with failure, and it will not be fatal. And you will meet with success, and don’t let it fool you into thinking you’re very good."
Drawing from his 2014 memoir The Brilliance in Failure—a book he wrote "from personal experiences and memory" in the two months between his stints at Kimberly-Clark International and Sally Beauty Holdings—Brickman cited three workplace "disasters"—at ages 26, 36 and 46—that pivoted into "great growth opportunities."
At 26, as director of pricing and strategy at the NutraSweet Co., Brickman "shot myself in the foot at my own job" when a hoped-for position at another company fell through, leaving him do "the Circe walk of shame" with his coworkers and supervisors, including the division president. "At the end of the day, I stepped up and took accountability for it, and moved past it," he said.
At 36, two months into his job as a partner in training at McKinsey & Co., Brickman brought "the wrong frame of mind" to a big partner meeting in Chicago, ripping apart his co-workers’ presentations and letting his insecurities get the best of him—another situation he would have to quickly repair.
"At the very moment I should have been marketing what I could add to those teams, I was doing the opposite," Brickman said. "I was making them feel like I’m talking down to them. These are mistakes people make, right? … Being comfortable with who you are and being natural with people takes time." (Within two years, he was made a partner at McKinsey.)
At 46, after being promoted to president of Kimberly-Clark Professional, a $3.5-billion business-to-business division, Brickman faced the biggest test of his professional career. "Just as I got promoted, business was suffering," he recalled. "Our share was declining, we were losing sales, our costs were going up, recycled paper outages were happening and I was really beginning to feel the pressure."
Brickman "jumped into fix-it mode," he said, hiring outside consultants, changing pricing and sales strategies and personally launching an innovation program. Business began to rebound, validating Brickman’s strategy—but nine months into the job, he got "horrible upward feedback" at his performance review.
"The issue the team had was they didn’t feel part of [the turnaround] at all," he admitted. "They felt like this was just the Chris Show, and why were they there? That was a major awakening for me. … If you deliver results in spite of people and not with people, you’re going to get that kind of feedback."
In closing, Brickman shared a "Far Side" cartoon, quoted John Steinbeck ("To be alive at all is to have scars") and asked everyone in the audience to recall the "most cringe-worthy moment" they have had in life so far. A moment later, he observed: "Based upon the many grimaces I saw, everyone has got one. You’re not alone in your misery. … All of you survived them. The world didn’t end, and you are here today."
Brickman’s visit to Oxy was sponsored by the economics department. Sally Beauty Supply and Beauty System Group operate more than 4,800 stores in the United States.