7 Career Lessons From the World’s 7th Most Powerful Woman

Guler Sabanci, chairperson and managing director of Turkey’s Sabanci Holding and Fortune’s “Seventh Most Powerful Woman in Global Business,” offers her advice to emerging leaders of both family businesses and traditional enterprises alike.

Guler Sabanci“Today, when I was exercising and listening to TV, I saw a good ad, which I liked very much,” began Guler Sabanci, chairperson and managing director of Sabanci Holding — Turkey’s second-largest financial and industrial conglomerate — and founding president of the Board of Trustees of Sabanci University, Sabanci Foundation, and the Board of Sakip Sabanci Museum. “It was about a car. You see [someone] driving and see more than one road to travel on. There’s always more than one destination. There’s always more than one way of driving. There is more than one car to drive. It’s up to you, really. It’s up to you to choose which road you want to travel on, which journey you want to take, which destination you want to go to. I look back on my experience and see that I have made choices.”

Sabanci, named this year by Fortune magazine as the seventh most powerful woman in global business and Turkey’s most powerful businesswoman, went on to offer seven pieces of career advice based on her experience running her family company, which she first joined 38 years ago.

#1: Choose What You Can — and Love What You Can’t

“Life is about choices. You make some choices consciously, some unconsciously,” Sabanci said. “My choice of going into family business was not a conscious one.”

When she joined the family business in 1978, Sabanci had just graduated from college. The business, which had been founded by her grandfather, was being run by her five uncles — her father had passed away when she was young — and she always felt destined to be part of the company. “I sat with them since I was very young, at the same table where the business was discussed,” she said. “I was conditioned to go into the family business.”

It’s the same for many young professionals whose families run organizations. That’s why it’s important for them — and, really, for any professional — to reassess their job decisions throughout their careers, Sabanci says.

“Every 10 years during my journey, I stopped and seriously evaluated: Is this the right thing I’m doing for myself? Do I want to continue or not?” she said. “You need to make a decision: are you going to be an executive? Or are you going to be a shareholder only? You have to … define your own journey.”

While starting in the family business was not a conscious decision, Sabanci says she “consciously decided to go into manufacturing,” referring to her start in the company’s fledgling tire-manufacturing business, Lassa. “I loved manufacturing. I loved the spirit and the positive attributes of producing something and seeing it. Touching it.”

While she may not have had an inclination towards tire-manufacturing specifically, Sabanci says she learned to accept — and even grow to love — the things she could not choose.

“I wanted to start in a new company that was just founded in the group. It just happened to be tires. I didn’t really think about that,” she said. “[But soon enough], I loved the smell of rubber! I find that I have this attitude towards accepting and loving the things that I have to have [in addition to] my choices. You need to learn that.”

#2: Keep Your Eye on the Bigger Picture

Sabanci highlighted the important link between a business’ success and the larger environment in which it’s operating. “In [an] emerging country like ours, the progress of a family business or a company [is] parallel to the progress of the country. There is always that link,” she said. Therefore, it’s important to understand the major economic and political movements of a region, whether it’s the one you’re operating in or one you’re looking to invest in. “It is very important … to understand the trends, where the country is going,” she says.

#3: Know When to Stick with It

In September 1980, Turkish General Kenan Evren led a coup d’etat to overthrow the government, leading the Turkish Armed Forces to rule the country for the next three years. During this tumultuous time, Turkey hovered near the edge of bankruptcy — and so did the branch of the company that Sabanci was working in at the time, Lassa. The shareholders, who consisted of Sabanci’s five uncles, decided that the management team of Lassa had to be refreshed. “During your journey [you] will face a crisis period. Be ready for that,” Sabanci said.

A lot of young professionals were leaving the tire company during this time, but 25-year-old Sabanci stayed. “I was part of the leadership team that turned around the tire company in three or four years. It taught me a lot. It taught me [about] being part of the team. It taught me all the basics of crisis management,” she says.

As a younger professional, if you fundamentally believe the parent business will survive, or if you feel like you can gain valuable leadership insight even if it doesn’t, it can be beneficial to stick it out through a lean time. “Staying sometimes, being at the right time at the right place, you may gain. That’s what happened to me.”

#4: Create Rules

Setting up employment and management rules is important in any organization, but it’s particularly important for family businesses. “Otherwise, you are leaving for the next generation some issues on the table, a headache,” Sabanci says.

In 1995, one of Sabanci’s uncles convinced the other four to hire McKinsey to conduct a “one-and-a-half-year, deep-dive, serious study” into the company and its market. This study produced a new strategy for the business that instituted various rules for the family. “We defined a new organization,” Sabanci says. Family issues would be discussed only at designated family meetings, not within the business itself. (“And we had a clear definition of what family issues were, what business issues were.”) Any new family member entering the business would need to have earned a college degree, and there would be a preference for work experience outside the family business prior to joining the company. “All these rules,” Sabanci says, “helped us.”

#5: Implement a Succession Plan

The McKinsey study also tackled the difficult subject of succession. Going forward, each of Sabanci’s uncles — who were group presidents in the company — would be given a transition period to find his successor. A special committee made up of family members and outside professionals would vote on each selection.

“We still obey all those principle rules,” Sabanci says. “[My uncle] had very young brothers, all very hardworking and brilliant businessmen, all doing their own projects successfully, but my uncle knew that there would be a time when they wouldn’t be there. Somebody has to take over. Planning for the succession was very important.”

#6: Bring in Outside Help

Whether it comes to delineating the succession plan or simply rolling out a business strategy, family businesses — like all businesses — should consider enlisting outside help.

“Alignment of the family shareholders with management is crucial for success, especially on strategy,” Sabanci says. “I advise you to use outside consultants. Use universities’ objective professors to help you. A third party is needed. [They can help] create a common vision and create common targets.”

It’s also incredibly important to ensure non-family members of the organization feel included in the decision making and future of the company, Sabanci stressed. “You can’t do everything on your own. You need to have strong and trusted teams who feel themselves part of the family.”

#7: Remember That You’re Better Together

At the end of the day, how has Sabanci Holding been able to succeed for three generations (and counting) in each of its 12 divisions, especially amid turbulent times?

“My uncle used to answer this question by saying … ‘We brothers can do better together than one of us alone.’ [He and his brothers were] five brilliant men in business with different strengths. One was a banker. One was an industrialist. One was very good with HR things. One was very good in commercial [matters]. He always thought that leadership required different views and serious discussions. I’m saying that there is a means of making decisions in a more collective way. I think this is success.”

Sabanci’s visit to the School was organized by the School’s Family Business Program, co-directed by professors Michael Preston, Daniel Wolfenzon, and Patricia Angus. The Family Business Program — supplemented by the 200-member, student-run Family Business Club — provides students with targeted courses, lectures, and networking opportunities to promote success in family-owned businesses and enterprises. Such businesses accounts for two-thirds of all corporate entities and comprise an estimated 70–90 percent of global GDP.

 Article written by Agatha Bordonaro

Photo by Leslye Smith



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