A small-town woman from Fayetteville, Tenn., Sharon Price John decided early in her life that career intimidation would never be part of her story.
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Starting her career as a young female in the ad world, John steadily advanced professionally, eventually climbing the ranks as a turnaround chief in the retail business.
It was neither a traditional nor easy career path, but the Build-A-Bear CEO said the secret to her success has been a healthy dose of naiveté, and no regrets.
Stitching Together a Strategy
John grew up in small-town Tennessee with dreams of somehow finding career happiness in a role merging her two passions: Art and architecture. Her young-adult dream was to become an interior designer, creating environments in airports, malls, office building in a way that incorporated psychology to understand crowd flow, color utilization and the like.
There was just one problem.
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“In 1982, that didn’t exist,” John said with a laugh, since that’s now a career many young designers choose to pursue.
So, John decided that the only option – a dual major in design and architecture – would ultimately be a too-heavy workload and yield a degree she didn’t think was the perfect fit for her. Instead, she went back to her roots, opting for majors in communications and advertising, unknowingly setting herself up for a tailor-made career.
“You’re using a creative approach to persuade people,” John said of her degree. “You have to understand the underlying drivers, that’s what the market is all about: What motivates people to buy something.”
"Sometimes doing too much research can keep you from taking a chance, and a little bit of naiveté might be helpful in doing that."
After graduating from the University of Tennessee, John went on to begin her career working for a Knoxville advertising agency. But not long after, she got the itch to do something more. So she took a week’s vacation, booked a one-way ticket to New York, lined up 15 interviews, and managed to land a job in New York’s advertising scene.
It was a risky move for someone early in their career – but a leap John took without ever really batting an eye.
“The sad truth is I didn’t know any better. Once I got up there, I didn’t even know or understand that being accepted to a training program at a top-10 ad agency is a coveted job. I didn’t know that people with credentials and connections far beyond mine had been planning that same move for a year,” she said.
But with tenacity, she pushed forward, determined to make her new life a successful one. And she refused to be intimidated by the crème-of-the crop pool of coworkers she was suddenly working alongside.
“Once I got there and was introduced to everyone, I figured out that all those people were from Ivy League schools in the Northeast, had last names you’ve heard of for a reason, all have second houses…that was a little intimidating. The concept of wealth was so different. We weren’t unfortunate in any way, but small town Tennessee money is a lot different than New York City money,” John said.
She remembers struggling at times to make ends meet, realizing the need to socialize with co-workers, and the sheer cost of living in New York compared to a smaller Southern city.
“There were times when [the group] would be talking – and we’re all dear friends now – about the public school kids. And I would think, ‘Oh like me!’” she recalled. “Until we got to know each other, it was a fish-out-of-water experience.”
From Candy to Columbia
Not long after joining the advertising world, John landed a job overseeing accounts that included Hershey’s (HSY), and Mars’s Snickers and M&M businesses. It was those yeas John really cut her teeth in the business. She said the managing director whom she worked with at Mars, and the senior brand manager on the Snickers business, were the source of a great deal of encouragement as she planned out her next career moves.
In the early 1990s, John was given the opportunity to be a part of the Snickers peanut butter bar relaunch to make it a global brand rather than a product with several different names and variations across the world.
“It was fun to be on that team. It was then the official sponsor of the Barcelona Olympics, and I helped lead the media piece of that effort…I got a lot of experience beyond an account supervisor at an ad agency,” she said.
It was around that time she began to feel like she needed something more. So with a healthy dose of encouragement, she decided to pursue an MBA from Columbia University in New York.
“One day [the Snickers senior brand manager] looked at me and said, ‘I would hate to lose you, but you should consider getting an MBA. You really get it. You can do more than this,” John said.
Finding herself in the familiar place between intimidation and determination, she applied to business school and was accepted.
That move launched her career in a whole new direction she never would have predicted. After earning her degree, she held executive positions at Mattel, Hasbro, and moved to Stride Rite as president of the company’s children’s group. During her tenure there, she lead a turnaround effort in which she closed underperforming stores, increased licensing, and the brand’s wholesale business.
It’s experience that left her well poised to accept the challenge of a Build-A-Bear (BBW) turnaround…this time, leading from the c-suite.
“I think the best lesson was one I was encouraged to embrace by the CEO of Stride Rite at the time, is to follow your instincts,” she said. “I stopped the process of believing ‘I’m going to hit the wall,’ but [when moving into the career at Stride Rite] I did it again.”
She said, during a conversation with Stride Rite’s chief executive, she wouldn’t be able to run retail because she’d never had experience doing it. His response: Stop thinking. He told her the company needed fresh thinking and someone who could follow their instincts, weigh consequences, and not waste time making decisions.
“Not making decisions is more detrimental – it’s better to make a decision with 80% of the information sometimes, particularly in turnarounds. You have to learn to make a mark early and find key places you can get a big win because you need to get your organization behind you,” she said.
It’s early career advice that’s paid big dividends for John’s career at Build-A-Bear where, within just a year, she was able to return a company with a $50 million loss, to profitability in its most recent quarter.
“You have to be willing to take a chance,” she said. “Sometimes doing too much research can keep you from taking a chance, and a little bit of naiveté might be helpful in doing that. I made a lot of choices in my life not by what could happen in a bad way, but thinking about it like: If I don’t do this, what could happen. It’s the same thing I do when I’m thinking about change inside corporations,” John said.
Her best piece of advice for those who aim for the stars is not to scale back on those hopes and dreams, but to never forget your past and where you come from.
She said being from a small town has huge advantages, and not losing sight of that is even more valuable – though many people have the mindset a small-town background is a career impediment.
“Truth is, you can relate so much better to the vast majority of people you’re marketing products to,” she said. “Don’t let it intimidate you. But don’t lose it along the way. Because the minute you can’t remember what’s it’s like, you can’t relate to those people anymore.”
Bottom line, John said, don’t forget why you started to become successful in the first place.