Your graduating class is celebrating its 40th reunion this spring at Sacred Heart Academy. When you reflect on the time that has passed since graduation, what memories of SHA come to mind?
The memories that come to mind for me include athletics, of course; I played tennis, field hockey and basketball in high school and so that’s where I created a lot of friendships and learned a lot about life and leadership. When I return home to Louisville, I walk the campus and love to take note of the way the campus has grown and how wonderful it is that there are tennis courts, and new fields, a new gym! It’s really amazing.
I also am reminded of my family when I think of my time at SHA. As one of four girls in my family who attended Sacred Heart Academy (some of us were there at the same time), I think of my sisters when I am on or near campus, and of course, I think of my mother too, who is also an alumna.
Of course, academics come to mind and in particular, the sciences. SHA provided me with a really solid foundation in science.
But, at the end of the day, it comes down to the friendships I made at SHA. There are a few women with whom I’m still very close, and I think it says a lot especially considering that I’ve been away from Louisville for so many years.
Which teachers or administrators had the greatest impact on you at SHA, and why?
There are three who stand out – Mrs. Herp (science), Sister Lorna Weiler (science) and Madame Danzig (languages). Sister Lorna and Mrs. Herp taught me a lot about science, but even more importantly, they taught me that as a female, I could truly do whatever I wanted in life.
Madame Danzig was a very strong woman; she had high expectations of us, but she was always willing to talk with you, to work with you and help you understand the subject matter. Considering the challenges that she and her family experienced before coming to the U.S., it is clear to me now looking back, how much she taught me about overcoming adversity and that I had what I needed to succeed.
In what ways did your SHA (Catholic) education prepare you for college, graduate school & life beyond your formal education years?
In general, Sacred Heart was probably the first place I felt safe enough in taking on a leadership role. For example, I was involved in leadership of the National Honor Society during my time at SHA; no matter how large or small the position, it made me start to realize the importance of taking on those roles so that you can be a part of the vision of where you want that club, organization, team to go. These experiences help you learn about your comfort zone; as a shy person in high school, I recognize that involvement in a variety of leadership positions (whether in a club or on the field), helped shape me and prepare me for the roles I have had in both my career and volunteer involvement over the years.
You have lived away from Louisville for many years now; how have you stayed to connected to your classmates and friends from SHA?
Two of my dearest friends – Beth Stegner Peabody and Kim Boland – are still my very great friends. Beth and I roomed together after college, and have stayed close ever since. Our children have come to know each other too, and we see one another when I am back in Louisville. Kim is another great friend; she’s a pediatric intensive care physician in Louisville and we’ve been best friends since we were about 10 years old. We all have the foundation of a strong friendship and when I am home, we just pick right back up where left off and have chosen to make our friendships a priority. Lisa Melillo is also another SHA grad – and college roommate – who I have stayed in close contact with since our time at SHA, among others.
Can you share a bit about your role as President of Nestlé Purina U.S. and the responsibilities that come with being a female leader in corporate America? What elements of your role do you cherish most, and why?
First of all, I feel very humbled to be in the role that I am in today. People often ask me, “when did you know you wanted to be president (of Nestlé Purina U.S.)?” and I reply that I didn’t know I wanted to be president until just before it happened. I am a firm believer that if you have a strong work ethic and accomplish the goals and tasks assigned for the role you are in, that once you do that you explore what’s next; if you do that well, others around you will start to explore ways for you to move into different roles. That is very important. One of the things I love about my role is the ability to be present for the people who I work with here; it’s important for me to be approachable because I want those I work with to feel the freedom to talk with me. And, I feel it’s important for me to be agile in my position. The world is changing so fast and what may have worked in the past from a work/life perspective simply does not work today. I have to look at things from that perspective in this role. As for being a leader, yes, I am a female but I put Purina first. I’m just the person – or conduit – that makes things happen, so I cannot put myself first. If people aren’t doing well, or the company isn’t doing well, that’s a sign that I’m not signaling correctly and I need to look into that and make a change.
As for being a female in this role, yes, I am a female and while my path to this role may have been challenging as a woman, that is simply the way the way the game has been played. In order to be successful, you have to understand it and know your audience to navigate your way through. I mentor both men and women; and the people who have been the biggest advocates throughout my career have been men. It’s important that I mentor both men and women, and you have to pay it forward. You also have to cherish the people who mentored you along the way; you count results in numbers and in relationships.
I do make it a point when I am mentoring people – especially those seeking leadership positions within our organization – to choose wisely when it comes to your partner in life. Having a career that requires frequent travel, late nights, etc. – requires a partnership where there is mutual respect, encouragement and support. I can only share with people what my experience has been, but I always say that I would not be where I am today, were it not for the husband and children that I have. Family and support are everything. You need to be on the same page, regardless of what your goals are – to be president, volunteer, mother or something else. As a mom, I had to find ways to be present when I had opportunities to be with my husband and children, for the times when I could not be present for them due to travel, meetings, etc.
What does the word “leadership” mean to you, and is there any advice you’d give to a SHA student or alumna today, to help her develop strong leadership characteristics to enhance her life and experiences?
Leadership to me, is all about the opportunity to shape the vision of where you want to go; whether me as president at Purina, as captain of a team, head of the band, whatever it is; leadership allows you to set the vision for that group/organization. It takes a strong work ethic to be a leader. It doesn’t just happen; it requires falling down, getting back up, making mistakes and learning from them. If you’re not failing, you aren’t pushing hard enough.
To be a good leader, you have to listen to all of the audiences/groups you are representing or working with. You have to be decisive. You have to listen to subject matter experts to help inform your decisions. A good leader doesn’t know everything, rather, they depend on a strong group that has the knowledge needed and in turn are empowered to make decisions with that input.
I have a set of guiding principles that I want to share; these go beyond being a leader, but simply lend themselves to helping one be the best person you can possibly be. They are:
- Bring your best self forward every day. Every day is not the same, but if you put the best version of yourself forward each day, I guarantee you will be successful as you’ll have many friends, family and colleagues to surround you, and your goals will be accomplished.
- Fail forward. Use mistakes to learn & grow.
- Work hard and play hard. Working hard makes you more productive (physically too); playing hard makes you more creative. You need both to succeed in life.
- Just because you can, does not mean you should. Have the courage to challenge respectfully, if it’s not clear to you what is being asked of you, and do the right thing always.
- Results count. Count yours. You can’t be successful without results; remember to count your results in numbers and personal relationships. You need both for success.
- Life is a journey, not a destination. You need goals and a vision for where you want to go, but you need to be open to the unexpected. It is only then that you will truly grow and learn about yourself personally and professionally.
How do you live out the Sacred Heart Schools Core Values of Community, Leadership, Reverence and Service in your life today?
I believe in giving back, and that the core values should be ingrained in all that we do. Community & service – giving back – have always been a big part of my life. Faith and reverence have always been a huge part of my life as well, and are just a daily element of my existence. Leadership of course is something I am passionate about, too. When you grow up with a foundation of faith, and have role models who have given back, it becomes a part of your DNA. You do it without even thinking about it.
As we rounded out our conversation, Nina Leigh shared some final thoughts about leadership…
I believe that teaching leadership skills and qualities is extremely important, and it is great that SHA has formalized a leadership learning program via the Jean Frazier Leadership Institute. It’s a great way to lay a foundation for young women during high school, as they move into the next stages of their lives. It’s all part of the journey! If I have an expectation each day that I am going to learn something new, I will. Fostering that love of learning throughout life is so important; that’s what Mrs. Herp, Madame Danzig and Sister Lorna did for me. They wanted me to learn more, to understand more. I would like to say “thank you!” to Sacred Heart Academy for that.