Redefine your competition. Think bigger.

thinkbiggerJeri Finard has made some valuable decisions on her way to the highest echelons of business. She stopped trying really hard to get ahead, she listened closely to trusted mentors, and she stopped following the conventional wisdom of focusing on your competition.

I had the privilege to interview Ms. Finard last week in New York. Currently the President of Godiva, and formerly the Global Brand President of Avon, and Chief Marketing Officer at the immense organization Kraft Foods, Ms. Finard is no stranger to executive offices and boardrooms. But as she described to me, the key to getting ahead was finding what she loved. And one key to finding what she loved was ignoring the ladder-climbing game. Let me explain.

Years ago as a manager at Kraft Foods, she was invited to lead the confectionary business for the newly acquired Nabisco. It was a generous and plum position offer. She declined it for personal reasons to focus on her family and children. She explained to me that while she was dedicated to her husband and kids, and unwilling to relocate her family for new opportunities, she also felt a sense of frustration while others around her were getting promoted. At the time her mentor was Ann Fudge, who went on to be President of Kraft General Foods and recognized as one of the savviest and most successful women in business. Ann advised her to follow her own path and passions, and disregard what her colleagues were doing.

As somewhat of a consolation, Ms. Finard was offered a lateral move to run the desserts division within Kraft. The desserts division was comprised of brands such as JELL-O, Cool Whip, Baker’s Chocolate and other brands which were stagnating. JELL-O already owned 85% of the gelatin market, Cool Whip had saturated their own market, and home baking was on the decline. From the perspective of many within Kraft it was considered a dog division with no prospect of growth opportunity. The expectation was that she would go babysit a flat line of products.

Ms. Finard took a new perspective. She didn’t know it wasn’t possible to build growth in a flat market. Yes, JELL-O had 85% of the gelatin market, but she focused on the fact that gelatin wasn’t the competition. The real competition was snack foods like yogurt, fruit, chips and candy bars. And JELL-O was less than 2% of the snack foods industry, so from her perspective there was nothing but growth opportunity. She focused on fun, like JELL-O Pudding Pops, and healthy alternatives, like JELL-O with less sugar and more fruit, JELL-O smoothies, even created popular recipes to reinvigorate desserts.

As she described, “Ultimately you’re competing for share of stomach. So I think it’s important that you don’t limit yourself by defining who your competitors are. Because if you do that, you’ll never think big enough.”

She also once had a hilarious dinner with Bill Cosby when working with him on the JELL-O Pudding Pops project.