She Moves Us Interview with Gillian Commander, Vice President, Wholesale Strategy＆PlanningMarch 11, 2022
She Moves Us Interview with Gillian Commander, Vice President, Wholesale Strategy＆PlanningMarch 11, 2022
As part of our ´She Moves Us´ interview series, we caught up with Gillian Commander, Vice President, Wholesale Strategy＆Planning at PUMA to find out more about her view on compromises and the importance of being able to say ´NO´.
Before PUMA, Gillian was living in New York City while working for a handbag company. However, after living in Manhattan for a few years, she was ready to explore a less hectic lifestyle. “As much as I loved living in the greatest city in the world, I wanted to slow down a little bit. I knew I still wanted to live in a city so I began looking for jobs in the Boston area. I had no idea at the time that Boston is basically the shoe capital of the country. I saw that PUMA had offices there and was excited to learn that the brand was in Boston because I’d been a fan for so long. I found a job posting that really intrigued me and told myself ‘I’m going to apply for this one job. I’m not going to apply anywhere else because PUMA is where I want to be. If I get it, that’s great and if I don’t then I’m still happy in New York’. I basically put all my eggs in one basket, applied and ended it up getting the job”.
The same week Gillian accepted the offer in Boston, she also met her husband in New York. “That was kind of a funny twist to it. I ended up moving and after doing the distance thing for a while, fortunately his job brought him to Boston about year later. It all worked out!”
Business, People and Art
When Gillian was younger, she was interested in art, design… mainly creative things. She even had a scholarship to go to college for art. “I wasn’t 100% sure what I’d wanted to study and was envious of friends who had a clear vision of something concrete like being a lawyer or a physical therapist. But I knew I wanted to pursue something that married creativity and business.” Gillian looked to find a major in college which combined the two and graduated from college with a degree in marketing. “I was really interested in so many broad areas and courses that I eventually ended up minoring in business but also sociology.” All the things she studied turned out to help in her career. Sociology, for instance, is a big piece of the strategy and knowledge she uses in her daily work.
Gillian says she thinks her “people side” is tied to the fact that she is a woman. “It’s always tricky to say this because obviously there are also men who are in tune with people and the more intuitive side of business, but I think for me as a woman, I tend to gravitate towards that first. One of my more recent strategic projects (managing the development of our new North American HQ) incorporated workplace strategy. I really had to understand how people work, what makes them happy, what would make them excited to come to work every day. I had to think in terms of ‘How to make people want to come here and thrive?’ and then Coronavirus added a whole new complexity to it”.
Since COVID-19 hit the US, Gillian has spent a big portion of her time focusing on people. Her goal as the right arm of PNA’s President when she served as VP of Strategy “was to overcommunicate and make sure all 500+ of our Boston-area employees looked forward to moving into our new building despite so many uncertainties. We didn’t want people to leave or feel worried that PUMA was moving ahead without them. My job became all about communication, so basically, people”.
While Gillian set her passion for design aside for several years, “when you have an artistic perspective, it never really goes away”. It begins creeping into things like visual presentations, she says: “I gravitate toward projects that require a creative eye because I enjoy it so much”.
The perfect role
Gillian declares that every time she has been in a new position, even if it wasn’t the perfect role for her, it has gotten her closer to what she should be doing. “I find that understanding things that you don’t enjoy or don’t play to your strengths can be just as informative as knowing what you love because it’s another input to figuring out what may be a great fit for you (or not!). Life is too short to have to do something that makes you miserable or that you don’t enjoy on some level. Of course, every day can’t be perfection, but you should at least be able to look forward to what you have ahead of you. Just because a job or a role doesn’t work out doesn’t mean you failed or that you should regret your decision to take it on. But you should definitely aim to learn from it and from there, move towards the things that you do have passion for and can add the most value to”, she adds. “That’s what’s gotten me to where I am and I’m proud of that path because it wasn’t always easy.”
“I really hate the expression that says: ‘You can have it all!’. As a working mother, it’s truly impossible to have it all. You can have a lot and you can have a very happy, fulfilling life. However, it’s over simplifying to say that you can easily have a perfect family situation and have an amazing career at the same time. You’re always going to have to give something up or compromise on some level. You are going to have to prioritize what is the most important to you at that time. Those things might even change throughout different phases of your life or even over the course of a week or day. I’ve found that sometimes I have to check myself, stop and say: ‘Right now what is important? Does my daughter need me more than my job needs me? Or does PUMA need something from me, and my family can wait?’ Then I must try to balance that out in order to not drop the ball on either side, which is not ever easy.”
Gillian wishes she had been given the advice on focusing on things outside of work much earlier. “It seems obvious but when you get caught up in your career over time, especially the further you progress and more responsibility you gain, the more invested you become in your work. More recently, I’ve been trying to focus on things that bring me fulfillment outside of work and that mindset has brought me back to my art and design roots. When I’m not working, I enjoy spending time on design projects for friends and family and I’ve even been taking photography courses. It’s been great to have an outlet outside the office.”
Support your peers
Whether it was her mom or her sister, and the fact that she was part of a military family, where there is a big wives’ network, Gillian thinks growing up surrounded by women taught her to become a strong person. “Being surrounded by supportive women my whole life, it always boggles my mind to see how women in the corporative world can sometimes be so competitive with each other. I’m of the mindset that we should raise each other up and encourage everyone to succeed. I don’t think that elevating someone else lowers yourself- there’s plenty of room at the table for successful women!” It’s important for Gillian to support her peers, especially other women. “Positive development, regardless of gender, is important to me. The first thing I did when I started my current position was to sit down with my team and ask them what part of the job they really love. I want to know those things and find ways to tap into them more.”
Give and take at home
Gillian credits the support of her husband for the ability to accomplish so much in her professional life. “Like me, he has a very demanding position but in a very different industry than I do. He’s a real partner and if he wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to do everything I do today”. Gillian stresses the importance of asking for help and not trying to take on everything herself, despite the tendency to do so. Together with her husband, they equally parent their daughter. “Having his support is definitely a game changer for me. His schedule is a bit more regular than mine, although we both sometimes travel. When that’s the case, one of us must manage while the other one is away. As terrible as Covid has been, it’s at least given us more opportunities to spend time together as a family. The two of us are great partners and I’m grateful to have him by my side. We see each other and our jobs as equal even though they’re very different”. Furthermore, Gillian and her husband take turns in pursuing career opportunities. “His job brought us to the Middle East and we lived in Dubai for three years. That was an important work opportunity for him so I was happy to cross the world with him so he could accomplish something he’d always wanted to. I was fortunate that I had the ability to continue working for PUMA during that time it ended up being a win-win for both of us because I loved my experience working with the global team based in Herzo. We could have stayed overseas longer, but the chance arose for me to return to PNA in a Strategy leadership role. Strategy was a path I wanted to pursue given my diverse background at PUMA and he was 100% supportive in our decision to return to the US to benefit my career. There just must be a lot of give and take. We both talk about it a lot to make sure that no one’s career is dominating the other one and we’re both feeling fulfilled.”
“I think as working women who want to deliver, people can tend to look to us for tasks that aren’t necessarily in our job description or for things that may not contribute to career advancement. Sometimes we’re even viewed as the ‘nurturer’ in the workplace because we are women. I don’t think any of it is ill-intentioned, yet these things usually still take a lot of mind space, time and energy. We need to be more aware of when that’s happening and have the confidence to say ‘No, that’s not my job’ or ‘No, I’m not comfortable doing that’ because it can slow us down. Over time, it can even impact our career”. Gillian looks at the women who have risen around her and has noticed that they are very good at setting boundaries. “It is definitely something I’ve been working on because although I’m supportive by nature and want everyone around me to be comfortable and productive, I have to set boundaries to ensure I’m performing at my best and aim to achieve the balance that I’m always striving for.”
Gillian says it frustrates her when friends or colleagues or peers say: “No one has really told me what my career path is or what is next for me.” “Only you can control your career”, says Gillian, “That’s one of my mottos. Other people can help you and support you but you own your own path. There are people who just wait for someone to offer them the next thing and I don’t believe in that. If there is something that interests me, I’ll ask for it. Maybe the answer will be ‘No’, but at least I’ll go for what I want”.
A few years back, Gillian attended a leadership training program and they gave her a type of behavioral test in which people are classified by colors. “My results came back, and I was disappointed because I didn’t register as the color I thought I was ‘supposed’ to be in order to be an effective leader. My initial thought was that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a CEO or in a high-level authoritative role… But then I took a step back and reframed the situation. It hit me that the world needs people like me and that I can achieve success at a high level in my career because one of my strengths is bringing people together and getting everyone to collaborate. Not everyone can do that and it’s such an important component of a company like PUMA.” She says that one of her favorite things about working for a brand like PUMA is the way it celebrates and supports all different types of people with different strengths. “I never imagined I’d be at a company for literally decades, but consider myself so fortunate to work with such a great group of people and for a brand that has given me a chance to really showcase my strengths and the things I love.”