In Her Shoes: Fiona McDonnell | Director, Beer, Wines & Spirits, EU, Amazon

 Fiona McDonnell

Fiona has over 25 years in the consumer products industry, working for large brands including Kellogg’s, Kraft Jacobs Suchard, Nike and McCormick (Schwartz, Thai Kitchen, and Kamis).

She joined Amazon in 2015 as Director of Toys, and took responsibility for Amazon’s European Beer, Wine and Spirits business at the end of 2016. Fiona has been successful in her career in sharpening brand performance, steering multidimensional teams to drive growth and profit through transformational changes; including post acquisition integration, business model change, and in recent years, embracing the world of digital commerce. She loves adventure and would consider herself as quite international, having lived and worked in Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Singapore and France, alongside the UK.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I grew up in the Newcastle and then spent most of my school years in Manchester leaving with ten GCSE’s and five A’Levels (Maths, Further Maths, Physics, German and General Studies). That’s the moment I followed what I was passionate about and swapped out Chemistry to do German as I was great with the technical subjects but I loved languages too. I went on to do a Masters in Manufacturing Engineering at Cambridge University and then later in 2000 gained my MBA from INSEAD being one of the ‘Pioneers’ who started the Singapore Campus. I guess I am somewhere between a left brain marketer and a right brain engineer J.

Throughout my career, I’ve worked at many different companies, in various different general management roles across Europe. I’ve lived and worked in Munich, Paris, Singapore, Amsterdam, Warsaw, and now, London and I never looked back from that choice to study German and have endeavoured to speak the language where ever I have lived. I have always chosen to work at companies where the products and brands are in my cupboards already or something I use, so that I don’t have to pretend to like the products I make or sell.

Amazon was a service I have used in many countries I had moved through, so it was always on the list. I decided to approach Amazon because I wanted to work with a company that was really growing, and I was excited to be part of building something new. It was at that stage in my career where I wanted to be digital not just talk about it. I had heard that it would be quite a different culture and I’m not afraid of a challenge but I was pleasantly surprised by the people I met in the interview process and thought this was a place I can fit in. There isn’t a strict stereotypical Amazonian as I had once imagined, and I am happy to say that I am able to operate here by still ‘being me’. I enjoy being an agent for change and hope to inspire others that this is a place where many people can flourish as opportunities are so varied.

On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?

I get up at 6.30am every morning, have a cup of tea with my husband and play about with the kids (boys of four and seven years) over breakfast and getting ready. It’s hectic with the inevitable rush and general chaos of getting kids out the door, but my husband does a lot. My commute takes 1 hour 20 min but I have one hour on the train which I use to get as much work done as possible both ways to give me more time for the kids.

Amazon supports working flexibly, so I also work from home some days if I want to. This flexibility also allows me to do the school run two mornings a week, which is very important to me. I also make a point to leave the office at 5pm every day so I can get home to see my boys before bedtime.

I’m constantly striving to balance being the mum, being the director, and not giving up on the rest of my life. I am conscious that I am a visible example for other women and that also motivates me to be disciplined to show it can all be possible. In my role at Amazon, I look after the European market, and do travel regularly, and I have moved country three times so far with my young family. I am lucky to have the flexibility of my husband who currently stays home with the kids. I couldn’t do this job and enjoy the kids as much as I do without his support. It is tough being a full time working mum, but I love what I do and I remind myself that it was a choice that we made as a family.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I didn’t plan per se, though I guess I knew that I wanted to be a leader. I learned increasingly more about myself along the way and as a consequence, I changed course several times accepting that not all roles or all companies will fit me. Equally, the job I see today may not exist in the future and new roles and even industries are opening up rapidly. To me, it’s all about being adaptable, and as long as I can see two roles ahead of me in a company, there is still room to develop. So long as I can make a difference for others, and I like the place where I work – that’s fine for me. I am ambitious so will want to keep progressing but I value the journey and the learning now more than my younger self did.

The only thing about my career that I really planned was consciously deciding I wanted to be a Managing Director and took steps to get there. I got my first MD role in a Dutch consumer products manufacturing business role at 36.

What do you love about working for Amazon?

I am proud to work at Amazon where there is a real customer focus and decisions are made for the long term, always with the customer in mind. The company invests in ideas. Innovation can come from anyone, and it is quite refreshing working in a company that actually has room to take risks and be ready to learn from failures.

As a parent, I benefit from the flexibility Amazon offers. It is a fast-paced environment but it comes down to prioritising which is in my hands. Ironically having kids was perhaps the single biggest productivity gain I had, as you learn very quickly what is important to you when making choices on where to spend time. Being successful is as much about deciding what not to do.

Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you overcome these challenges?

Of course and in my experience, it has been the biggest challenges that have shaped me as a leader. One challenge I remember fondly was when I moved from Holland to Poland taking on the CEO role of a Polish grown company acquired by McCormick where I worked. I said yes to the job before having ever set foot in the country (my sense of adventure got the better of me). It was a very different cultural backdrop and people in the company were actively jockeying to take my job. I was a small, English woman, with a 6 month old baby in an environment where women leaders were really not that common, and not only did I not speak the language, but my leadership style was extremely different to the tightly controlled, owner run enterprise. I was anything but a typical CEO in that environment but it energised many people to see me persist in driving change and I stuck at it. I actually became pregnant again while working there and walked the production floor until two weeks before giving birth, much to the delight of the female workers on the line – again a social first in that company to work whilst pregnant at all. I am a firm believer everything is possible and the important thing is to stay focused on what matters to you and to do it on your own terms.

How have you benefited from coaching, mentoring or the sponsorship of others?

I’m fortunate to have personally benefitted from a handful of mentors throughout my career. I actively seek out mentors who I aspire to be like, and who can potentially open doors for me. My mentors help me to do more than just reach my goals. They help me understand who I am – they ask me the tough questions that I’m often not willing to ask myself.

Do you believe in the power of networking? If so, where do you network?

Yes, very much so. I do go to some networking events, but for me, networking is a habit, more of a way of interacting. People work with people and I think it is important to learn to connect with people. I probably do more of my networking on LinkedIn. Also when recruiters get in touch with me, I take the time to connect them with other people or give them recommendations. Building relationships by being valuable to people will always stand you in good stead in the future. When it comes to your career it’s as much luck as it is planned – and it really is, sometimes, about who you know not what you know. Internal networks are also valuable, as getting things done in any large organisation, is easier when you know how to reach out to people.

Networking is not something everyone likes, but it is also easier to connect with someone while doing something you like. So don’t think of it as just work events and networking on LinkedIn, it could be supporting a charity, being in a club etc., anything where you interact with others. At Amazon, we have a range of community groups where like-minded employees can connect and support each other too.

What advice can you give to our members about raising their profiles either inside or outside their own organisations?

Learning to influence without having authority is a vital skill. It’s also about adaptability – testing and trying things to see what works for you. Don’t put pressure on yourself to get everything right first time, there is as much if not more to learn from making mistakes. There is a lot to be said for self-awareness and the marketeer in me says treat yourself as a brand. People need to know what you are about, where your passion is, what you are good at etc. and you need make sure you communicate that in your actions. That way you will begin to ‘create demand’ for yourself and people will want to pull you into their teams.

What advice would you give to those who aspire to a career in consultancy?

Which every industry you choose, it is important to have realistic expectations. Remember that the most uncomfortable situations often give you the biggest opportunity to learn. Know what you care about and most importantly, don’t trade off things that inspire you and give you energy. If you can find the things you are good at and combine them with things you are passionate about, then that will be where you really get ‘in the zone’. Having a sense of humour will also stand you in good stead to deal with the challenges coming your way!

What does the future hold for you?

I don’t know exactly and life would be boring if we knew everything in advance, but I hope to keep learning and able to inspire people to get out there and try the impossible…..who says you can’t succeed!

Alison Simpson
About the author

Alison is the Digital Content Editor for WeAreTheCity. She has a BA Honours degree in Journalism and History from the University of Portsmouth. She has previously worked in the marketing sector and in a copywriting role. Alison’s other passions and hobbies include writing, blogging and travelling.

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