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How Heineken USA CEO Maggie Timoney Succeeds in a Traditionally Male-Dominated Industry

Read on for the exec's 10 most insightful leadership lessons.

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For the latest episode of Comparably and Entrepreneur's Leadership Lessons series, I spoke with a woman who is shattering the glass ceiling of an industry dominated by men, Maggie Timoney of Heineken USA — the nation's leading high-end beer importer and a subsidiary of Heineken N.V. From a single brewery in Amsterdam nearly 150 years ago, Heineken has grown into a global business. In 1933, it became the first imported beer to re-enter the U.S. market after Prohibition, and today the company employs 400 people across the U.S.

Heineken USA

Timoney’s career with Heineken began in 1998 as a national sales planning manager in the U.S., and she has held several global and management positions within the organization. The Ireland native was formerly general manager for Heineken Canada, SVP of HR in the U.S., and CEO for Heineken Ireland before taking on the role of Heineken USA’s CEO in 2018. 

An incredible raconteur, Timoney provided thoughtful insight on the most important lessons she's learned from her 25-year career and in life. In fact, playing basketball was such a huge early passion for her — as it was for me — that she often used analogies about her life on court to illuminate many of her sage leadership ideas. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing some stellar CEOs, but Timoney’s business acumen combined with her brilliant personality made this one of the peaks of the series so far. Here are 10 takeaways from our conversation:

1. A lateral move might give you the depth of experience that a jump to another company won’t

A career filled with 18-month long stays at a series of different companies won’t necessarily get you the development you want. Take advantage of opportunities to learn a new skill set in another department or grow your professional career by moving internally within your organization. Timoney made a cross-functional move from her role as GM of Heineken Canada to SVP and chief HR officer with Heineken USA. She says her career greatly benefited from this decision. 

2. Doing your current job well is often the best career move.

You are not going to get that job you’re eyeing three promotions from now if you don’t do a good job in the one you’re at today. Focus on the job at hand, excel at it and “wonderful things will happen,” advises Timoney.

3. It’s not a CEO’s job to have all the answers

Timoney says that good leaders depend on the people they hired to support them, especially those with differing areas of expertise: “If you think about the companies that have survived — and even thrived — during the pandemic, they worked together as a team to figure their way out of the crisis.”

4. Don’t impose your work style on others

“We like people to look like us and act like us. And that's already an issue for inclusion and diversity,” Timoney shares. It is natural to trust others who adapt to our work methods over those with different ways of working or solving a problem, but a CEO needs to look past that at the quality of the work itself.

5. At the end of the day, we’re all people

Timoney’s father always told her that whether you’re the man sweeping the street or the Pope himself, it’s still “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” in the end. “The majority of people are good people who try to do the right thing. The intent is there,” Timoney says thoughtfully. Remember that your shared humanity is the greatest equalizer, and proceed with that faith. 

6. When a CEO has to lay down the law, timing is everything

Although it is often a leader’s job to listen and listen well, it is also their responsibility to make difficult and final decisions themselves. “You have to use your judgment on the timing of when to do this,” Timoney advises. “What I do is create a safe environment so that my team can call me and say, ‘Can I talk to you? You didn't consider these two things, and you went too early,’ etc.” 

7. Make sure your leaders are ready to lead

Timoney always asks three things of the leaders on her team: 

  • Be capable in your function.

  • Be a great leader.

  • Have a broader business perspective than just your function.

8. Keep one unexpected interview question in your back pocket to get a true read on a candidate

Instead of the usual question about the success of a candidate’s last project, Timoney prefers to ask something that can gauge the interviewee’s ability to think on their feet, their personality and their ability to be open. One of the questions is, “What three songs would you bring if you were going to be stranded on a desert island?” A question like this can tell you a lot about the person and what's important to them.

9. Naivete can be an ally in an unfair system

Timoney was raised in an active family, with a father who would take her outside to play football (soccer) in the street with the local boys. She also played high school and collegiate basketball, and whenever there was a pickup game and the men didn’t have enough players she would always be asked to join. She believes that all of these experiences ended up serving her well, because she never felt “less than” because she was a woman and never assumed she would achieve less for being a woman. 

10. Be open-minded

Leaders and executives often have very strong convictions, and that’s a necessary part of the job. So is remaining open-minded. “If you stick to only your own ideas, you’re going to miss some brilliant ones,” warns Timoney. “[In my head,] I have a switch that I turn on, and a curtain that goes back that says ‘Be Open’.”

For more from my hour-long talk with Maggie Timoney, watch the full webinar here. The growing collection of episodes from our series gives readers access to the best practices of successful CEOs from over 30 of the biggest brands, including Headspace, Zoom, Chipotle, Warby Parker and ZipRecruiter, to name a few.

Jason Nazar

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Jason Nazar is co-founder and CEO of Comparably, a leading workplace culture site that provides the most accurate representation of what it's like to work at companies. He was named LA Business Journal's "Most Admired CEOs in LA" & "Entrepreneur in Residence for the City of LA" by Mayor Eric Garcetti.