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Keys to success from Avon’s top boss

August 9, 2011, 10:20 PM UTC
Fortune


China's Yang Lan and Avon CEO Andrea Jung

In every successful career there is a moment: You could quit. But you resist, wisely.

For Andrea Jung, the chairman and CEO of Avon Products (AVP), this moment happened right after college, when she was in the management training program at Bloomingdale’s. All day everyday, there she was in the stockroom, switching vendor hangers for store hangers on thousands of pieces of clothes. “I remember calling my parents around Thanksgiving and saying, ‘You paid for me to have a great education and this is really not that meaningful…Maybe I will quit.’”

Jung, who grew up in a traditional Chinese-American family with a tremendous amount of discipline, had made her way to Princeton and wanted to go into the Peace Corps. But her parents didn’t have a lot of money, so they insisted she take a more conventional path. When Jung called them about quitting that first job at Bloomingdale’s, “the reaction was fast and furious,” she recalls. Her parents told her: “You are not quitting. You start at the bottom and you work your way to the top.”

“So, I didn’t quit,” Jung says. “I persevered, and it ended up being a really terrific run in retail.”

She traded retail–Bloomingdale’s (M) and then Neiman Marcus–for the beauty industry, moving to Avon in 1994. Jung was assigned to create a global Avon brand and did that so impressively that she was considered for the top job three years later. But she got passed over. And though she felt tempted to quit, she stayed. Two years later, she got the CEO job and became the youngest female chief executive in the Fortune 500.

“Bloom where you’re planted,” says Jung. “And follow your compass, not your clock,” she adds, preaching patience in any career. She has certainly demonstrated that. Now at the helm for 12 years, Jung is No. 5 on the 2010 Fortune Most Powerful Women list and the longest-serving among the female Fortune 500 CEOs. “I feel like the wise old woman CEO, trying to pave the path for a lot more after me,” she says.

Jung is on the boards of Apple Computer (APLL) and General Electric (GE), as well as Avon. And as a single mother of a daughter, 21, and a 12-year-old son, she has learned plenty about juggling work and family. “You can’t, in my experience, necessarily have it all in one day,” she says. “But you’ve got to make those choices.” Now 52, she could well go and run another big global company after Avon, which had revenue of $10.9 billion last year. But she says, “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that yet.”

Right now, she is focused on Avon’s longevity. As part of the company’s 125th anniversary celebration this year, she has traveled to 15 cities around the globe and met with some 5,000 Avon representatives at each stop. The greatest satisfaction of leading Avon, she says, is helping 6.5 million representatives—entrepreneurs in 105 countries—build businesses from the ground up. By providing the money and products for reps to get started, “we’re one of the largest micro-lenders in the world today,” Jung notes. “Yes, we are a beauty company, but we do more than just sell beauty.”

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This is the fourth interview in Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women series in partnership with Yahoo . See more at Yahoo Shine’s “Power Your Future.”