Career Advice, Interviews

The Secret to CEO Success According to Enterprise’s Pamela Nicholson

There is no shortage of books to read on how to become a CEO. In fact, a search on Amazon reveals over 8,000 books dedicated to the subject. However, much like being an astronaut or a doctor, becoming a CEO cannot be boiled down to words on a page. It has to be lived.

Just ask Pamela Nicholson, CEO of Enterprise Holdings, which includes Enterprise Rent-A-Car.  Overseeing annual revenues of $20 billion, more than 97,000 employees and with a 96 percent approval rating, Nicholson is a testament to what makes a great CEO. The latest research shows a positive company culture, good work-life balance, and high performance are all important factors. Furthermore, there are three features of company culture that stand out as mattering most for CEO quality: how employees view senior leadership at the company, whether employees feel they have upward career opportunities, and how employees rate their compensation and benefits packages.

Nicholson spoke with Glassdoor to capture her professional journey (she started at Enterprise 30+ years ago!), her advice on being an effective leader, and what it means to be a female CEO.

GLASSDOOR: Our research shows that a CEO’s gender has no impact on the reviews and ratings they receive from employees. Instead, company culture matters and quality of leadership matter. Is that at all surprising? 

PAMELA NICHOLSON: I’m CEO of a company that’s been family-owned since it was founded nearly 60 years ago. So I’ve seen firsthand how steady, effective leadership built on a solid foundation of culture and shared values attracts top talent and creates a successful business.  At Enterprise, that leadership begins with our company’s owners, the Taylor family of St. Louis. Since Jack Taylor founded the business in 1957, Enterprise has had only three CEOs – Jack, his son Andy, and now me.

And now the third generation of the Taylor family is also involved in managing the company. This consistency and continuity of leadership is an important part of our lasting success.

[Related: What Makes A Great CEO? Read the Research]

What are some Enterprise’s guiding principles that make employees are proud to work alongside you?

PN: For starters, we have a promote-from-within culture that provides significant opportunities for personal growth and professional advancement. It starts with our Management Training program, where I started my career at Enterprise 35 years ago. From Day One, it focuses on teaching employees the skills they need to run a business and prepare for long-term success. And it consistently emphasizes the fact that a great customer experience is at the heart of what we do.

Beyond this, we also work to satisfy the desire so many employees have to work for a company that shares their values. When Jack Taylor started our company, he didn’t talk about our values; he just lived them. And those founding values have driven our growth and success ever since.

Today, these values guide our day-to-day dealings with customers, our communities, our partners and one another. They attract talented employees to us – and they’re important reasons why the men and women of Enterprise Holdings are proud to be part of our company.

What are a few of the attributes or qualities that make an exceptional CEO?

PN: During my career, I’ve been fortunate to have a number of top Enterprise leaders as my mentors.  And as I’ve moved into leadership roles, I’ve tried to emulate the skills I’ve admired in them, including excellent communication, integrity, honesty and being a great listener.

Overall, though, my leadership style is built on simply being myself.  I’ve learned that building a good career isn’t just about your professional acumen, it’s about integrity and being honest with yourself and others. People always know where I stand – firm, but always fair.  I have an open-door policy and I’m straightforward with those I am advising. I have high expectations, but I also believe in rewarding hard work and positive results.

I’ve also learned that, above all, you need to have a passion for the business and an enthusiasm for your team and your company. If you love what you do and you really want to come to work every day, it will show in your results.  

[Related: Are You Ready to Be a CEO? Take Our Quiz]

Do barriers to gender equality in leadership positions still exist in your industry?

PN: Barriers are challenges—something to be overcome. And, to me, that’s a motivator.  While there aren’t as many women in the industry as there could be, we are seeing women’s roles grow and advance. We’re moving forward very quickly in all aspects of the auto industry. For example, we continuously support our partners in the repair industry who focus on recruiting women.  

Within Enterprise, women are well represented in senior leadership positions throughout our company. A major driver of our inclusive culture is the company’s promote-from-within philosophy, which rewards employees based on performance rather than seniority and creates opportunities to quickly advance. It can be a tough process, but it’s also fair, and it’s opening doors for women in every one of our lines of business.

In fact, I am surrounded by several outstanding female executives at Enterprise, including President – Enterprise Holdings Foundation Jo Ann Taylor Kindle, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Christine Taylor, Senior Vice President and Treasurer Rose Langhorst, Senior Vice President – North American Operations Jane Hylen, and Enterprise Holdings Foundation Vice President and Executive Director Carolyn Kindle Betz. And that’s just to name a few.

[Related: Glassdoor Employees’ Choice Award Winners Revealed: Highest Rated CEOs (2016)]

You started at Enterprise as a car-washing management trainee and became the first non-family CEO of the world’s largest car-rental company. What are the things, events skills that have most influenced to your professional growth and ascension at Enterprise?

PN: I have essentially grown up in a company that’s laser-focused on four key areas that have shaped my leadership approach:

  • Ensuring that employees have ample opportunity for professional and financial advancement
  • Keeping customers top of mind and always striving for excellent service, to the extent that employee advancement is directly tied to customer satisfaction
  • Thoughtfully and responsibly growing the business to meet our customers’ needs, both from an industry and technology perspective
  • Achieving growth while maintaining a healthy bottom line, ensuring that we take a long-term, sustainable approach to managing our company

That last point is key. As a family-owned business, we’re uncommonly in tune with the need to operate with the next generation in mind.  In addition, as the world’s largest car rental company and a leader in the global travel industry, we’re in a strong position to help drive sustainable transportation solutions and policies around the globe. And we’re committed to do that by taking a thoughtful approach that balances the needs of our employees, our customers and our business with sustainable resource use.

What advice do you have for young corporate leaders today on honing their skills and working towards the C-suite?

PN: First of all, I’d simply say don’t sell yourself short. Set your goals high. If you believe in yourself and what you are doing, you’ll find it’s usually worth some sacrifice, but the rewards will make it all worthwhile.  

As I began progressing through my career, I found that when I was considering the next big promotion, I tended to question whether I was qualified. But I quickly learned that if I didn’t get outside my comfort zone and take a chance, I’d never know what I could achieve.

I also learned early on that you’re in charge of your own career.  If for some reason you don’t feel you are getting the guidance you need, proactively seek out career development opportunities.  I’ve reported to many great supervisors and received years of mentoring from great leaders in our company. But sometimes, when you can’t find what you’re looking for, you have to seek it out yourself and be accountable for your own success. That’s worked for me … and I’ve seen it work for many others.

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