Irene Chang Britt, now the president of Pepperidge Farm, failed her first semester of business school.

After receiving a letter from the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario urging her to pursue another career, she met with a school counselor. The counselor, who knew how to tap into the former competitive cyclist's psyche, called her a "chicken," Britt recounted recently during the Wharton Women in Business conference at the University of Pennsylvania. That push was enough to get her back into the classroom, graduate with honors, start her own $1 million mail-order bike business with her brother, and eventually rise to the top of Pepperidge Farm, which is owned by the Campbell Soup Co.

"I finally figured out that business wasn't about all those complex theories that people were talking about," Britt told the audience. "And I finally [thought], 'Oh my god. This is about people. I get this.'"

Looking back at almost three decades of working at companies like Kraft Foods and Kimberly-Clark before Pepperidge, Britt says there are three things every leader needs to do to be successful. Here they are:

Take action.

Britt says that every leader is made through her own actions and by the opportunities she decides to take. "There are many great minds in the industry that are wasted because they never did anything. And the big prize goes to the person who is going to act," she says.

As an undergraduate looking for work one summer, Britt and her brother opened a bike shop after renting a "rat-infested building." That blossomed into two stores and a mail-order business that hit over $1 million in sales before they sold the company. "The theme of this is, grab opportunities. Grab opportunities, no matter how they come dressed, because there's always a chance to learn something else," she says.

Take the dirty job.

However unpleasant a job may seem, take it on. When Britt worked at Kimberly-Clark she was the director of the washroom systems business--also known as toilet paper--and in charge of making sure the company's acquisition of Scott Paper went smoothly. Managing a toilet paper brand's image wasn't her first pick, but she did it any way. She says if you're in a similar situation, do the same: "Take the crappy assignments. Some of the best opportunities come disguised looking like work. If it's broken, I like it better, because then I can go fix something, right? Awesome," she says. "When you turn it around, you're an absolute hero."

Learn to let go.

There are certain things in life you can't do, so don't try. You cannot get everything done, you cannot have it all, and everything will not be perfect. And there is no such this as balance. Britt aimed this point especially towards working mothers: "Women need to learn to let go. In your professional life, absolutely, because what that does is it helps build other people," she says, explaining to give tasks you do not have to do to subordinates and proteges. She also says the same thing goes for your personal life: "So that dirty sock is on the floor? Yeah, whatever. It's not going to kill anyone," she says. "You not only help the next generation grow, but you also unlock a ton of capacity in yourself."

Published on: Nov 12, 2013