The Thrive Questionnaire with Mary Dillon

From time with family to beating burnout, the CEO of Ulta Beauty does it all — and with a sense of humor.

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Mary Dillon is the CEO of Ulta Beauty. She serves on the Board of Directors for Starbucks Corporation and KKR, Inc. and is the Vice Chair for the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

In her Thrive Questionnaire, she opens up about beating burnout, her surprising love for scuba diving, and the habit she’s trying to break with her phone.

Q: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

Stretch! I love to get at least 30 minutes of exercise each morning. As I have gotten older, I know I also have to do more stretching every day to keep the active lifestyle I enjoy. This physical ritual helps me to focus on the rest of my day with a clear mind and new energy.

Q: What gives you energy?

In my personal life, nothing gives me emotional energy more than being with my husband, kids and wonderful extended family – cooking, hiking, skiing, playing games or just talking.

At work, I’m really jazzed up when I have my cross-functional team in a room brainstorming about future ideas for our guests.

Q: What’s your secret life hack?

Ask questions, show curiosity. It is surprising how much you can learn about people – and comfortable you can make them – by simply asking about them. And, if someone doesn’t ask questions in return—it tells you a lot! Just sayin’.

Q: Name a book that changed your life. 

Reading is just one way I draw inspiration and form perspective. I like to read non-fiction to build my knowledge particularly about history. Right now I am reading Frederick Douglas: Prophet of Freedom.  A recent, life-changing book I read was Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. It truly has opened my eyes to the issues in our justice system and the power of mercy.

Q: How do you deal with email?

A constant system of prioritization! But, of course, I am always wondering what I missed! I do try hard to be sensitive to when I send emails to folks in my organization. If I am catching up on work at an offbeat time, and something is not urgent, I often set emails to send the next business day.

Q: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?

The first thing I would do is try to reach one of my four kids to catch up. We’re in five different time zones right now, so that always is a challenge.

Q: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it? 

I have a competitive nature and am constantly trying new things that put me outside of my comfort zone. And, I challenge myself as part of my personal development to learn, improve and experience new things. There’s a healthy amount of failure involved in doing that.

In recent years, I have picked up the piano, received scuba diving certification, and am now taking tennis lessons with my husband. I consider my serve right now pretty humbling, but I am going to just keep at it!

Q: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?

Happy to say that it’s been a while. These days, I’m able to avoid burn out by staying physically active and connected to my family.

Q: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.

Whenever I am being tough on myself, I think about the famed, fictional self-help character on SNL, “Stuart Smalley,” who would look in the mirror and say, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me!” It always makes me laugh and puts things in perspective.

I also always try to look at the bright side of things, even when situations are problematic. Like the Shakespeare play, I often say “all’s well that ends well”…things always seem to turn out ok in the end. I feel if we learn from an experience and produce a better outcome the next time – it is a success!

Q: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?

Like many of us, I have a mixed relationship with my phone. The best part of the tool is being able to stay in contact with my kids, who are in various cities, and my mother – who is quite the digitally savvy octogenarian!

I do use it as my alarm clock, but am thinking about breaking that habit. I avoid having my phone with me when I am at meals with friends or family, on hikes – and certainly in church!

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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