Women of the C-Suite: “Women need to take credit for what they do and advocate for themselves,” with Linda Zink of Atkins Nutritionals

Linda has been with Atkins Nutritionals, Inc. for six years and has been instrumental in developing new products and bringing them to market, as well as reformulating current products, all backed by robust consumer research. In 2017, Atkins Nutritionals, Inc. merged with Conyers Park Acquisition Corp. to become The Simply Good Foods Company, and the […]

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Linda has been with Atkins Nutritionals, Inc. for six years and has been instrumental in developing new products and bringing them to market, as well as reformulating current products, all backed by robust consumer research. In 2017, Atkins Nutritionals, Inc. merged with Conyers Park Acquisition Corp. to become The Simply Good Foods Company, and the SimplyProtein™ brand originating in Canada, has become one of its newest ventures to bring to the United States. Linda has spearheaded the reformulation and U.S. expansion of the SimplyProtein line of products, overseeing the innovation, research and development for the brand. Previously, Linda was at WhiteWave Foods Company for seven years where she was responsible for developing and commercializing incremental and margin accretive platforms for both the existing Horizon Organic brand and new brands, among other roles. With a seasoned career in consumer packaged goods, she previously held positions at The Clorox Company, Bath & Body Works, The Kellogg Company, and more. Linda holds a BBA in Marketing and an MBA from University of Michigan.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’d like to say that I’ve made very deliberate choices that led me to my current role, but that’s not really the case. I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan and had never thought about a career in business — I was an art major — but applied on a dare. And well, once I was accepted I decided that I should check it out. Business, and more specifically marketing, was a natural fit for me and I was hooked. My career has been a bit like that — not a series of dares — but a desire to follow my interests and a curiosity about why people do the things they do. I have had many different roles in different types of companies, all of them rooted in consumer behavior, innovation, and marketing, that have led me to my current role.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I joined Atkins and began to learn about the history, the science, and the current consumer, I was puzzled as to why more people weren’t engaging with the brand. I learned that there were a lot of misconceptions about Atkins and what eating low-carb actually looks like. Because Atkins began in a medical practice, the approach was a bit too restrictive for the average person who wanted to lose some weight or even just eat healthier. I quickly realized that the way to make Atkins more accessible was to make the eating approach easier to understand and follow. I worked with Colette Heimowitz, our VP of Nutrition & Education, and developed an easier, more inclusive eating approach called Atkins 40 and it’s definitely expanded our reach. As more and more Americans are watching their carbs, we want to continue to be the leader in educating them on the best approach.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ll lead with the lesson I learned early on and continue to learn — your mistakes don’t define you, the way you recover and deal with them does.

Earlier in my career at Kellogg’s, I had the opportunity to work with the Latin American division. Wanting to make a good impression, I decided to learn a few Spanish phrases. After being introduced to the President of Kellogg’s, Latin America and managing not to mangle the general greetings, I became a bit overconfident and ventured into chatting about the weather. It was a hot and humid day, so I commented “Soy caliente.” Everyone in the group chuckled and the president smiled and politely said “Yes, but I think you meant to say tengo calor.” You can do the translation. I acknowledged my mistake, corrected it, and moved on. And that’s how I handle any mistake.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The Simply Good Foods Company is a mission-based company and so are each of our brands. There’s so much strength and passion that comes with that. Atkins is dedicated to helping people eat right, not less, and live healthier lives every day through advocacy, education, innovation, and products. There are so many positive consumer stories — people sharing how following Atkins has changed their lives for the better — beyond weight loss, they get off medication, become more active parents, and live happier. Those stories drive us and inspire us every day. SimplyProtein is a female-founded brand that strives to bring simple, clean snacking to individuals, and make things simpler when life is complicated. The social campaign of #SimplyU is about empowering people with motivation, tips, recipes and hacks to help simplify and enjoy life.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Because we are a mission-based company, we operate with purpose. Most Americans are trying to eat less sugar and fewer carbs, and we are delivering products that they enjoy and can feel good about eating. As we innovate for our consumer on both of our brands, we focus on giving them products that taste great and help them meet their nutritional goals. We listen to what they want and need, and we work to deliver.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Cultivate and reward curiosity. It’s the driving force behind continuous improvement in all aspects of business and life. Curious teams are highly-engaged, always learning, listening and sharing.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Start with knowing your team. And that includes yourself. Acknowledge the collective strengths and opportunities. Leverage the strengths and develop or hire to fill the gaps. No one does everything well, so choose people who complement each other and create a well-rounded, diverse team. I can develop an overarching plan, but am not the best at delivering on all the details needed to achieve that plan — so I make sure that there are people on my team with that strength.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve worked for many leaders in my career and they’ve all had an effect in helping me get to where I am. Some have shown me the kind of leader I aspire to be, while others have shown me the kind of leader I don’t want to be and I’m grateful to all of them.

In particular, Joe Scalzo, the CEO of Atkins (and the former CEO of WhiteWave Foods, where I spent 7 years) has been particularly influential in my career. Early into our working relationship, he saw that I had potential beyond the role I had at the time and encouraged me to take on a broader role. It was a stretch, but I was successful and never looked back. That single move changed the trajectory of my career and gave me a broader perspective on how to identify and develop talent.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Aside from bringing some really great products to the market, my hope is that I positively influence the generations of women and men coming after me. I have benefitted greatly from the women that came before me and had to fight much harder battles than I could ever imagine, but there’s still much to be done. Whether it’s mentoring people in business, working with women in college to help them hone their interviewing skills, or getting involved with an organization like Junior Achievement, getting out there, sharing experiences and encouraging others can make a huge difference in someone’s life.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Say yes and take some chances

Challenge yourself. Stretch yourself. You’ll rise to the occasion and it will be how you grow and realize step changes in your career. And in your life.

2. Say no and set boundaries

Like many women, I was raised to be a “pleaser” and I’ve had bosses and co-workers take advantage of that trait. On one occasion, my boss asked me to change a vacation day to accommodate a meeting. I was about to do it and mentioned it to a co-worker who asked “Isn’t that your daughter’s birthday? Why would you change that?” And it struck me that the meeting was not more important. In fact, nothing short of financial failure was more important. It was a definitive a-ha moment for me. I told my boss that I would not be able to change the day. Importantly, I didn’t explain or apologize. And all was right with the world.

3. It’s ok if not everyone likes you

This may have been the hardest lesson for me to learn. I moved across the country to take a senior position with a major CPG company, managing a very large group that needed to be reinvigorated. I had to make some difficult and unpopular decisions about people and structure. For a time, I was not very popular (I may have been referred to as one of the witches from the Wizard of Oz — and it wasn’t the good one). But, as both individual and team performance improved, it was clear the decisions had been good and the nickname faded away.

4. Advocate for yourself

During a lunch-and-learn at a previous company, one of the female board members spoke about women in business. As she spoke, she repeatedly said “I did this..” and “I did that.” Midway through the lunch, she stopped and asked how many people were uncomfortable with the fact that she spoke about herself and used “I’ instead of “we.” Most people raised their hand and her response was “Get over it.” Obviously, she went to the extreme to make the point and it’s important to recognize the team, but her point was true. Women need to take credit for what they do and advocate for themselves.

5. Cultural fit is important

Companies have a culture and a personality. And the relationship you have with your company is as important and as unique as any personal relationship you have. Find a culture where you can thrive. A few companies ago, I joined a very traditional Fortune 100 firm that was interested in creating a more consumer-driven culture. Even though the challenge was exactly what I was looking for, culturally it was not a good fit and there was a lot of frustration on both sides. Round peg, square hole so to speak. Cultural fit is important.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I love this question. Embracing diversity. I’m not talking about tolerance, but true acceptance. And I mean diversity in every sense of the word. When you embrace people of different backgrounds, races, religions, sexual orientations, ages, and so on… there is the obvious benefit of representation. But beyond that, the diversity of thought and the power that comes from that can lead to transformational innovation — in business, politics, and life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I think so many people, and especially women, believe that they need to be perfect in whatever they do and that often keeps them from participating fully. Waiting to speak until they have the perfect thought. Early in my career, I was in a meeting with several senior leaders and we were discussing ways to improve the business. I had an idea but was nervous to share it in front of that group. Not because I didn’t think it was a good idea, but because I didn’t have the time to think through all the pros and cons and present it in a tight, cohesive manner. So while I was thinking it through and trying to come up with the best way to share it, the most senior person in the room shared the exact idea I had. I could have kicked myself. Missed opportunity. Since then, I’ve really focused on speaking up, in the moment and not waiting for things to be “perfect.” It’s important to note that I’m not encouraging mediocrity here. Always strive to be your best — work hard, be prepared, and be really good.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Has this ever happened? And can it be a private conversation over red wine? No question — Shonda Rhimes. Have you ever played the game “Best Friend in My Head?” She’s mine. Shonda is a powerhouse in an insanely competitive industry. She’s stayed relevant in a fickle business and kept her wicked sense of humor through it all. I love that she admits, maybe even delights, in that fact that she’s driven and competitive. I remember being in a team activity many years ago and we had to describe each person with one word. I received more than a few “competitive” comments, some I’m sure some meant it as a criticism. I took each one as a compliment. And I’m pretty sure she would too.

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