Make It

Feeding America's CEO Shares the ‘Transformative' Advice That Changed Her Career

Photo: Courtesy of Southern Methodist University, Hillsman S. Jackson

As the CEO of Feeding America – the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States – Claire Babineaux-Fontenot has been on the frontlines of the country's ongoing food insecurity crisis. 

According to the USDA, more than 38 million people in the United States are food insecure. In 2020 alone, Feeding America reports that at least 60 million people in the United States turned to food banks, food pantries, and other community food programs for help feeding themselves and their families.

Before joining Feeding America in 2018, the Louisiana native spent 13 years at Walmart, where she was the first Black woman to serve as the company's vice president of audits and tax policy. Throughout her career, Babineaux-Fontenot has relied on wisdom from her favorite books and business leaders to help her succeed. 

CNBC Make It spoke with the CEO about the career advice that changed her life and how young professionals can build happy, fulfilling careers. 

'Always assume good intentions'

The best piece of career advice Babineaux-Fontenot ever received didn't come from a person – she discovered it in an essay from the 1970s.

Earlier in her career, the 57-year-old reveals she spent "too much energy" on wishing that people would "do things differently or act a certain way." Then she read "The Servant as a Leader" by Robert K. Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive who outlined a leadership approach focused on serving others, including employees, customers and community, first. 

The main lesson Babineaux-Fontenot has carried with her is the importance of empathy in the workplace. "I had a big, eye-opening epiphany after reading that," she says. "Always assume good intentions of your co-workers, that people want to work together to do good." 

Babineaux-Fontenot says this pivot in thinking has been "transformative" in her work and life. "Now, I try to understand to the extent that I can how people are wired, then help to create environments where, however they define winning, we can win together – and we should all try to do that." 

'Invest in understanding who you are'

Before you chase a promotion or embark on a new career path, it's important to deeply understand who you are and what makes you happy, Babineaux-Fontenot says. 

"Society will tell you all kinds of things about who you're supposed to be and what you're supposed to want, but the people I know that are really happy, no matter what their job is, are the ones pursuing happiness as they would define it," she adds. 

Figuring out what your dream life – and career – looks like can be a daunting task, but asking yourself the following questions are a good place to start: "Who do I wish to be and be known as three to five years from now? What do I want people to say about me when I'm not in a room?"

In that question, Babineaux-Fontenot says you shouldn't be solving for a job title, but rather the qualities you aspire to have and be known for. "When I asked myself that question many years ago, my answer was that I wished to be a transformative leader who helps people," she says. 

The answer you land on should help you figure out what steps you need to take to land your dream job and any changes you need to make in your life to feel happier and more fulfilled. "There's so many opportunities to do all kinds of fabulous things in this life," Babineaux-Fontenot says. "Sometimes it might take the rest of the world a little time to catch up with you – but don't lose sight of who you are."

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