How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes recovering from a stroke

June 14, 2010: 3:33 PM ET

Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes delivered the news herself this morning: "I suffered a stroke a few weeks ago, and I am now in the process of recuperating," she said in a statement released by the company.

The news is shocking, not just because Barnes is only 56 years old. She has always looked and seemed younger than her years. And while she always has taken her job seriously, she has never taken her position too seriously for her own good.

Barnes, who ranks No. 10 on Fortune's Most Powerful Women list, has never gotten consumed by her career. Or at least when she did, she did something about it. This is the woman who famously, in 1997 after 22 years at PepsiCo (PEP), quit her job as CEO of Pepsi-Cola North America to be a better mom. Being the most powerful woman in the consumer-goods industry--which she was, based on revenues--didn't matter as much as being there for her three kids.

A year later in 1998, Fortune put Barnes, then 44, on its inaugural MPWomen list, at No. 44. Even though she lacked a 9-to-5 executive gig, she turned herself into one of America's most desired corporate directors. She joined the boards of Avon (AVP), the New York Times (NYT), Sears (SHLD), George Lucas' Lucasfilm, Staples (SPLS) and Starwood Hotels (HOT), where in a management pinch, she stepped up to interim president, reluctantly.

All the while, Barnes was scanning the corporate universe to determine where she might eventually return in a full-time position. Living in Illinois, where she grew up, she also taught for a while at Kellogg Graduate School of Management. I recall going to speak to her class, and Barnes telling her students that the time to consider changing a career is when you don't desire a move up to the next-highest position.

She ended up joining Sara Lee (SLE) in 2004 as president and COO and moving up to CEO a year later. She knew she faced a huge challenge, remaking a consumer conglomeration that sold everything from Hanes hosiery to hot dogs. But amidst the recession and spikes in commodity costs, it's surely been more difficult than she had envisioned. After selling billions of dollars worth of assets and cutting the workforce, Sara Lee stock is down 35% from February 2005, when she took over.

Even with friends, Barnes is intensely private. So it's not so surprising that neither she nor Sara Lee is disclosing how serious her stroke was or whether she's likely to return to the company. The company announced this morning that it will give an update on or before its August 12 end-of-year earnings call.

"She's recuperating and on the mend," Sara Lee communications boss John Harris told me today. "Recovering from a stroke can be a very long process," he added. When he spoke with Barnes last week, he said, she was in "good spirits."

That's encouraging. Barnes' three children, two sons and a daughter, have been helping her through her ordeal. We wish her a fast and full recovery.

Join the Conversation
Fortune's Most Powerful Women
Fortune's Most Powerful Women For the latest on the most influential women in business, philanthropy, government, and the arts, like us on Facebook.
Guest Posts
Fortune Most Powerful Women Fortune Most Powerful Women The rolodex that redefined power
Profile in The Washington Post
Sheryl Sandberg: Sheryl Sandberg: Don't leave before you leave
COO of Facebook
Wendy Clark Wendy Clark Exec learns firsthand how the homeless live
SVP of the Global Sparkling Brand Center at Coca-Cola
Marissa Mayer's 3 biggest decisions as Yahoo CEO With company stock up over 100% since she began running the company 16 months ago, Mayer reflects on her choices to date. Watch
Chelsea Clinton on running for office: 'I don't know' The vice chairman of the Clinton Foundation talks about her diverse career path and growing up in the spotlight. Watch
About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

Email Pattie Sellers | Welcome to Postcards.
Follow Pattie | email newsletter
MPWomen go Global

The Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership brings rising-star women from countries around the world to the U.S. for three-week mentorships with participants of the annual Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit - among them Ursula Burns of Xerox, Laura Lang of Time Inc., Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, and Tory Burch.

Read more

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by VIP.