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

Sara Lee CEO Barnes' letter about her stroke

August 9, 2010: 3:52 PM ET

Brenda Barnes, who suffered a stroke in May, is permanently stepping down from her CEO role at Sara Lee (SLE).

Today's announcement resolves part of the deep mystery that has swirled around Barnes' recovery and Sara Lee's future. As for the latter, the board has begun a search for a new CEO -- and reportedly retained Egon Zehnder International to lead it, though the company hasn't confirmed the recruiter's identity. As for Barnes, who is 56, she is improving significantly following two months in the hospital and rehab. Sara Lee SVP of Global
Communications Jon Harris had dinner with Barnes and her kids last week at her home in the Chicago suburbs. "She's on the mend," he told me today.

Below is the letter that Barnes sent to Sara Lee employees this morning. I hear that she did write it herself. As she says, she's long viewed her life in chapters -- and indeed, she became CEO of Sara Lee in 2005 after quitting a high-flying career at PepsiCo (PEP) and taking several years off to chill, go on boards, and spend time with her family. Now Barnes is managing through a chapter that is "certainly not one of my favorites," she says. No. 10 on Fortune's Most Powerful Women list is using all her strength to focus on her recovery.

As you know by now, I have decided to step down as Chairman and CEO of Sara Lee.  At this time, it is important for me to put all of my efforts toward improving my health as I recover from my stroke.

The past eleven weeks have been challenging, but I can tell you that I consider myself quite lucky to have the support of a strong network of friends and the greatest family anyone could ever ask for. I also have great colleagues at Sara Lee, and I cannot thank you enough for the support and well wishes you have given me during this time. It really does make a difference in the recovery process.

Words cannot describe the feelings I have for each of you and what working alongside you for the past six and a half years has meant to me.  I am so proud of what we accomplished together and how we did this in a very challenging economic and competitive climate.

In our time together, we defined Sara Lee's mission, vision and values; created innovative products that are enjoyed by millions of consumers around the world; built a strong reputation; and we made our company a great place to work.  We've made Sara Lee a company that you can be proud to work for, a company where you have the opportunity to regularly contribute and make a difference.  And, you do this every single day.

I really would have liked to have stayed on this journey together longer, but that wasn't meant to be.  But I want you to know how confident I am in each of you in building on the success we have created to date.  I'll be cheering you on and watching your continued success on this exciting journey.

It was always my goal to make sure that we had strong leadership throughout the organization.  I ask that you continue to fully support the Senior Management Team (SMT) and the strategies and plans they have in place.  I cannot think of a better management team and board of directors to lead this organization through its next phase.

I also ask the SMT to continue to listen and be open to ideas from all levels of the organization.  I've often said that the best ideas come from those closest to the work.

As Sara Lee continues on its path to success, I will be taking another path on my personal journey.  I've always looked at my life as a book, with each experience a new chapter.  This chapter is certainly not one of my favorites, but it is only one of many.  I look forward to all of the chapters in front of me, and the wonderful times ahead as I continue to make great progress in my recovery.

I wish you and yours the best of happiness, health, luck and great success in all the exciting chapters in front of you.  I hope to see you in the not too distant future.

Best regards,


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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.

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