Whether you’re a CEO fashioning the largest tween specialty retailer in the world, an executive designing a turnaround to save a major international jewelry corporation about to close its doors, or a college student preparing to enter the workforce, the chief motivator for attracting and retaining top talent is shifting from profit to purpose.
That was a key takeaway for the audience listening in on a conversation among two former retail giants and an academic leader charged with educating the future leaders who will create competitive advantage in a disrupted industry. Capital University Provost and Vice President for Learning Jody Fourier, Ph.D., joined Theo Killion, former CEO of Zale, and Michael Rayden, former CEO of Limited Too, Justice and Brothers, for a CEO Insights Panel discussion on Workforce and Talent at Retail Summit 2017, held in August at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
The event, presented by Franklin County and the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, attracted top retail and supporting industry talent from across the country to Columbus for a two-day conference. The summit presented thoughtful dialogue on the industry’s most pressing and future-focused issues, including marketing, logistics, disruption, analytics, the future of bricks and mortar and more.
– Michael Rayden
The panel, moderated by Storyforge co-founder Haley Boehning, discussed the proficiencies today’s retail workforce needs more of (the ability to learn, ask the right questions and stay curious), and what companies are looking for most in up-and-comers (creatives of all types, digital strategists, full-funnel marketers, and ecommerce everything). Exchanging insights they have gleaned from years of executive experience, Killion and Rayden, with Fournier, suggested how the culture should change to fully leverage Millennials and overlooked talent pools like omnifessionals — professionals who comfortably float across roles and divisions, adding value to their assigned team — to compete in an industry increasingly dominated by Amazon and WalMart.
Fournier’s advice: engage young employees early and often in meaningful projects in and out of work — experiences that will impact them, and create impact in the communities they care about. In recent years, Fournier has seen a change in students’ interests from their earliest interactions with Capital. There has been a decided broadening of interests — a desire to create their own unique path to an education, career and life of impact and meaning. This generation of learners pursues meaning with an urgency, a seriousness and a “Why Can’t I?” approach he has seldom seen in higher education, he said.
“They come to us knowing they want to be a nurse or a mathematician. They know they need a career. But they want more than that. They’re asking, ‘Yeah, I want to hear about how you’re going to help me get a degree, but I also want to hear about how you’re going to help me change the world. How are you going to help me solve problems in my community?,” Fournier said. “It’s almost like a second Renaissance with these students. And it’s really encouraging. If you read about the future of work, and many of you are experiencing this right now, these students are looking for purpose. It’s not enough for them to offer or create a product; they’re looking for that experience, and it’s got to be something that’s meaningful, that’s going to help them fulfill their purpose in the world.”
Rayden, who has led Tween Brands, Limited Too, Justice, Pacific Sunwear of California and other major retail brands, agreed that the newest generation is more attuned to its need for meaningful work, but said profit has rarely ever been sole motivation for retail’s strongest brands and their employees.
“I think there are three key things that Millennials want — one is job flexibility, they want the ability to learn, and they want purpose. But I don’t think Millennials are the only ones who want purpose. I think every generation wants purpose,” Rayden said.
Acknowledging the other P, profit, Rayden didn’t shy away from the reality that successful enterprise requires profit. But there’s room, he said, for other drivers. And the greater their impact on societal good, the more powerful their engine.
“I remember [L Brands chairman and CEO] Les [Wexner] telling me there is nothing undemocratic about making a profit, and that is true. You have to make a profit in order to thrive and go forward,” Rayden recalled. “But we learned at Justice, which was a tween girls business, that it wasn’t enough among our population of employees and associates just to have a profit motive. We tried to decide what a better motive was — we called it ‘our noble purpose.’ Over many conversations with associates and lots of mothers of young girls, what came up over and over again was the self-esteem of young girls. We realized how important the matriarchal portion of our society is in the development of our children, and the way we do things in our society. We knew that it all started with these 8-, 9- and 10-year-old girls, so we set about the noble mission of making that — building the self-esteem of young girls — our noble purpose. Above payroll and compensation and corporate events and all of the other cultural things that you do in an organization, people work for a purpose. And it became the driving force in our business.”
Connecting individuals and organizations to purpose and leveraging that fuel to drive innovation is one thing. But what if a once-thriving business is in a significant decline? Can purpose power a corporate pivot? Using a different turn a phrase from Rayden’s “noble purpose,” Killion called it “finding the emotional high ground,” and experienced the power of a purpose-motivated workforce when he crafted a sparkling turnaround for Zale Corporation. When the former human resources executive became CEO of Zale in January 2010, the company was about to close its doors. Two years of losses, hundreds of millions in stock-option buy-backs and years of transient leadership had weakened the company — fundamentally altering the identity Zales enjoyed in its heyday.
Capital University Provost and Vice President for Learning Jody Fourier, Ph.D., joined Theo Killion, former CEO of Zale, and Michael Rayden, former CEO of Limited Too, Justice and Brothers, for a CEO Insights Panel discussion on Workforce and Talent at Retail Summit 2017, held in August at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
Killion inverted the leadership pyramid, putting the guest, or the customer, on top and the CEO on the bottom, and telling hero stories about the people in the position to have the greatest impact the customer — the sales associates who were doing everything right. By raising them up, telling their stories, knowing their names, celebrating their accomplishments, caring about their families and treating them with respect, Killion built an arc that connected him, as the CEO, to the customer via the sales associate.
“And then we had to start about thinking about the kind of business we were in. Life and love are about celebration. We exist to make those celebrations last forever — that’s our emotional high-ground. The purpose became being a part of [the guest’s] celebration. Listening to them talking about him or her, the color of their hair, the color of their eyes, what the event was, how they met, what the birth of the child was. And the last thing you talked about after 20 minutes of talking was buying a piece of jewelry. So, in a short period of time, we created an environment where people started to have a sense of pride in their organization.”
Killion built a culture of pride rooted in a deep commitment to the customer, freedom to relate to them as humans, and empowerment to connect people with a permanent symbol of a moment of joy in an all-too-fleeting life. Appealing to their emotional high-ground helped Killion fuel a corporate turnaround that took Zale Corp. from the brink of bankruptcy in 2010 to posting an annual profit and tripling stock prices in 2013.
Rayden awakened employees’ sense of empowerment to positively impact society by building confidence in young girls at the exact age they start to doubt themselves. Connecting his associates’ work to this noble purpose, Rayden built successful brands and self-confidence in young people. But to be successful, the executives said, purpose must flow throughout an organization, and it must be real.
“People work for a purpose,” Rayden said. “The noble purpose became the driving force for our business, it helped our recruitment, and it really separated us from others in this city, where there is so much retail, and where balance of life didn’t exist in most businesses. We knew our associates couldn’t build self-esteem in their daughters if they didn’t have time to spend with her and teach her. So, when you do purpose, you have to have it all the way across your entire business. You have to truly believe in it.”
“When people join companies, and work for people, they want to know they’re working for people who do good work and have meaningful businesses,” Killion concurred. “When we started doing charitable events again, we gave money to every district in the country and said, ‘You give money in your community to the things you believe are important.’ And what that did was create this incredible potpourri of charities that were meaningful to people in those communities. And people became part of their communities in a different way.”
Purpose. Noble purpose. Emotional high ground. It all connects directly to what Dr. Fourier was explaining, Killion said. “Those are the kinds of things that unlock the potential in people.”