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Mentorship and Community Play Key Role in Success of Retail Leaders

Colleagues collaborate during a work session
[@MCKINSEY JORDAN/Stocksy United]

Dig into how mentorship and community has shaped the careers of a few decorated executives.

This is the second article in our Becoming Retail series, a new series authored by Rob Garf, vice president of strategy and insights for retail and consumer goods at Salesforce. It puts people at the heart of digital transformation.

In our inaugural installment, I wrote about how retail executives embrace six key leadership principles to successfully transform and grow their business. Here, I’ll drill down into the importance of leveraging the vast retail ecosystem, most notably the role mentorship and community has played in the careers of a few decorated executives.

Many of us have people in our professional lives that helped guide our careers. People who provided inspiration, helped us network, gave us a push when we needed it, and edged us out of our comfort zone. Mentors are especially instrumental in retail because it’s an industry that often draws life-long career commitment.

Leveraging mentors throughout your career

Jim Giantomenico, who served as CIO at Avenue Stores, Ashley Stewart, and Finlay Fine Jewelry, met his mentor, while interning in Sears’ computer operations center during his final semester of college. The mentor went on to work for May Department Stores, where he paved the way for Giantomenico to become a junior programmer and rise through the ranks for 13 years. 

“He gave me the chance to work there and he became my mentor for my entire career,” Giantomenico says. “The opportunities I’ve had to cross paths with peers and mentors over my career have been significant. The retail industry is vast but, in that way, it’s small.”

He’s also benefited, he says, from being engaged in organizations like the National Retail Federation, where he’s been a member of the CIO Council. Giantomenico has leveraged forums like this to provide him the opportunity to connect with peers for ongoing inspiration and learning.

I’ve learned just as much from bad leaders as the good ones …” Jon Kosoff | chief digital officer of Tilly’s

Learning from good and bad leaders

Jon Kosoff says building and leveraging the connections he’s made over the years is one of his proudest achievements. I witnessed this in action when he was an early member of Demandware’s Customer Advisory Board, where I was the chair. As the chief digital officer of Tilly’s, with previous leadership roles at Taco Bell, Hot Topic, bebe, and Wet Seal, he’s learned a lot from peers — not only about business and technology, but also about how to be a leader.

“I’ve learned just as much from bad leaders as the good ones,” he says, explaining that the good ones encourage and promote their teams’ accomplishments, something he does with his own team. “I’ve watched my team grow into different roles, with some even growing past me. That’s also something I’m proud of, on par with consistently growing revenue and profits, and something that’s helped me be a better and more effective retail leader.”

As I’ve previously noted it is critical for executives to motivate teams to make decisions and execute with accountability. We’ve seen those who embody this principle and empower people with tools and resources for sustained success. The most successful not only inspire their teams, but lean on their network of retail colleagues when they need advice they can trust.

When we in the retail community share ideas, it’s not like we’re sharing trade secrets. We are all trying to bring products to the consumer, which is a shared endeavor” Anne-Marie Blaire | chief digital office

Overlooking competitors to foster community

Take Anne-Marie Blaire as a prime example. She’s been chief digital officer of ECCO Shoes and Spain’s Grupo Cortefiel, along with being an ecommerce pioneer with Victoria’s Secret back in the day (including helming the groundbreaking 1999 livestream of its enormously popular fashion show). We first became friends when she joined the Spanish fashion retailer in 2014, amidst an ecommerce replatforming that was not yielding results.

“When I got into a bind, the first thing I did was call former colleagues and to find out who had the best ecommerce platform,” she says. “I had to convince a private equity firm and a board of directors that we needed a course correction, so I reached out to people I trusted to get help. When we in the retail community share ideas, it’s not like we’re sharing trade secrets. We are all trying to bring products to the consumer, which is a shared endeavor.”

Carrying forward lessons learned from an early mentor at Limited Brands (“a fabulous sponsor of my career”) Blaire instituted a celebratory culture in her team at Grupo Cortefiel, which (along with the replatform to Salesforce Commerce Cloud) enabled the team to more than double ecommerce revenue. “The team was involved in what was going to make us all successful,” she says.

What does this all boil down to? It shows that while technology is a key enabler, success, and digital transformation in retail is undoubtedly led by people. But it’s not led only by leaders at individual brands. It’s an amalgamation of every successful interaction that leader has had in their career. It’s the end result of all the experiences and engagement with the community that executives have contributed to and benefited from.

It’s unique in the business world and that’s why, as Giantomenico says, “… for many of us, when you get into retail, you stay there.”

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