3 Foundations to Great Retail Leadership
Updated: Nov 3
The following is adapted from Retail Pride.
There are hundreds, even thousands, of excellent books on leadership. These books include valuable lessons, but they all have the same problem: none of them focus on retail teams.
The brick-and-mortar retail world differs significantly from a typical corporate environment. As a retail leader, you’re not sitting at a desk all day. You’re on the ground, visiting stores, working with your team.
So if you’re a retail leader—or hope to become one—it can be difficult to learn how to improve yourself as a leader. The traditional advice doesn’t cut it, because the skills you need to develop are different from a corporate leader.
For the last twenty-five years, I have been lucky enough to work as a retail leader with some of the most influential brands in retail history, including GAP, Apple, Tory Burch, Bonobos, Saint Laurent, and INTERMIX. Based on my firsthand experience, I’ve discovered three foundations to great retail leadership.
#1: Have an Optimistic Attitude
The world doesn't need you to be like everyone else. You are amazing and unique, and you enjoy the fun that working in retail brings every day.
One of the most admirable attributes of great retail leaders is the abundant positivity that energizes everyone around them. It's not that they never have moments of frustration or disappointment, but they're able to take a positive approach and tackle challenging issues with ease and optimism.
The most optimistic and inspiring leaders know how to turn setbacks into successes. They make a point to display positive traits every day. When I reflect on the best leaders I have known, they consistently chose an optimistic approach.
Seeing challenges as opportunities rather than obstacles is one of the most critical qualities you can display with your team. The good news is that positivity seems to be in abundance in retail environments!
#2: Tell People What You Stand For
No matter their role, great retail leaders start by letting everyone know what they stand for. What does that mean? On the surface, it’s a simple question. However, what we stand for can often get crowded out by noise and other distractions. And I understand how many of those you have in one day in the store!
We get distracted by new technology. We get distracted by the pursuit of money. We get distracted by what others think, especially team members or customers. It’s too easy for our own thoughts about what we stand for to be drowned out by immediate priorities. That's when it's time to ask some tough questions.
Do I want to be known for my integrity? Do I want to be known for being understanding? Do I want to be known for being empathetic, curious, and focused? Do I want to be known as someone who gets things done and always delivers top sales? Do I want to be all of these and more?
When you decide what you want to stand for, your focus will tighten. You will have something firm and clear to aim at. It will become easier to ignore the noise and zero in on the things that matter. And people will know how to describe you.
#3: Be Known as Someone Who Gets Things Done
What do people think of you at work?
I don't know about you, but that question makes me feel a little insecure. I might say, "I don't know, they think well of me…I hope?"
We have all met someone who is always busy but rarely achieves their goals. It's easy to find people in every store rushing around from one idea to the next, often working overtime to generate more work for themselves and other people, but rarely taking the actions needed to finish a project.
That's why this is one of the foundations of great retail leadership: be known as someone who gets things done!
People who know how to get things done can be analytical and intuitive, aggressive or patient as required, and confident and humble at the same time. They instinctively know when and how to escalate issues to the right level without being asked to do so. They have a unique ability to cut through the confusion, get straight to the problem, and negotiate compromises to get better and likely faster results.
People who get things done are driven by an insatiable desire to make progress and help others. They are not looking to build a cache of favors or special attention and are unwilling to make deals that compromise the solutions that can come back to haunt them.
Of course, you can't control how other people think about you. But you can build a strong reputation for action by demonstrating to others that you are consistently in it to win it. Everyone likes being around people like that!
When in Doubt, Focus on People
In every business, leadership is about people, but nowhere is that more true than the retail industry.
As retail leaders, everything we do is about people. We create incredible experiences for our customers, and we work to inspire our teams. We are in the business of making connections.
Chances are, you already have strong people skills. It may even be what drew you to this career in the first place.
To be the best leader you can be, keep that focus on people. Be optimistic, tell people what you stand for, and be known for getting things done, and you will be able to build the kind of powerful relationships that inspire and get results.
For more advice on being a retail leader, you can find Retail Pride on Amazon.
Ron Thurston loves retail. And he's proud of it. Ron has led the retail teams for some of America's most prominent brands, inspired thousands of store employees, and traveled relentlessly across the country to sit and listen to what they have to say. From a part-time sales associate to a vice president of stores, Ron has put in the hard work that a retail career requires and wrote this book to share what he learned along the way. Ron is a fourth-generation Californian, but he and his husband now live in Manhattan.