Tami Heim is a partner in The A Group – Brand Development, a technology, marketing, and media agency in Nashville, Tennessee. She has responsibility for integrated technology, social media, marketing, and strategic branding.
From 2005–09 she was executive vice president and chief publishing officer for Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Prior to that, she was with Borders Books from 1996–04, the last four years as president. When she left Borders in 2004, the company had had their most profitable year in history.
From 1980–96, Ms. Heim held various positions with Federated Department Stores, including general manager and division vice president for Lazarus Department Stores (1989–94), regional vice president for Lazarus/Riches/Goldsmiths (1994–96). After leaving Federated, the company combined all of its stores under the common name of Macy’s.
She is the author of one book and a frequent speaker on issues of technology and the media.
She has a bachelor of science in retail management from Purdue University in 1980.
This Conversation took place between Tami Heim and Al Erisman in Nashville, Tennessee, October 10, 2011. In November, Tami accepted the position as CEO of the nonprofit Christian Leadership Alliance, a position that she began in January 2012.
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Ethix: You are presently a partner with the A Group. But you have had senior positions with Macy’s, Borders, and Thomas Nelson. You have been in retail, bookselling, and book publishing. Tell us how you got here.
Tami Heim: It’s a continuation of a long journey that I have been on since graduating from college. I graduated from Purdue University with a degree in management, determined to pursue a career in retail.
I spent the first 22 years of my career with Federated Department Stores. By the time I left, I was overseeing two different divisions. It was a time when the company had strong geographic boundaries and each division had its own nameplate. I thought I would be with Federated forever. I loved the company and business. I received the best leadership management training in the industry. I served there during the ‘80s and the ‘90s when there was a lot of consolidation, and I learned much from the challenge of leading during periods of massive change.
The Business of Books
Then in August of 1996, I got a call from Borders Group. They were new, exploding in growth, and looking to add senior leadership to support future expansion. I loved their stores and spent at least one night each weekend in one of the ones in the Indianapolis area. They reached out to me, but it took me six months for me to decide to finally leave Federated.
I started at Borders as the territorial vice president for the west half of the country in December of 1996. I spent the next seven years in big-box specialty retail. The last four years there I served as president.
I stepped down from my position at Borders in March of 2004. We had a strong year and profitable year. In fact it was the last profitable year in Borders’ history. My daughter was a senior in high school, and I’d never experienced the joy of being a stay-at-home mom. Through a series of other personal events that happened that year, I felt called to step down and be present to all that was happening in her life. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made and I am forever grateful for the quality time we shared. I would not change a day of it.
In the fall, it was time for my daughter to go away to school at Ohio University. Soon after she left, I accepted the position of EVP and chief publishing officer for Thomas Nelson Publishers in Nashville, Tennessee.
I remained at Thomas Nelson four years. While there I witnessed all the changes that had happened in bookselling begin to ripple through publishing. Digital content development and social media were radically altering how people were able to publish and make a message known.
I left Thomas Nelson in April of 2009. I enjoyed a brief time out of the corporate scene and fully immersed in the planning of my daughter’s wedding. Later that summer, I connected with Maurilio Amorim, the CEO of The A Group (TAG). We had worked on a couple of projects together while I was at Thomas Nelson. I respected him, but had no idea the breadth and depth of capabilities within his organization.
I quickly realized TAG had the unique ability to occupy a sweet spot in the industry. With technology, marketing, and the literary representation under one roof, they had the potential to focus on “message” and brand development in a way authors, agents, and publishers were not able to at this time. Maurilio asked me to help with the integration and refine the branding component for the company. It was an irresistible invitation. Uniquely positioned to fill a gap, today we navigate the waters and accelerate innovative responses to the high velocity change that’s rocking the industry.
The Consulting Role
In this capacity, you are no longer managing people and organizations. You can offer your skills but it is up to someone else whether your work gets used. What are the plusses and the minuses in this kind of role?
It has been quite an adjustment because professionally I have always led a corporate team and owned the responsibility for the outcome. Probably the most challenging part of consulting is that you work hard and use all your experience, but the client makes the final decision whether or not they’re going to implement your recommendations. Sometimes they do and it’s great.
Sometimes, they don’t and it’s extremely painfully. You want to say, “Please learn from my mistakes. I’ve been down this road before. Let me help you get it right the first time.” It’s a major adjustment for me to pour my heart into a strategy and then not be involved in leading the execution of it. This role certainly challenges the way I am wired.
I am energized by the variety of people we work with: authors, organizations, publishers, and agents. I am passionate about the different ways that we add value. This is an extremely entrepreneurial position. We’re small but we’re mighty. We turn projects around quickly. Our programmers and designers love to do what’s never been done. It’s a very energizing environment and we often see things that other people aren’t seeing right now.
Let’s talk about books.
Yes, I love books!
I do too. I have a room that demonstrates my love of books. It doesn’t matter how many bookshelves I build, there are still piles of books.
Books and the Internet
But the business model for books started unraveling with the Internet. One step came with Amazon, which offered the proposition, “You don’t have to go into a bookstore to buy something you can buy on the Internet.” Did that affect life in a book company like Borders?
Amazon made its big splash while I was at Borders in 1998. We knew the Internet was gaining traction and everyone was trying to size and predict the change that was coming. We chose to relegate the developmental of our Internet distribution to a small tech group within the organization. We asked them to figure out this “online stuff.” We basically selected an off-the-shelf product to build our Internet platform.
Candidly, Amazon was irritating. I would go to my bookstores and find they had placed their promotional fliers in our books. They had trucks sitting outside the bookstores wrapped with Amazon logos. In San Francisco, next to one of our larger flagship stores, Amazon used the whole side of the building that our store overlooked as a gigantic advertisement for the biggest bookstore on earth.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have a presence on the Web because we were so consumed managing the operations of our brick stores across the nation. When I was told I would become the next president in 2000, I was not aware at the time the assignment would include the online component. From a holistic brand perspective it was absolutely the right to do.
During those early days, Forrester Research published a report that said, in essence, “You’re only going to be as good as the worst customer experience you offer, whether it is an in-store or online experience. We knew we were way behind online. Then The Wall Street Journal released an article with the headline, “Borders – Slackers in the Internet Space.” Not the kind of headline that does a president’s heart good. It carried with it the kind of pain that accelerates change.
Our Internet losses were high, we were behind in technology, and Amazon was growing rapidly. We fiddled with the technology side of the business for a year just to see if we might be able to stop the bleeding, but we couldn’t. In April 2001, we inked a partnership with Amazon.
It was radical because that kind of partnership had never been done before. People thought it was crazy but we were able to negotiate a deal that provided the best of Amazon technology, healthy freedom with our digital footprint, and a significantly unique competitive advantage.
At that time we owned the distinction as the best-in-breed for our in-store experience. We had the highest return on net assets and the highest productivity by store. Amazon garnered the best-in-breed online. The idea to align the best experiences in bookselling and buying was compelling. We joined forces and introduced a concept called “retail convergence.” The plan was to make books available anywhere and anytime customers wanted them. We created an in-store kiosk called Title Sleuth. People came into our stores and did their own titles searches. Then they chose how they wanted to buy and receive the product. Books could be shipped to their home or picked up in a local store. Regardless of the decision the customer made, we wanted to deliver an amazing experience and hear our registers ring.
The plan was to make books available anywhere and anytime customers wanted them.
When I left Borders, the Internet division was contributing the highest percent of net income to revenue compared to all our other divisions. When I left in 2004, the stock price was at five-year high. We had positive comparable store growth, and the biggest revenue year in the history of the chain.
Another technology trend is devices that allow you to search and record. So, some customers will go in to a Borders or Barnes & Noble with their devices, browse the books and identify the ones they want, and then order it off the Internet.
How do you deal with a business model where your customers use you and don’t buy from you?
That was the whole idea of retail convergence. When I was at Borders in that early day, our vision recognized that people would browse in our store and then buy online. What matter to us was to be in the best position to capture their purchase. Today, a consumer has so many more options.
There are five driving forces in retail: product, price, accessibility, experience, and service. To do well, a retailer must dominate in one of these five, and at least be competitive in two of them.
When you look at bookstores today, they no longer can compete based on assortment as compared to their online competitors. A bookstore has finite shelf space while Amazon and other Internet providers have unlimited virtual shelves. Seven million products are available through Amazon. A book superstore may only have 125,000 titles.
Ease of shopping and convenience have also been claimed by the online retailers. Today can order a book on your phone, iPad, or PC. How easy is that? With the birth of e-books, now even the actual content is delivered immediately. The price? In our wired world today, it’s easy to find the best price possible online for anything you want to buy.
Looking for an Edge
What remains as possible a competitive distinctive? There are two attributes from this list of five: the quality of personal customer service and the overall shopping experience. Sadly, in economically stressed times, these are the exact two that are most compromised.
It’s not unusual to find at a major book chain a huge line and a whole bank of unattended registers. That creates a frustration that completely detracts from the experience. With great attention on Internet and digital interaction, there is still a need for an extraordinary, wow, face-to-face experience. Most booksellers are not willing to increase those variable expenses to create a distinctive experience.
I wish I could say, “I’m really hopeful about the future of print books and traditional book stores.” I’m not. Last Christmas, we saw Amazon report e-books out-selling print books two to one. This Christmas there will be more digital reading devises hitting the market and with that another major shift will occur.
So, e-books are the next disruption of the business model? It used to be that I could order it from Amazon but I wouldn’t get the book for a few days, whereas, I could pick it up from my local bookstore right now. But now I can download it immediately through my Kindle, Nook, iPad, or the like.
That’s right. And we will see more and more “enhanced” e-book experiences being introduced. You will be able to go deeper on an e-reader via links within the text. Those links will take you to rich background content in print, video, and audio formats.
You can also search. When I am writing something and want to include a quote from a book, I can search for it to get it right.
Correct. It is easy now and will continue to get easier. The sales of iPads and Kindles keep exploding. Kindle is becoming an incredibly important addition to a person’s suite of electronic products. It no longer matters if you are a digital immigrant and that your children are digital natives. The technology and interface is so easy – anyone can use it.
Print on Demand
There is another technology trend that seems to have been by-passed. A while back there was the idea of a bookstore could have just one copy of a book, and a very powerful print capability. When someone bought the copy of the book from the shelf, it would trigger the printer to create another copy. That would save on transportation, storage, and shipping. But this never seemed to catch on.
The issue was cost. We looked into that technology when I was at Borders. We envisioned what it would look like to have print on demand available in-store. We imagined a customer walking into a boutique setting, selecting a book, and enjoying a cup of coffee while his or her book was being printed and bound. In the end, it was too expensive and not practical to execute.
Now, however, the print on demand capability is working well for publishers. They are using it to rationalize their working capital. They can send a digital file to a printer like Ingram’s Lightning Source, print what they need when they need it, and not tie up financial investment in inventory.
But, print on demand also works against the publisher. Authors now have access to this same capability. In fact, through Amazon, an author can get professional cover design, editorial, and the production of a book via print-on-demand. Plus authors who self-publish now have access to Amazon distribution.
Role of the Publisher
Isn’t there another problem in the publishing area? As a consumer, I can come to trust a publisher and recognize that the book has had an editor, been carefully reviewed, and is judged worthy by some standards. When I am confronted with a large collection of self-published books, how do I sort through to find the gems?
We live in a wired world. People are spending 110 billion minutes a month online. Think about what that number means. If you went back in time one billion minutes, you would be back to the time of Christ. People are spending that much time online, in community and in conversation. That’s how and where they find out about books.
We live in a time where word-of-mouth reigns supreme. You are going to trust the people in your network communities more than you’re going to trust any little blurb placed by a publisher on the back of a book. You’re going to care about the reviews of people you trust. A review and recommendation by someone in your community trumps most everything else.
To publish a book today, you must have a great content and a way to connect that content to the people who care about it. Blogging is the most effective way to make an impact. Every time you post an update or share a link on social network, you’re publishing. You are communicating a message and making it known.
The barriers of entry is vanishing and if you self-publish, an author can own his or her content and earn 60 percent to 70 percent margin. This is much richer than the standard 10 percent or 18 percent a person or agent might be able to negotiate from a traditional publisher.
There was a time in our country when we considered ourselves citizens; then we became consumers, and now we are creators. The surge is happening. Bowker [The Official ISBN Agency for the United States, responsible for the assignment of the ISBN prefix to those publishers with a residence or office in the U.S.], in 2009 issued ISBNs for 1.2 million new books, and 78 percent of them were self-published. The rest of them were from traditional publishers who have not seen any growth over the past five years.
… in 2009, of 1.2 million new books, 78 percent of them were self-published.
That’s why you hear so much about platform and community. There are four essentials required to make it today. To rise above the noise you must have great content, connection, community, and the collaboration. And that’s true regardless of how you publish. Publishers are going to expect it and they’re going to expect you to work hard building your own community.
An abundance of marketing dollars no longer exists because most publishers are still held hostage to the limited shelf space that exists in the bookstores. They find themselves burning through their marketing budgets as they pay a high price for simply placing their books in these stores.
There are a million new titles crashing in on superstores that can only hold at a maximum, 125,000 titles. The real estate for bookshelf space is painfully limited. A publisher could pay anywhere between $20,000 and $50,000 for that book to sit on that shelf for just two to four weeks. And with so many titles available, retailers have no tolerance for titles that don’t move immediately.
Social media is a growing way to get people in different communities excited about a new book and invite them to help maximize the window a book has in a real life bookstore.
Were you able to create a different perspective in your publishing work?
I definitely brought a different perspective. I was responsible for all of publishing, so all of the senior vice presidents of the various publishing groups reported to me. They had all been in publishing most of their professional lives. I brought with me a consumer and retailer perspective. An influence that was more from the outside in than the inside out. Rather than, “We’ve find a great book and we like it just because we like it,” we wanted to understand how it connected to the deep felt needs of our readers. We paid closer attention to the trends in the marketplace and our market share penetration by category.
No other publisher was looking at market share by category. When I started, we had 21 different publishing imprints and many of them were publishing the same kinds of books. So when we evaluated performance, it was puzzling to me. There was redundancy among the imprints, and it was hard to isolate what category of books was truly driving our sales.
Over an 18-month period, we pulled everything apart and reorganized our inventory and publishing by consumer category. Just like customers who go into a store and know what section they want to browse, we started to think about our books by category too.
You know there are three primary ways a person shops a bookstore. Some look at that front table because they want to see what’s hot and new. Others love a certain category or genre and wander over to browse it. Finally there are those crazy about an author and want to see all they’ve written and to make sure they haven’t missed something new. It’s amazing when publishers start to think like customers and publish based on what matters most to them.
But I still find books when I walk into a bookstore. I see a title from an author I have never heard anything about. I pick it up and I read it and say, “Wow, that’s great.” Does this kind of serendipity go away in this more direct marketing business world?
Yes and no. Yes, serendipity can be at risk as retailers keep inventories low. No, because you will see titles moving in and out at a faster pace. The days of being surrounded by full shelves with amazing depth in any one category are basically gone. I remember a survey once that revealed that 89 percent of the customers who came into a book superstore did so because they wanted massive assortment, but only 25 percent had a specific title in mind. Clearly serendipity was part of the magic and draw.
There is another threat to books. People seem to have shorter attention spans than they had before this age of the Internet. So the idea of reading a whole book is not as common as it once was. I have read about a book per week over the last 15 years or so. But I realize I’m not the norm.
No. You’re not the norm. And every bookstore owner would love you.
And people tend to read shorter and shorter segments. It’s characterized by what we often call McNews, like USA Today, where they have short articles, summaries almost. What is this trend doing to books?
We are definitely seeing shorter books as well. A trade book in the past may have had 60,000 words, but today people get by with 25,000. Further, a lot of books today are “pumped with air.” They made to be easy to read. They have more illustrations, shorter chapters, if they have chapters at all. I love the book Rework that came out from the 37 signals group. It’s a business book in this new model. It communicates ideas simply with lots of illustrations.
A trade book in the past may have had 60,000 words, but today people get by with 25,000
I admit I didn’t like the book Who Moved My Cheese, though I recognize the world loved it. I found it overly simplistic, and the ideas were not well developed, yet it sold millions.
Simple books often sell well. Ideas that can be easily digested tend to catch on fast. I believe that is why Seth Godin’s Tribe has done so well. It is about 150 pages, no chapters, and would take about an airplane flight to read. He did a brilliant job of laying out the impact of the Internet, social media influence, and why we need leaders to lead them.
We live in a world that is visually simulated. We live in sound bites and communicate our inner most feelings in 140 characters or less. People barely have the endurance to sit through a YouTube video that is longer than three minutes.
The Future of Books
Pull out your crystal ball and tell me what the world of books looks like in 2025?
Here’s an interesting factoid that starts us down this path. There are predictions that between the growth of mobile devices and satellite placement every inch of the earth will be wired in 15 years. Now, to put that in perspective today, there are 7 billion people in the world and only about 1.9 billion are wired and online. That’s a lot of growth and the opportunity for more people to join the worldwide Internet conversation is immense.
People say that the earth is going to right-size itself between 8 billion and 9 billion people. The implications of that are enormous. My husband and I do missionary work in Haiti, where we go several times a year. These people have nothing but they do have a cell phone. And they will walk for hours to get clean water and charge their phones.
We are on the verge of an enormous tipping point regarding how we will communicate in the future. When you include mobile translation capabilities, even language barriers will be eliminated.
We are on the verge of an enormous tipping point regarding how we will communicate in the future.
With all of this capability, we have no idea what’s around the corner. It’s exciting and hard to think through all the ramifications of being this globally connected. When you say, it’s a small world – it will be a small world. Think about when Osama Bin Laden was shot. There were 5,000 twitter releases immediately after he was killed. News is breaking all the time because of the social networks. The news media can’t even figure it out and keep up. How many times have you watched the news and heard them say, “We want to thank everybody for sending us the pictures.” People in earthquakes are filming live. We can be all around the world at any time.
How did you feel when Borders finally closed?
It was very emotional. I was in California, driving to the Ontario airport, and I passed one of the stores I had opened. There it was — vacant. And then, last weekend, I was at a wedding at Ann Arbor, Michigan. When I drove past the downtown store, it was very difficult again. An important part of culture disappeared.
People often ask me what happened to Borders. From my experience it is hard to ever point to just that one thing, although I know that it is possible to make a single decision that brings down an entire organization. But from my experience, a company begins to unravel because of what I call, “The Law of Lots of Lost Little Things.”
… a company begins to unravel because of what I call, “The Law of Lots of Lost Little Things.”
Simply stated, when times get tough, it’s easy for leadership to make small cuts here and there to relieve the pain. The first ones are quickly rationalized as unnoticeable and of no true consequence. The pennies they produce add up and relieve some of the pain, for a little while.
But when you keep cutting, over a very short time you become numb to the impact and then you wake up one day and everything that was special, distinctive, and magical is gone.
But while Borders had its challenges, I think what happened to it is the beginning of more to come.
What big issues keep you awake at night?
I think a lot about the implications of this wired world and the changes we will see in the next 15 years. I’ve read reports that say between satellite placement and mobile phone distribution the whole world will be wired within this span of time. It will be an unprecedented time in the history of the world. More than 7 billion people will have the potential to be linked and connected to one another.
Lessons for Other Businesses
What does this digital transformation mean for non-media businesses?
Well, it certainly gives new meaning to the statement, “I’m going to assemble a world-class team.” Technology will bridge the connection between your company and brilliant individuals who can contribute to it from anywhere in the world. Being global will be a reality for any business, and diversity will assuredly become a business-as-usual practice.
There was a recent Mackenzie Report that suggested that technology is playing another role, eliminating jobs. And it’s been my observation that there’s a lot of jobs that were here before this recession. And company seems to have awakened to the fact that they don’t need all those people to do what they’re doing. So, what does this have to say about where then jobs are going to come from?
That is definitely a possibility, but there is another challenge I believe will be more altering to the future. The next generation is comprised of digital natives, 89 million strong in the United States. There is a transformation of thinking, processing, and interacting that will radically change the type of jobs available and the people needed to fill them.
Managing in a World of Change
Let’s talk about managing any business in this new world. What are some of the new key issues?
For a business, there is never a period of calm. The business is always going into a crisis, managing through a crisis, or coming out of a crisis. This is true of every industry, not just those dealing with digital content. When I was in retail we were faced with consolidation, downsizing, and right-sizing. I worked for Federated Department Stores for 22 years, but in that time we had mergers, bankruptcy, and acquisitions. I was with the same company, but I was like work for many different companies.
Change is all around us. I’m grateful for the leadership that I had while at Federated, speaking so much wisdom into me. I had an amazing mentor, Jim Zamberlan. He taught me about how to stay ahead of the change rather than getting caught up in it. You have to be a change catalyst today.
As the world gets more connected, there is the opportunity to engage more people, gather more input, and give voice to more ideas. When new people come into companies, they have new ideas that cause change.
When you think about technology, it accelerates change. Several years ago you had this enormous computer that was probably so big that you couldn’t even move it. Now you have all that power right here inside a smart phone.
This means there’s more information available to you. We haven’t even tapped the information that is currently available to us. I was just reading a report that said there are five million terabytes of information available on the Internet. Think about what Google has done in the past several years. It provides a portal into this information where you can answer questions with a click.
As a leader, you must be the person guiding others through change. There’s this uneasiness that calls for courage in order to overcome. It also requires letting go of something that was very comfortable. This happens in big and small ways. For example, how many times have you changed your cell phone? When you do that you have to let go of what you were comfortable with, and learn something new. Once you do, it’s great. But there’s mourning, frustration, and difficulty that’s part of letting go.
As a leader you must be the person guiding others through change.
Leaders have to be able to change themselves and to eliminate the fear of change in others. You must allow and recognize that people grieve what’s lost. This means guiding people through the process, understanding loss and even anger. Recognize that people want the old way back. This means dealing with the whole person, not just the person as employee.
Then you come to a point of acceptance. And even here, you have to prepare people for whatever is next.
I stumbled across a book at our local bookstore called Breaking the Fear Barrier, which dealt with this topic. It fits very nicely into what you are saying.
As you go through these changes with new people, mergers, new products and so forth, how do you deal with adapting the culture of the organization?
One of the things that I was tasked to do when I was with Federated Department Stores was to accelerate the merger between Rich’s, Lazarus, and Goldsmith. I was given responsibility for a segment of Lazarus in the north and Goldsmith’s in the south. It was surprising to me to see the differences in cultures.
In that assignment, the key challenge was to protect the integrity of the brand because that’s what was most loved by both customers and employees. But underneath that, foundationally, there were best practices and efficiencies that could be learned and shared to make the divisions and people stronger. It’s possible to respect the distinctions and still gain benefits from the merger.
It’s all about the culture. I’m a big advocate of trying to get at the core values of an organization. Jim Collins talked about this in Built to Last. Values reflect the people who are there. And you must understand what the values are and what behaviors within that organization cause it to live and move in the way it does.
And then you have to cast the vision of what’s possible in the future, what you believe can be. People like to hold on to the past, but there’s an energy that comes when you pose the questions, “Well, what if? What could be different?”
Give the people freedom to create something completely different and they will. It’s important to ask, “All right, how do we create it? And what would we need to do so you are enrolled in the process?” That’s where you can create a culture shift. Then as a leader, you have to be aware of the drift.
The drift is the conversations and old patterns that people tend to revert to if you are not careful. A leader must be aware of when things slip back into old ways of thinking and then remind people, “This is what is and where we are going.” Help them see something that’s very different. Keep giving them something that’s new and exciting. It will give them the energy to accomplish what needs to be done.
What role do unions play in business today?
Everywhere I worked we were determined to create a union-free environment. To do this, we invested a lot of time in making sure that we were connected with and leading our people. In my experience, unions usually come in where there is not strong leadership. When Borders was small, they could hire book lovers as managers, and that’s what we did. But they weren’t always good leaders or even good managers. People working for them would need answers to certain issues. Conflicts needed to be resolved, and they would have difficulty addressing them.
Unions had a place in the history of our country, but I don’t believe that need exists in the same way today. Leadership that cares about people, listens, and involves people in decisions will avoid the threat of union organization.
How would you advise a middle manager, a person in an organization, who’s caught in the middle? This person receives directives that come down from the top, and also deals with the reality of the customers and the employees in the organization. They may see that the directives make no sense, or don’t fit reality, but they are caught in the cross fire?
It’s a great question. When I was at Borders, we had new general managers come into the home office for training. It typically happened once a month and spending time with them was one of my favorite things to do. I was able to share our vision and key initiatives with them first-hand. While they were general managers or middle management, they were in many ways the CEOs of their stores. Their ability to understand and articulate the company’s vision made a big difference.
It is important that managers at all levels are connected to a company’s vision and clearly get it. And then within the framework of the bigger vision, they can create a vision for their workgroup. But then they must initiate action that moves their area closer to achieving the bigger vision.
It is important that managers at all levels are connected to a company’s vision and clearly get it.
Next, focus is important. There can be a lot of distractions for a middle manager. It’s easy to get sidetracked thinking about everything else instead of what’s the real priority. If a manager can stay focused on the assignment at hand and not be preoccupied with what’s the next position, doors and opportunities will open. I always encourage managers to do their best right where they are. I have seen that truth at work in my own life. When people take responsibility and own their performance then speed up their ability to grow within an organization.
If you’re in middle management, don’t spend time creating reasons or excuses for why you’re not able to do something. If you do, then you’re missing out on how you can empower yourself. Adopt the mindset that says, “What do I need to do to do differently to achieve a different outcome?” You can’t change others but you can always change yourself. It’s all about attitude. Only you can choose your attitude everyday, and it makes a difference if you choose it wisely.
What happens if you’re pushing the boundary and your management doesn’t want you to push that boundary? One of the things you mentioned was to try new things, take initiative, and you might fail. Some managers don’t allow their people to try things or to fail.
It goes back to taking the responsibility for what you want to cause or create. Getting alignment and then initiating the conversations that keep everyone centered is critical. Sometimes your leader may say, “OK, that isn’t the button to push.” You can either let yourself get frustrated or get realigned with the bigger picture. When you choose to align, you keep the momentum moving forward for everyone. You earn credibility and respect.
Then when you want to push the boundaries, take a risk, or try something new more people are willing to listen.
What career advice do you have for young people entering the market today?
I enjoy the time I’ve spent at my alma mater interacting with students. I’m always encouraged by the promise I see in them. I challenge people of all ages to recognize and accept their natural gifts, talents, and strengths. It makes all the difference in the world when you know what you’ve been wired to do.
People must be sensitive to the things in life that give them energy. If someone can stay in his or her strength zone at least 50 percent of the time, the momentum and joy will follow. Young professionals must be candid about what are their gifts and how those gifts bring value to the company they want to serve.
When interviewing, I remind students that they interviewing the company as much as the company is interviewing them. Once you understand your strengths, the questions you ask a potential employer and the answers you get will go a long way to help make the right choice. Soon we will see a massive exodus of boomers leaving the market place. There aren’t nearly enough gen Xers to fill those gaps. It creates amazing opportunities for those preparing to enter the workforce. I think that is especially true for those who know their strengths, are willing to work hard, and are clear about the value they are naturally wired to add to a company.
What about those who drop out of school? Do they have the skills to have a good career in this 21st century world?
People often point to Steve Jobs, for example, as someone who had a great career but dropped out of college. Bill Gates did as well. But these are extraordinary, brilliant people who do not represent the norm. Education is important. And beyond education, maturity is vital as well.
I served on the board of Growing Leaders in Atlanta, working with Dr. Tim Elmore, CEO, and have learned a great deal from him about this next generation. He is an advocate for building the right habits and attitudes. He talks often about the idea of artificial maturity.
Basically, we’ve protected our children too much. They’re so structured and busy. We don’t want them to fail. We give them rewards for everything. They show up, they get an award. Instead of sitting back and letting them be kids, explore, fall down, and figure it out for themselves, we try to protect them. Then as they get older, they don’t know how to deal with their newfound freedom. We think they’re ready for freedom, but they end up stuck, often not ready to head out on their own.
In the early part of the Y generation, kids born in the ‘70s and the beginning of the ‘80s, the attitude seemed to be hopeful, expressed by statements like, “We’re going to love this world. We’re going to take it on.” Then something happened in the latter half, and much of the shift is attributed to iPhones, iPads.
Dr. Tim Elmore wrote a fascinating book on this topic called Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future. I highly recommend it to parents, teachers, and employers. He talks about exactly how this generation got stuck.
A recent study revealed that today young people do not consider themselves an adult until they have had their first child. When we were growing up, 18 was the magic number. I believe it is very difficult for those who drop out of school. This next generation is 89 million strong. It’s the largest generation to push through the pipeline in the history of our country. We need them focused, educated, and productive.
I believe it is very difficult for those who drop out of school.
Women in Business
What are the challenges for a woman in business today compared to when you started?
I believe things are much better than they were when I first entered the workforce. You see more women present in key leadership positions and having a greater influence on the future. Some people argue that it’s still not enough. Women face an interesting challenge when they choose balancing their work and family life.
Harvard Business School used to have a women’s summit every year. A couple of times I was invited to speak to the event and the most popular topic was always “life balance.”
Even these women who were extraordinarily committed to their careers were wrestling with how they might be able to do it all. They were looking for assurance from women who were already in the corporate world. I am not sure they totally got what they were looking for, but they did get some candid talk about the reality of trade-offs and the consequences that came with whatever choice a woman made about the two alternatives.
I’ve always felt the idea of balance was a lofty goal. It’s not something that is always possible to achieve in a day, but has to be looked at over longer periods of time.
What encourages me now is I see more women who are confident to run a business but not try to be a man about it. More women understand that they are different from their male colleagues and that they can add the most worthwhile value by contributing through their own gender lenses.
What is your personal motivation? You still have an exciting career, but what keeps you motivated?
That has changed over time. Before I graduated from Purdue, I was very achievement-oriented and driven. I was going to have the highest paying job. I was going to climb the ladder. I was so focused on all these big dreams for my professional career.
But the text of my life got completely rewritten. The day after I graduated, I turned my future over to Jesus Christ and asked him to take charge of it. Now I really live my life centered on his ambition and not my own. I try to live fully in the moment that I’m in and value each one of them.
I accepted a big paying job before I graduated, and then right after I graduated, I called them to say I wasn’t coming. My father was diagnosed with cancer and I knew I needed to stay home and help my mother with his care. I called the local company I had worked with during college. They had made me an offer to go into their management program, but I declined it because the other offers I received were far more generous. They agreed to hire me, but offered $2,000 less than the offer they extended me while I was still in college. It was humbling to say the least. I took it, because I was obeying what I felt like I had to do.
Because my motivation was divinely rewired, I wasn’t paying attention or thinking about that next level or promotions. I was focused, and I daily challenged myself to be a good steward what I’d been given to do for that day. I didn’t burn energy preoccupied with my own advancement. And that is how it’s always been in my career.
I was focused and daily challenged myself to be a good steward what I’d been given to do for that day.
And as a result, I have always been promoted to jobs within organizations without the formal interview process. My superiors observed and measured my work and had confidence I could do more. I am still amazed at what I have been able to do. No question it is more than I ever imagined – even in college.
When I’d been at Borders for two years and was running the west half of the country, I was called in and told that the president was retiring and I was going to replace him. We’d have a year of transition so there was ample time to get on board. I remember being somewhat shocked by it. I knew there were others who would believe they were more deserving of the position — confident and eager to take on the leadership role. I never felt that way. Our corporate leadership and board believed I was ready, so I humbly accepted the assignment and squeezed all I could out of that season of transition.
When I left Borders and before my daughter went away to college, I had a recruiter call me and say, “This is a $15 billion company, what do you mean you’re not interested in leading it? This could be your most important job you ever have.” I knew my daughter was the priority, and so I respectfully let them know I was currently focused on the most important job I would ever have.
When Zoe left for college, I had received three calls, went on three interviews, and ended up with three offers. Two were from retailers. One was at a very large retailer, looking to start me out by running a $9 billion segment of the business. Another was a specialty store headquartered out east. It was a lovely company with lovely people. And then there was my experiences at Borders. I certainly never thought of going into that side of the business. Publishers frustrated me because they never seemed to understand how to plan the business year after year in a way that ensured growth. At least that’s what I thought.
The retailers represented a continuation of what I had been doing most of my life. It would have been easy. It would have been easy for me to go in and just depend on me. But publishing, that was a different story. I knew nothing. But just as I knew I needed to spend time with my daughter, I knew this was where I was being called to go.