15 Traits of A “Terrible” Retail Leader

15 Traits of A “Terrible” Retail Leader

According to Monster – 38% of employees rate their leader as “horrible” – In the past week I have referenced this statistic three times, that is how important and valuable I think it is to recognize – and for those of us who are lucky enough to be leaders in our industry –  to marinade in and digest. It is also likely to be what is the reality for us, as “Retail Leaders”.

Success surveyed members of the Young Entrepreneurs Council to identify what qualities make for a terrible leader. Here was their response:

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  1. Lack of Transparency: Your team can tell when you are not being honest. Lack of transparency = Lack of Trust. There is really, never a reason not to be completely honest with your team in retail. This will help everyone come together to identify the obstacles we face and allow for innovative and collaborative solutions to the problems we face. This allows people to be a part of the solution process for the company.
  2. Not Listening: Listening to your employees is important for building a loyal and proactive retail team. Everyone wants to be a part of the process and success and know that their contribution, regardless of size, has meaning and purpose to the bigger picture. Listening is paramount to the organizations growth and cultural health.
  3. Dismissing Ideas Other Than Your Own: This is the dark side of success – this level of hubris frequently results in tragic outcomes as retail leaders believe themselves to be the only ones who know what is best. The result is that the emperor has no clothes.  When leaders start to exist inside their own bubble of thought and action, listening to and hearing only what they want to [which is usually themselves], they cause damage to the business, to the people, to the culture, and to the customer experience.
  4. Valuing Experience Over Potential: This is a very real retail challenge! Organizations fail to develop career capital by developing future leadership and rely on longevity as THE criteria to promote people. Not talent, or ability, or competence. It is a decision that almost always results in failure. Not to mention the amount of time the leader spends reacting to challenges instead of developing and inspiring their team. [UGH!]
  5. Ego: Bill Gates once said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose”. Successful individuals and organizations often feel that they are entitled to continual success in the future. As a result, they risk becoming complacent, comfortable, and mediocre. Instead, they should continue searching for fresh approaches to improve products and services, and focus on staying lean and agile. The best leaders accept the blame when things go wrong and assign credit to the appropriate people when things go right. In order to be a visionary leader you need to remove your ego and focus on your people.
  6. Working 24/7: You have to set the example for your team. As a human being we all have interests and things to do outside of work and we need to treat those things as important [because they are] and that we value everyone’s personal time. The best thing you can do for your team is to model and teach time management and how to be highly-productive. Great leader don’t work their teams to death. They teach them balance.
  7. Lack of Empathy: Great retail leaders don’t forget the lessons they learned over the years. They are empathetic and supportive during the tough times. They work to remove obstacles from the business and help their team to determine the right course of action to make great decisions. They provide resources, lots of context, direction, and guidance to their team members consistently.
  8. Forgetting About Leadership Development: In order to be a great leader you need to provide development and learning opportunities to your team. You also need to inspire the desire of your employees to self-learn and self-develop. Frequently having conversations with your team members will help you understand where they are, where they want to go, and how they feel they can stretch themselves today. Your job is to help them and give them the opportunity to do these things and to show them what they are ultimately capable of.
  9. Being Overly Conservative: Modern retail leaders must be absolutely tenacious to achieve desired results in today’s workplace – results from themselves, the organization, the customer! Outdated and conservative policies and business practices need to be championed for elimination. If we don’t model taking risks (and partner with our team to do the same) through innovative strategic/agile thinking we will not be able to maximize the impact we can have on the business.
  10. Permitting Negative Gossip: Leaders that don’t take the necessary actions to stop this immediately risk losing all credibility. Great retail leaders have the chutzpah to eradicate this toxic behavior immediately from the business. As leaders. when we take on a negative employee, we send a clear message to our teams and the organization that we are a strong manager up to the task. We also reinforce the value and appreciation that we have for the contributions of our hardworking, productivity, and positive team members. [Source: Stop Tolerating Bad Retail Employees]
  11. Poor Communication of Strategy: Strong retail leaders tend to think through and map out strategy in our minds, but fail to share the road map with our teams. When explaining a new concept or expectation with your team, share your process so that they know what has already been considered and can bring new and creative ideas to the table. That way there is little room for frustration or misunderstanding.
  12. Close Mindedness: It is beyond critical that we build a team and foster a culture that is diverse and inclusive. Being inflexible and unwilling to change your perspective or listen to other people’s point-of-view is not a quality that is admired. Being open, soliciting feedback, looking for the most effective and efficient solution is the priority of a great retail leader.
  13. Assigning Blame: Great leaders accept blame for failure. It’s just that simple.
  14. Inconsistency: There is a level of comfort that your team will derive when you are consistent in your actions and your words. In retail we can oftentimes feel (and sound) like a broken record but your message, availability, and support is something that your team can count on. Being inconsistent can result in people viewing us a confused and ineffective. It also sends mixed-signals that we may unsure of ourselves and our ability.
  15. Being Too Slow To Adapt: Leadership who is incapable of keeping up with the fast-paced evolution in retail can be seen as antiquated and ineffective in their role. They can be seen as clueless, close-minded, and/or arrogant. A lack of knowledge leads to indecision and fear of action. This will lead to your employees losing confidence in you.

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There are so many reasons I love this list. It’s comprehensive, it’s honest, it includes hard and soft skills, and it’s real.  Our employees in retail have given us their non-negotiables of what they require from us as leaders:

  • Ability To Motivate
  • Ability To Inspire
  • Empathy
  • Involvement

Now we have the top reasons they see us as ineffective and/or “terrible”. Like it or not, as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, even though we may not be aware of an employees dissatisfaction with our leadership we probably have one, maybe two, employees that see us (yes…us!) as ineffective, terrible, or just plain horrible.

You can choose to agree or disagree with any of these points. However, as leaders we must be willing to see our opportunities and gaps in our leadership styles that effect our team just as enthusiastically as we are willing to identify and have confidence in our strengths. This information gives us a great jumping off point to self-evaluate our performance as leaders as it relates directly to the points of contention identified by emerging leaders.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | beth@excellencein-retail.com [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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8 thoughts on “15 Traits of A “Terrible” Retail Leader

  1. A very well written and accurate portrayal of what can make a lousy leader and the opportunity we all have by being clear and honest in our communications and actions with our teams. Definitely an article with real value in being shared. It takes more courage to be true to yourself and your team and the results always outweigh the other path.

  2. Thank you for this necessary truth that I and others who are either in leadership positions or who seek to be in such positions should take note of each of these factors as part of their doctrine.

  3. Great article! I have worked with some of the best and some of the absolute worst…one thing I will not tolerate is lying and talking negative in an environment that tends to rely on competition. In the furniture retail business, this can be very difficult. A strong leader may talk about another employee but it should be in a professional manner. Meaning..”So and so is struggling. How do we help them to become successful?” Another thing that I think demonstrates extreme weakness is when an employee (especially one who experiencing their first professional job out of college) is given a not so great review and then they are not given an opportunity to have a mentor who can show them how to improve on their skills. It is so important to see first time employees become the future leaders for a company and to inspire, not lie and put down..

  4. Truly awesome article that hits the nail square on the head! First and foremost, in my opinion, is #13…We must be able to “ACCEPT” the blame and stop “ASSIGNING” it. Once we humble ourselves, it’s easier to execute the other 14 traits and work through our associates to improve on the business and our levels of Customer Service! Excellent advice that should be taken to heart by all Leaders!

  5. This is fantastic. Having spent many years supporting large and small retail operations, Elizabeth is right on target.

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