The Out Of Touch & Toxic Retail CEO

The Out Of Touch & Toxic Retail CEO

As I have mentioned before and I am so grateful for the things I have learned by writing this blog. I have met some truly incredible people. I have gained invaluable knowledge. I have actually ranked in the Top 100 Productivity Blog worldwide. This has been an amazing year so far and I am so glad to have this medium to share information, engage in vivid and colorful dialogs, and connect with other retail professional of all levels.

I have also been able to support a variety of retail organizations in retail leadership and culture development in both short- and long-term capacities. One of the great lessons that I have learned is how to quickly identify when my contributions to organizations will, likely [hopefully], be successful and when there just isn’t a alignment or it is a situation where the executive team just isn’t ready to take action and recognize the actual issues [or even consider them]. In cases like that, I have the ability to enjoy making the connection and meeting new people but not taking on the opportunity because it would be a waste of time and money for both the retail organization and me.

Toxic & Ineffective CEO Theories

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Several months ago I had one such experience with a retail organization whose brand is, currently, very lost. They have lost their vision and their brand has become broken and floundering inside a struggling market. Two things stood out to me and caused me to step away from the opportunity with this organization. I was sitting in a large meeting with the CEO of this organization. This leader is relatively new to the organization having come from a now defunct hardlines retailer that lost out to it’s competition in the market. As this CEO was explaining his position on this profound failure he said “The consumer decided they only needed one [of this type of retailer] in the retail-sphere”. That was such a telling, vacuous, and shocking statement. As a retail leader [with many thousands of employees] I would have been determined and committed to – if there could be only one – that one retailer of this particular niche would have been mine that was successful. I immediately saw him as someone who gives up and gives in when the going gets tough. I was able to see why the demise of his retail organization occurred. It was equally surprising to me that people found this comment inspirational, smart, and profound.

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About four weeks ago I was privy to a video of a meeting this same CEO was hosting for his employees. Towards the end of the meeting there was a small amount of time allotted for a Q&A. Most questions centered around the challenging culture, the high turn-over, and critically injured employee morale. The CEO – when faced with these questions – turned the mic over to his #2 after mentioning he believed in “personal responsibility” to improve your own morale in the workplace. His #2 said, “I look at culture this way – when you go to a party and it was a dud – you don’t look at the party itself, you consider the party-goers, they’re the ones who ruined the party”. It was an uncomfortable moment to digest another vacuous, close-minded, lack-of-personal-accountability statement. It was that moment I realized I’d made the right decision in stepping away from supporting this company.

This will be a fascinating transition to watch as this retail organization works to fix it’s issues and overcome it’s countless self-inflicted challenges. I hope for the sake of the retail organization – and the amazing people inside of it – that they are able to pull themselves out of the mess they are in but when leadership is unwilling to see or accept any responsibility for the issues – it just makes it that much more difficult.

3 Signs Of A Flawed & Ineffective CEO

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.  [Source: Seduced By Success]

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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.

CEO failures are more visible than they were 10 years ago – and they are usually available “on-demand”, in real time from a variety of perspectives via social media. Lackluster execution, poor communications skills, an abrasive, unreasonable and unrealistic management style and are some reasons for the demise of today’s CEOs:

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  • They Are Above The Truth: There are absolute truths in retail today. The customer experience needs to be tailored to the customer – they no longer have to adapt to our business. We must adapt and stay flexible to their needs/wants. When we excuse our inability to drive change and results to the bottom line – the truth of the matter is because we – lack the charisma, the credibility, or the strategy to do so. It’s not the customer’s fault. At the end of the day it is not the employees fault. It is the CEOs and the executive team’s responsibility to create a compelling vision and plan for the brand through both times of economic boom and bust.
  • They Speak About Personal Accountability – But They Don’t Practice It: Just in the two examples with the CEO I shared earlier: There was no accountability. It was the customer’s decision to choose the other retailer as the “last man standing” inside that retail niche. From analysts perspectives there were other factors involved in the demise of that business that were owned by the CEO and the executive team:
  1. That business failed to turn a profit for several years;
  2. Management Missteps;
  3. Debt;
  4. Outsourcing the e-commerce business [instead of embracing this hugely important business to maintain relevance] – they rendered themselves obsolete by not embracing technology;
  5. Poor category management.

It is, in fact, the executives – starting with the CEO – who create and support company culture. This executive team – literally – placed that responsibility with the employees by stating “it’s not the party that was awful, it was the party-goers”. People are afraid for the future of the business. There have been layoffs and cut-backs. Placing the blame on the employees seemed extremely insensitive and demoralizing when they are hanging in there – hoping that their organization will find their footing in the evolving retail landscape and become healthy, fun, and important to their customer, once again.

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  • They Are Never Wrong: Just like Bill Gates said,”success is a lousy teacher”. Every good leader needs a strong sense of self-confidence, solid decision-making abilities and a team of trusted advisors. Despite those positives, problems arise when the CEO morphs into an all-knowing autocrat who believes they are the smartest person in the room. It’s our nature to seek information that reinforces pre-existing perceptions and supports our process. But not listening to or getting lost in their own ego they only know the facts and information they care to know is very dangerous – especially today. CEOs tend to be more susceptible to this flaw given their ability to create and control their own environment and the people that surround them. The issue is further exacerbated by support staff who finesse and dilute the data, trends and information the CEO needs to make the best decisions.

Retail is profoundly different today than it was even three years ago. Lots of change has taken place and there is significantly more to come over the next few years before we can find a level of balance and a moment to breathe. CEOs that are successful today are different than the ones that were successful before 2008. Retail needs smart, agile, evolving, and understanding leadership in executive roles today. Leaders that care about the people under their umbrella of responsibility. Leaders that care about their customer. Leaders that are determined to lead their teams to victory and protect the jobs and culture of the people they agreed to support when they stepped into the highest leadership role in retail.


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 | [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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