The Importance Of Being A Visionary

And The Dangers of Legacy Thinking

This summer I committed to my sons that they would have the a busy and fun summer and we made that happen:

  • Surf Camp in Orange County, CA;
  • Space Camp [their first sleep-away camp (as a mom, this week was miserable for me but a blast for them)];
  • Golf Camp in Austin, Texas ;
  • Tennis Camp in NYC;
  • Golf Camp in Chicago;
  • A last hurrah to summer break in one of our favorite European cities.

Because of our travel schedule I decided to take on a lighter work load than my usual schedule and I found myself with some extra time on my hands, which is rare for me. One of the Airbnb’s we were staying at was only a few blocks from an Entertainment/Shopping Center so I decided to walk around the center for a while to shop/see what was happening in retail stores in a geo-market I am not abundantly familiar with.

I visited traditional shopping center retailers like; Altar’d State, Gap’s assortment of stores, Anthropologie [which had virtually no inventory], PINK…the usual cast of shopping center characters. This visit took place on a weekday morning so I anticipated very light coverage and minimal interaction. What caught me off guard especially with one particular retailer is how chaotic, filthy, and distressed their connected branded stores were. My oldest son wears adult clothing and my youngest is still in children’s sizing. As the primary buyer for my kiddo’s clothing, I’m very loyal to Abercrombie & Fitch and Ralph Lauren for their apparel. I know what to expect in quality and sizing from those brands. I know what their personal aesthetics are and those retailers provide options for what they like to wear in apparel, footwear, swimwear, and outwear categories. However, I thought I’d look at what Gap had to offer. I walked out of their stores empty-handed and sad for this brand.

I have experience with Gap as a consumer and a retailer and it’s clear they are very much a legacy retailer trying to hold onto their heyday decades of the 80’s and 90’s where they had everything I [and lots of other people] wanted to buy, from denim overalls to to tapered khaki pants. They were a healthy, growing, trustworthy retailer – back in the day. I can easily and comfortably say that Gap made up 50% of my wardrobe while Nieman’s, bebe, and ArdenB made up the remaining 50%. I also have experience with their Talent Acquisition representatives who I regularly get contacted by for the same few roles that seem to be constantly vacant. They cannot capture or retain the best talent any longer – which is a shame as at one point it was almost a badge of retail honor to work, or have worked, for the Gap.

This is indicative of the brand direction for Gap, unfortunately. RetailDive, just one day after I published this article, published a very interesting Q2 results article on this brand: “Old Navy fails to deliver for Gap Inc.. Gap brand comps, in second quarter, were down 7% year over year [Comp sales for Gap Inc fell 4% YOY].

What’s My Point?

This visit to this store, in all of it’s mayhem, really piqued my interest about the dangers of legacy retail and – let’s face it – legacy retail people that don’t have what it takes to create a sustainable business model in today’s evolving environment. Common sense is out the window in too many retail organizations, from thinking anyone can realistically run a 4000 sqft. store [or any size for that matter] on single coverage, offer any level of customer experience with that payroll model, maintain any visual standards, or develop people to become brand ambassadors and next-level leaders – it can’t be done. Brands cannot continue to hold onto ineffective talent, ineffective marketing strategies, brand reputations manufactured 20/30 years ago, or through pushing their credit card program to keep customers captive to their brand. It just doesn’t work. When you couple that with profoundly flawed or manifestly broken talent strategies that no longer allow for the identification of candidates that are passionate, ambitious, curious, and/or creative and a poor workplace culture [that actually repels candidates that have the skills organization’s today need for relevance] you are inviting disaster and that’s EXACTLY what I experienced on a Wednesday in July at 11:00am when I walked into this company’s store.

What Is Legacy Thinking

The simplest definition of “legacy thinking” is – the business strategies, and other actions, once used by the company to elevated reputation, growth, sustainability, that are now outdated and ineffective in the current climate of that business or industry. These ideas no longer serve the organization to the extent they once had but they continue to recycle them [or portions of them].

“Legacy Thinking” is one of the greatest obstacles to innovation and relevancy and it sits between the ears of far too many C-Level executives in the retail industry today. There is no doubt that things are shifting and changing quickly [most industries are experiencing this] but when we have legacy thinkers in lieu of visionaries in place, we are killing off brands that have current climate market viability. If we take the time to understand the shift in product/category demands, consumer spending ability, and shopping behaviors based on generational interests – we can help some of these floundering companies be resurrected back into relevance and health.

Most organizations can point to business principles, marketing strategies, and other ways of thinking or doing that underscored success…in the past. Only a handful have the courage to take a truly visionary approach to today’s consumer habits and demands of the market – both consumer and employees. It’s always amazes me when I hear directors and executives complain that their teams over-identify with old projects and programs. I had this conversation with Express a few weeks ago in their Columbus office. Many department heads feel threatened, defensive, and overly-protective when those programs need to be scrutinized or eliminated altogether with the only argument from their position being, “But this is how we’ve always done it”. That “legacy thinking” overshadows almost any chance of a innovative breakthrough. But – holy cow – it sure is exciting when clients can overcome this obstacle!

The retailers that have been around for 2, 3, 4+ decades need to pivot [quickly] from legacy thinking to a forward-thinking, innovative, visionary organization if they expect to survive today’s rapidly evolving industry.

One of my specialties as a consultant has been the objective review of all processes and programs within a department or cluster departments to identify the non-essential components of these existing procedures and creating a logical framework to prioritize or completely eliminate the pieces that are holding the organization hostage. Whereas some consultants take 2-6 months to do this, I deliver this framework in 2-4 weeks depending on the scope of the project to ensure the company can quickly adapt and realign programs, learning, and communication to be more effective and accelerate audience and team engagement – by making the meaning and purpose behind the shifting priorities crystal clear and capture the buy-in of even the most tenured people in the company. Then starting week 5, we initiate and act on the change we need to see.

In two projects [out of 19] that I have worked on it was critical for the CEO and CHRO to make lateral shifts in positions with some key individuals so their attitude wouldn’t impede the company’s future vision, [others voluntarily exited the business when they determined they couldn’t deliver action and ideas that were fresh, innovative, or relevant], while others were tasked with identifying strategies, ideas and tools that would serve the company’s updated vision and growth well. The results, in both cases, were two-fold…not only did the company effectively disrupt and separate elements of harmful legacy thinking from their executive and senior levels, but those once-hesitant executives were able to witness how powerful these new tools, ideas, and resources were and how they resonated with the mid and junior level corporate associates and the whole field organization. Within six months these two companies had elevated their performance metrics in every category by double digits. In today’s world you have to disrupt legacy thinking or die – there’s really no third direction.

The Importance Of Being A Visionary

Sight is the ability to see things as they are, and vision is the ability to see things as they SHOULD be. Being a visionary is not only having the ideas and ability to know what needs to be done but also have the courage to take action to make BIG things happen. Visionary people know where they need to take the organization or their department and will create a unique path to achieve the desired outcome without the hindrance of historic policies or procedures. They know what it takes to deliver on their promise to the organization’s vision.

Visionary leaders are driven and inspired by what a company can become [for the first time or again] and it’s potential today and into the future. They are not bogged down with technical details or the minutia, but they are “big picture” leaders whose intent is to usher in new eras of exciting innovation, action, and development. They are committed to the employee experience as well as the client experience. They know they need to surround themselves with people who also embrace the future and possess the skills they don’t.

A Visionary, vision is scary. Could start a revolution.

Eminem {Without Me]

Leaders who subscribe to this style are tasked with moving an organization into a broader, viable direction while promoting cohesion and intestinal fortitude to push through times of uncertainty, challenge, and frustration. Typically, when a visionary is sought out for their leadership, guidance, passion and creativity – the company is either experiencing distress, a huge transition, or is set to move through significantly challenging times that the company alone currently isn’t positioned, talent-wise or strategically, to navigate.

Benefits of Being A Visionary

They Are “Big Picture” People: They don’t get stuck in unnecessary details. Unlike average/ineffective leaders, visionaries can easily and objectively see all the “moving parts” and how they fit into the vision. A visionary, by being able to see the how the pieces are effecting the end results, they are able to connect various events with one another and take proactive actions before obstacles appear that can stunt progress. They are usually a couple steps ahead of what is taking place to ensure they assess any challenges and address them to mitigate their effect on the overall outcomes. They keep their people up-to-date and bring clarity to blurry moments.

They Embrace Innovation: Visionaries are focused on fiercely challenging the status quo and supportive of new ways to work, acquisitions, or initiatives. These are leaders that carve their own path and value the unique opinions and perspectives of those around them when creating a go-forward strategy.

They Are Intelligent Risk Takers: Moving toward a new goal or taking on the project of fixing a broken system is risky. There’s no guarantee that every strategy will work, but visionaries are comfortable with the uncertainty and take as many measures possible to ensure the plan is successful and communicate that it’s okay to fail as long we recover and retry with a better/different strategy quickly.

They Are Recognized As Strategic Thinkers: Visions have to be created and thought about strategically. Visionaries will prepare for what they want the project to look like and create strategies for the actions to take to achieve the vision. This means being highly involved, being a strong business partner, an excellent communicator, resilient, accessible, and a champion cheerleader at all times..

They Are Fantastic At Human Capital Organization: As I mentioned earlier, most legacy thinkers have a very difficult time shifting to innovative, forward-thinking mindsets. So, visionaries identify talent and can gather people who can support the vision and who are excited by the future. Visionary leaders know the skills needed to get to the objective and they can motivate and inspire people to share this vision and take action through leveraging their strengths to the ultimate goal(s).

They Are Hyper-Focused and Enthusiastic: In the pursuit to elevate performance and inspire the changes that need to occur, visionary leaders are intensely focused. Visionary leaders have the self-control and self-discipline to maneuver through uncharted landscapes and communicate the benefits of hange to everyone involved. It is hard to follow a leader that does not possess or model the traits they want to see in others, and good visionary leaders understand this. One of the most important characteristics a visionary leader can display is enthusiasm and excitement for the vision. Their passion and commitment reaches others and inspires them to feel the same and make great things happen.


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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