Loving a Paradox
Walter Savage Landor | Failure of Learning | From The Archives
Quote of the Moment
A man may love a paradox without losing his wit or his honesty.
| Walter Savage Landor, The Dial (1841)
I will be returning to the book, Paradoxes of Engagement, in the coming months. I have only two chapters to draft, along with an introduction and summary. I plan to distribute as an ebook, with a free copy to anyone signing up for an annual subscription or who has paid past subscriptions amounting to the same. Once published, I also plan a podcast series discussing the many themes of the work. It will also be generally available.
Look for the book in May.
Failure of Learning
In The Retail C.E.O. Pipeline Is Running Dry, Jordyn Holman reports on a serious supply-chain bottleneck in the retail industry in the US. There aren’t enough candidates for CEO:
A number of high-profile companies — including Gap, Diesel, and the parent of the North Face and Vans — are operating without a permanent chief executive officer. And thanks to a contraction of management training throughout the industry and the need for a rare combination of skills to navigate this tumultuous period, filling those leadership roles is perhaps more difficult than it has ever been.
Given the rockiness that retail companies expect to face in the next few months because of slowing consumer spending, pricing challenges and a possible recession, that’s a problem.
“The leadership challenges in retail right now are at an all-time high,” said David Bassuk, managing director at the consultancy AlixPartners, who has worked in the industry for 30 years. “There’s a lot more questions about the right type of leader to navigate retail.”
The past few years have required chief executives to adapt to a retail landscape they weren’t trained for and learn a wider array of skills to help their organizations navigate the exhaustive list of disruptions brought on by the pandemic. For decades, retail executives have been expected to be expert sellers — knowing what people wanted, how much of it and how to get them to buy it. Now, top executives are also expected to understand how many resources should go to e-commerce operations compared with brick-and-mortar stores, how to troubleshoot issues in global supply chains and when to invest in emerging technologies like the metaverse.
Leaving aside the non-existent metaverse (a topic for another day), what has led to this situation? Holman points out that ‘In 2022, 11 of the 91 retail companies in the Fortune 1000 saw chief executives leave. Two of those positions are being held by interim replacements, the analysis found.’
The departures might be attributed to the recent gyrations in the markets, but that doesn’t account for why there aren’t cadres of alternative leaders. The answer is simple. These companies simply failed to train future leaders:
For decades, those who climbed the ranks at large retail organizations started in executive training programs run by department stores or big-box chains. Those programs provided both vast infrastructure and operational incentive for companies to bring in young, talented employees and allow them to burrow deep into all parts of its business. The programs would usually last a year to 18 months, and participants cycled through rotations in store operations, buying and product development.
“Everyone knows that you cherry-pick your best talent from department store retail leadership development programs,” said Shawn Grain Carter, a professor of management at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who started her career at Bloomingdale’s.
Over the years, as department stores like Sears and Montgomery Ward went out of business and others, like Abraham & Straus, consolidated, those training programs were trimmed back.
“When things get tough and belts get tightened, a lot of those things are eliminated over time, or at least made much smaller,” Ms. Gersch said. “When a lot of those got eliminated, it hurt the attraction of new talent that was interested in a management trainee program.”
One of the central maxims of Emergent Organizations is the secondary loop of learning: for a company to have deep resilience, learning has to be viewed as important as the primary loop of delivering value to customers. Clearly, the retail industry collapsed that loop to a shadow of what it once was, and what it needs to be.
Is your company or industry cutting corners on learning? If so, expect the worst. And you should take it on yourself to continue learning, even if your company has made the short-sighted decision to cut back.
[See also Dig your own hole, sharpen your own shovel | One example of the broken work compact is the unwillingness of today’s employers to train workers.]
I’ve been a bit leery of promoting the Work Futures Twitter community, given the chaos since Elmo took over there. I am going to be sharing snippets there, and hopefully engaging others, too. If you’d like to be invited, send me a tweet https://twitter.com/stoweboyd.
From The Archives
Can Organizations Emancipate Us? | Only if we balance cooperation and competition within, and check the excesses of rogue leadership.
The False Question Of Attention Economics | A few posts have emerged recently that recapitulate the well-worn arguments of attention scarcity and information overload in the real-time social web. So, here at start of 2010, a new decade, I will try to write a short-and-sweet counter-argument from a cognitive science/anthropology angle.
The Ideal Worker Is All Work, All The Time | Is 'Love Your Work' Just Propaganda?
Innovation: How Management Must Change in an Emergent Discovery Culture | There are three critical leadership behaviors for emergent discovery to work, each of which is likely to be a challenge for traditional, linear management.
By the way, try out Refind.