there used to be a formula for us. that formula is broken.
I attended a 2-day immersive leadership conference this week as part of Live Grey called life@work; an experiential learning journey about making work more human. Here is one of the many things I discovered; when you congregate 250 people together, from all different industries, who have an intention to learn, open their minds to new ideas, and to be around other interesting, inclusive, forward thinking humans, magic happens. We meditated, we learned about leadership and culture at scale from brands like Airbnb, Uber and WeWork among others, we had difficult discussions about race and gender, and we learned about what the future of the workplace and the workforce will be from next-generation leaders.
Today there is one thing that is becoming really clear as the workforce evolves, and even more so as the retail industry evolves. There used to be a formula. That formula is broken and it’s not working.
Think about this quote from Tom Goodwin earlier this year: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening in the sharing economy”.
There was definitely a formula for brick and mortar retail; design a great product, open a space to sell that product assuming that people would come, maybe have a website, hire a manager and a few sales associates with a little experience but still not making much money, have some social media presence, maybe an event or two, cross your fingers and hope for the best. If that worked, the next step was to open as many of these as possible.
Well, that retail formula is broken, and the brands that are closing the highest number of stores this year (Sears and Kmart, JC Penney, Macy’s, Payless Shoes) lived by that old formula.
It’s time to rethink what we know about business, how we lead, and how we think about retail in 10 years, 15 years, not about today.
And here is another formula that is broken…. the traditional way we have been managing our teams, and how we need to be thinking far less about what they can do for us and our business, but instead thinking about their basic human needs and holding ourselves accountable for delivering on them. Next generation teams will have little patience for the old leadership formulas.
One of the break-out sessions I attended during the conference was sponsored by Herman Miller, traditionally known as a furniture brand but who really thinks about office and store design as an HR function, creating “living spaces” to support the evolving way we work. They shared the following; "From our earliest existence as a species, humans have strived to meet fundamental needs and improve their living conditions. Our understanding of the six key motivations that drive work- security, autonomy, belonging, achievement, status and purpose- is informed by philosophers, and psychologists and primary research.”
As leaders, we are responsible for the experience we create for our teams, and in turn the experience they provide to the customer. I would challenge you to throw out the formula of basic competencies and skills that we have deemed important (the old formula for leadership) and replace them with an understanding of the six basic human needs:
Autonomy- we seek freedom in our actions and decisions. It is important to find balance between autonomy and structure, because it’s not one or the other. Don’t just tell someone how to do their job, but instead, set the strategic direction, deadlines, and benchmarks and allow them to determine how to accomplish the job. This leaves managers free to focus on high-level, strategic thinking to grow your business. Remember that the most important aspect of autonomy at work is a “perceived feeling of choice”. Whether employees are truly able to make their own decisions is less important than whether or not they feel that they are.
Security - we desire health, safety, familiarity and competence. This one seems particularly relevant right now in our industry, as there is a level of uncertainly that is permeating the industry. This fundamental need is about stability, predictable outcomes and knowing what to expect. Humans are creatures of habit, at work as well as home, and we take comfort in familiar surroundings and routines. A paradox of deeper understanding of security is that people often feel most secure if they are given a lot of flexibility.
Belonging - we want meaningful connection to others. It’s human nature to want to belong, which is why I often write about the “retail tribe” to which we all belong. We feel better if we are included, and connected to reduced stress, enhanced engagement and productivity, and greater performance. The need to make connections within our social groups, work teams, and the wider population is why brick and mortar retail is here to stay.
Achievement - we strive for excellence and take pride in our accomplishments. Achievement is strongly linked to a desire to not only take responsibility for our own work, but also to receive recognition for reaching goals. Motivation to achieve is at its greatest when the goals are attainable. A sense of achievement correlates with self-esteem, productivity and performance that can be cultivated and developed.
Status - we seek recognition for our contributions. Status at work is not about a promotion or salary increase. What status really means is that we are valued and appreciated by our peers. Humans are predisposed to seek out this recognition because when we receive it, our body releases the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. Status is also based on the group to which we belong, and a prospective employee will consider whether they want to be associated with your brand.
Purpose - we want to make a meaningful difference. Purpose is experienced as feeling of meaning in one’s work, and the feeling that work matters. This feeling is fundamental to all, at any job or career level. It is strongly linked to attendance, engagement, job satisfaction and performance.
Here’s the bottom line; don’t get stuck in a formula that you have always used. Challenge yourself to think about a new way you work, a new way to lead, and a new way to run your business. Uber, Airbnb and WeWork are the 3 most valuable startups in the U.S. today, all disrupters to an industry, all breaking formulas that have existed for years.