Leadership Lessons from the Retail Industry

Some of my earliest—and most important—leadership lessons came from my experience in the retail industry. Like many college graduates mulling their next step, I took a job on the sales floor at Bloomingdale’s in Chestnut Hill after graduating from Boston University. When I moved on to graduate school at American University, I was on the team that opened the Bridal Registry Department when Bloomingdale’s opened in White Flint, Maryland.

I loved the job and had a knack for it—Bloomingdale’s management wanted to train me to become a manager—but I opted for a different path. Even today as the CEO of a communications firm, I lean on the lessons I learned on the sales floor.

The value of listening: Obviously, a sales associate’s job is to sell product. But in order to do so, you have to listen and meet each customer where they are. Sometimes, a customer would have a budget in mind for a gift, but had no idea what to buy. Other times, a customer would know exactly what to buy, but wasn’t sure of her or his budget. I learned to ask the right questions and to listen closely to the answer. This enabled me to guide the customer to the best decision.

This skill still serves me well when working with our clients. We view our clients as true partners. We don’t sell at clients—we open a dialogue about what they hope to achieve through an integrated communications plan, discuss their budget and set realistic expectations for what they’ll see for their investment.

Keep on learning: Every week wasn’t Christmas week on the sales floor. When there was downtime, it was important to use those periods to improve our skill set. Representatives of the manufacturers that made Bloomingdale’s products would come in and teach us about the merchandise so we could be better informed for our customers.

While there’s seldom downtime in agency life, we still carve out time to learn. Whether we’re learning about new technologies and best practices we can bring to bear for our clients or reading up on the industries our clients work in, I push myself—and our SM& team—to stay curious.

Navigating a multi-generational workplace: Retail and food service are the original multi-generational workplaces. At Bloomingdale’s, I worked with men and women who’d been on the sales floor for decades, widows and divorcees who were supplementing their income, and other young graduates like me who needed a job before heading into a long-term career of their own. I watched the more experienced sales associates at work. They knew just how to calm an irate customer, or how to multitask efficiently. These interactions gave me a taste of how to work with people coming from different places in life.

I credit these early years with ingraining in me the value  of cross-functional client teams at Solomon McCown. Ashley McCown and I are proud of our flat organization—from interns to senior vice presidents, our door is always open to any team member to discuss a new approach, or hash out how to solve an issue. We also make it a point to be present and engaged in team meetings and client calls so we can learn by listening, asking questions and making suggestions to drive the best results for our clients.

Since I left the sales floor, I’ve been fortunate to learn lessons from political icons, CEOs from all corners of industry and nonprofit leaders. Learning through role models close by and at a distance is still one of the best ways to embrace new ideas and practices. So here’s to lifelong learning from everywhere we can get it.

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