On Leadership with @AndreaWass of @SoleSociety

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Today I'm featuring a Q+A with Andrea Wasserman, who is currently leading the team at Sole Society as their CEO. Prior to Sole Society, Andrea was the National Bridal Director at Nordstrom and led the re-launch and expansion of its store and e-commerce weddings business.

Every time Andrea and I get together, the conversation inevitably turns to leadership: what it looks like in today's changing world, how it fleshes out in various situations, the challenges of being women in leadership (and millennial women at that). It is a topic she and I are both passionate about and have both intentionally studied over the years. Below are some excerpts from one of our conversations on leadership:

What is it about leadership that attracts you the most?

Leadership interests me because of the impact it can have on both people and organizations. For example, the difference it can make in an individual's life and on the trajectory of a business or organization. It can be the difference between people being happy all day with what they're doing or not being happy. And it's the difference between organizations succeeding and failing.

Or it can be the difference I should say. People don't leave companies, they leave bosses, which is important in making the distinction between management and leadership.

I really believe that people deserve to be happy at their jobs. I've heard you say often that "people have the right to live fully not just merely" -- for me that's important. I don't believe people are going to love every minute of every work day and it's not realistic to expect them to.  Overall, the people who are committed and working hard have a right to find something that makes them really happy. A lot of that happens through people and leadership and not just a role.

How did you get interested in the topic of leadership as something worth pursuing and not just as a business concept?

Leadership was solidified as a topic that was important to me during my time at Nordstrom, where they operate with an inverted pyramid culture. It is not a chart that just hangs on the wall but is lived and breathed throughout the organization every day.

If you run the division, you support the division, which reports to you. When I think of the truest definition of the word support, that changes how people view leadership.

Thinking about the truest definitions of the words has implications for leadership and the way it impacts people and groups, not just business objectives.

In your opinion, what makes an effective leader?

First and foremost the ability to style flex. There is not one style of leadership appropriate for every person, organization or situation. Figuring out the right approach at different times is critical. This is not about being fake or changing values, rather it means choosing when to use different leadership strategies.

One thing that's fundamentally important to me as a leader is transparency and being up front with my team about what's happening. This doesn't mean I'm sharing absolutely everything I know. I think through what the answers may be if I share X, and if I don't know the answers yet and it may cause confusion or stress, I'll wait.

An effective leader, and this is my opinion, is not just top down, but collaborates among people at all levels. Since there is also very often a need for decisiveness, a blend between those two styles, depending on circumstances, is critical as well.

Going back to the support notion, people need both of those. They want a voice and want to be valued for their contributions, but they also look to somebody who can make a decision and stick to it.

What are some real-life examples of behind-the-scenes leadership that have stuck out to you and shaped how you view it?

I was once walking around a Nordstrom store with the regional manager. He would stop the walk-through to talk to a customer who looked like she needed something, or to pick a piece of paper off the floor. These things demonstrated ownership in the company.

Another benefit I had was in working for someone really remarkable. She was responsible for the total business area, yet she gave me a lot of latitude and gave me freedom to test and try new things and make decisions that were different than what she would have made. As long as the thought process was there, she supported me and was there to help me when I didn't make the best decisions. I realized how important this was to me and it affected how I work with people.

How do those lessons flesh out in what you're doing now?

One way is in how important I feel it is to make an investment in people, in the time I spend with them and the attention I give them, no matter what level they're at in the organization.

For me, part of investing in people is making sure everyone feels connected to the organization and to me personally in a lot of ways. A lot of that comes from the value I got from spending time with the leaders at Nordstrom. I knew who I was coming in to work for every day. At a much smaller level, I try to invest in my team as well. I want the most junior person at the organization to feel just as valued as the people on the leadership team with me.

One example of this came up when it was an executive's birthday and some people wanted to get that person a cake. We don't do cakes for everyone's birthday, so I didn't want the team to think the leadership team's birthdays are more special. Everyone may not be equal in terms of position or role, but they should feel equal as people.

Can you share some practical tips for people leading a team?

Meetings get a bad rap, emails get a worse rap, but I find them both important, whether it's for 3 people or 300 people or more. I find it's helpful to have a regular meeting on the calendar that forces you as a leader to think about what's new or a business update or what the company is doing or what I'm struggling with. Doing that consistently goes a long way. It gets everyone in the same room and provides a reliable format for communication.

I find that regular organization-wide emails just on what's happening also add value. With these, it's helpful to think about what the core of your business is and really driving home a connection to that for everyone. I make sure everyone knows what our best selling shoe was for the week and what our monthly performance was versus our goals, compared to last year. One of our goals for our team is to be fashion-focused and results-oriented and these emails help make them feel bought in and keep them focused on that by communicating the results of the work they're doing.

Another tip is making sure everybody at all levels knows that you know what they're doing. When they've done something noteworthy, hearing from you directly about that is really valued and shows them that they're being noticed and doing something that caught your attention. This is a much deeper level of engagement than smiling at them in the hall or when you see them at the water cooler.

You can follow Andrea on Twitter.

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