When Culture Rejects Change

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Three former executives said the old regime seized on the bad numbers to cast Hanson’s tech-focused ambitions in a dubious light. They said Markfield, in particular, felt that Hanson cared too much about developing AE’s web and mobile operations, and feared that expanding in outlets and internationally, while lucrative, might dilute the core brand. Markfield was also no fan of Hanson’s emphasis on personalization — for example, curating merchandise in stores based on the type of customers who shopped there. Indeed, it was a relatively new way of doing things, especially for someone who came of age in retail during the ’80s and ’90s and considered a mainline store as the most important way to communicate a brand. Markfield felt those stores were being neglected, these people said. […] “The sense was, ‘Oh, there’s this new fancy office in San Francisco, these fancy people have engineering backgrounds from Stanford, where does that leave me?’” said the second former manager. “People just felt threatened and unsure of it, definitely for the executives, because it was Robert bringing on this team of strong executives to fix and do things that we needed to do.”

Buzzfeed offers an engaging read into the cultural trials which eventually stopped American Eagle’s last CEO, Robert Hanson, dead in his tracks. Knowing the right thing to do and knowing the right way to do it are two completely different problems, and the latter is much harder (and even more dependent on context) than the first. Hindsight is 20/20, but I would suggest to any leader experiencing this sort of cultural friction to do the following:

  1. Develop a Visionary Purpose with your leadership team that is informed by the realities of your customer, competitors, and technology at hand. Visionary Purposes sound like, “be Earth’s most customer-centric company” (Amazon), “accelerate the advent of sustainable transport” (Tesla), and “make the world more open and connected” (Facebook). Repeat this vision until you’re blue in the face.
  2. Set realistic time horizons. In a public company, there’s no greater weapon to wield against a change agent than quarterly earnings. It took Steve Jobs three years after his return in 1997 before he had a measurable impact on Apple’s stock price, and that’s without having to worry about slow-to-turn retail stores. Lasting change is a 5-7 year project for any organization and any dips or leaps in the interim cannot themselves, alone, demonstrate momentum (or lack thereof).
  3. Scale the edges. Find opportunities to innovate in a safe-to-fail environment and scale them as they succeed. In other words, don’t try to turn the biggest ship when you have the smallest rudder.
  4. Propagandize. Every win, even the smallest, has to become a loud and unmissable signal of the change to come.
  5. Grow a tribe. Before you even have a win, build a cult of the curious. As wins stack up, convert more followers. Your goal is to flip more dominos in your favor, every day.
  6. Outlast your detractors. Remember, endurance is everything and that the spoils of transforming a public company can make you the stuff of legends.


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