Experience vs Education: What Makes a Successful Retail Leader in Canada?

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By Mina Ely

We all strive to establish longevity within our careers. This involves the ability to reinvent yourself, and foresee possible obstacles within your field by arming yourself with the tools to tackle them. How do we do this? We educate ourselves. The more knowledge you possess the more power you hold. The question lies, however, in where to source this knowledge? Does the answer lie in third-level education? Or, perhaps, in work experience?

I have spent the past twenty years in the fashion industry, as a leader and motivator. This question became prevalent in my life when I decided to divert my career path. I weighed up the pros and cons of going back to university, and I thought long and hard about my experience to date, what it has taught me and how well equipped I am today because of it. The question of educational value versus experiential value when it comes to attaining an executive position is age old, and perhaps one that will never fully be answered. This is my understanding of the dichotomy from my experience of the retail industry.

Education vs Experience

Looking at the many executives that exist within my world of fashion retail, I see that a large majority of them hold postgraduate levels of education. However, on discussing this topic with the few I have the pleasure of knowing, I came to realize that the general consensus rests on the idea that experience is what propelled these executives to the positions they currently hold. Yes, their education allowed them to enter the workforce with an elevated status, but it was their experience that secured the senior positions.

I sat with this information for a while. I took my time defining what attributes I believe are needed to make a good leader based on my twenty years in the industry. I wondered if said attributes are acquired through education or experience, or both. This is what I settled on.

I’ve learned over the years that the best leaders are those with experience on the sales floor. I like to compare the sales floor to a battlefield, with the sales associates being the army. Without knowledge of the front line, a leader cannot effectively advise their subordinates on how best to deal with the conflict that may arise on the battlefield.

In saying that, education is undoubtedly important. It provides you with a vast knowledge and clear understanding of the field you have studied and wish to forge a career in. Education is a privilege and an asset in all facets of life. The issue arises, however, when someone is lacking in the practical experience needed to navigate the often erratic nature of a sales floor.

A successful leader needs to be well rounded and have experience in all aspects of the business. A successful leader also understands that without a diverse group of people working alongside them, their ideas will not come to fruition. This brings me to my next point: a leader needs to understand the kinds of people necessary to build their army. I like to refer to these people as the Minder, the Finder, and the Grinder.

The Minder The minder is the leader. They are well versed on how to methodologically approach each situation, whether that be on the sales floor or back of house. Their strengths lie in the application of logic and rationale. They are often on the introverted side of the spectrum and more in their own head, existing behind the scenes, so to speak. This enables them to keep an eye on more than one person at once, with time and energy to assist each member of the team and assure that the army is moving in the right direction. They are able to cultivate, train, and fine tune talent.

The Finder The finder is the hunter. They seek out new opportunities and initiatives. They focus on sourcing new talent for the workplace and acquiring new clients for the organization. They are personable, outgoing, and adept at recognizing opportunities. They are often the outsourcer, the “work smarter, not harder” kind of individuals. They have the ability to turn customers into repeat clients.

The Grinder The grinder is the labourer. They will work tirelessly until the project is complete. They are often the perfectionists in the group. You can almost assure that any project they do, or task they complete will be done correctly and to the best of their ability. They are the hustlers and will work to ensure longevity within the company.

How to become a successful leader

While reading those descriptions did you think to yourself “this one suits me” or “I have aspects of all three”? The most successful leaders may not need an MBA, but they do need to be able to do two things. First, they need to have aspects of those three characteristics. Second, they need to be able to recognize those three characteristics in other people.

This is not to say that you cannot excel in an executive level position without holding all three. If you are able to understand and appreciate these three characteristics, you will likely be able to implement aspects of each into your own life, while also ensuring you surround yourself with people who are competent in the areas you are less confident in. Understanding these characteristics will allow you to further understand your team and how to deliberately place people into appropriate work spaces. This will assure your team is working in harmony and talent is placed where it is most useful.

Trust as a leader

I recently read an article by Jenna Goudreau in Business Insider about Harvard Business School professor, Amy Cuddy. Cuddy, along with many other psychologists, believes that people ask themselves two questions when they meet someone new, “can I trust this person?” and “can I respect this person?”. Cuddy states that someone who embodies trust and respect in turn represents both warmth and competence. As a leader, it is important to cultivate these characteristics and ensure inclusion of them in how you lead.

Competence is highly valued in both a leader and a sales representative. For a sales associate, it is important for the consumer to know that the person they are talking to is knowledgeable and passionate about the product. As a leader, your team will be reluctant to follow you if they believe they know more than you about the topic you are trying to instruct them on.

A large part of being a successful leader involves the building of trust and likability. The most likeable people are the ones that we respect and trust. Competence and respect tend to go hand in hand as well as trust and respect. Leading with kindness and likability but also structure and direction is the recipe for creating a great leader.

Vulnerability as a leader

Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston. Brown has spent the last twelve years studying vulnerability, courage, and shame. Brown’s theory is that when you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity. Brown believes that the ideology behind vulnerability representing weakness is where shame comes into play. When we’re filled by the fear of what others think, it’s almost impossible to be authentic.

A powerful leader is someone who is not afraid to be vulnerable. They are not afraid to take risks or show weakness in order to empower someone else. Weakness makes people relatable, most of us have a hard time trusting those who are seemingly perfect. Vulnerability is lead by example.

A good example of vulnerability in leadership is the example of a wolf pack. In a wolf pack, the alpha dog organizes his army to walk in a very specific way. The leader, or alpha, will walk at the back of the pack. In front of him, come the stronger dogs, ready for battle. In front of those come the young, who are agile but perhaps not yet as strong. Leading the pack are the sick and elderly wolves. The dogs typically walk in a “V” formation with the Alpha dog bringing up the rear at the point of the “V”.

The back of the pack is the most vulnerable position so the Alpha will put himself there to assure that he can watch over his whole army. From there he can see potential danger. As the strongest dog, he is responsible for watching his own back while also watching over those on the frontline.

The alpha wolf is a strategist; he knows how to position his team to ensure they are competent. He will warn his team as to when they need to be on edge or ready to attack and put himself at risk in order to do so. Similar to a leader in the human world, the Alpha dog has appropriately placed the minder, the finder and the grinder to form the most successful team. By making himself vulnerable, he is allowing his team to prosper.

These skills cannot be taught in the classroom, but have to be learned through experience and human interaction.

I believe that holding a postgraduate degree will provide you with certain advantages and a strong minder personality. However, I do not believe it to be a necessary element in becoming a successful, motivating leader within the retail world. Holding an MBA is not a surefire way of becoming a respected and innovative principal. There are many attributes required that cannot be taught in school. To prosper in an executive position you need to embrace change, have the ability to admit when you don’t know something, and always be open to learning, both on the field and in the books. You should be able to recognize peoples’ personality types, appreciate the importance of each, and allow yourself and others room to be vulnerable and flawed. After all, as Brené Brown says, “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.”

Mina Ely

With twenty years in the luxury retail industry, Mina Ely has a broad understanding of the retail and fashion world. As a Luxury Retail Sales Specialist, Retail Strategist and Luxury Wardrobe Consultant, Mina provides a wide range of services to her portfolio of executive clients. Mina firmly believes that retails core values stem from the overall experience of the consumer and her goal is to ensure that the clients expectations are exceeded every time. Mina brings expertise that span the width of the business. Giving back to the community is important to Mina so she is passionate about partnering with charity organizations and hosting private events with the theme of “Fashion Cares for a Cause” in mind.

Article Author

Craig Patterson
Located in Toronto, Craig is the Editor-in-Chief of Retail Insider and President/CEO of Retail Insider Media Ltd. He is also a retail analyst and consultant, Director of Applied Research at the University of Alberta School of Retailing in Edmonton, and consultant to the Retail Council of Canada. He has studied the Canadian retail landscape for over 25 years and he holds Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Laws Degrees.

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