Q. Did you always have an interest in retail?
A. No. I went to business school because I wasn’t sure about going to law school. After graduation, I was turned down for a job in the research department at Goldman Sachs and I ended up at Abraham &Straus. Like most things in life, it was very serendipitous.
Q. Any leadership lessons you learned while you were growing up?
A. My father was a biochemistry professor at M.I.T. He was also the faculty adviser for biology and pre-med majors. It’s funny what you remember: I was in grade school, and the phone rings during dinner. There were no answering machines in those days, of course. My father starts getting up and my mother says: “Bernie, sit. Let it ring.” And my father says: “Sophie, it could be a student. And if a student has the courage to call his professor, the professor should always be there.”
What it said to me was that we’re in the people business. I believe the business I’m in is giving people an opportunity to grow. At the end of the day, no one remembers anyone’s numbers, no matter how good they were at any moment in time. All anyone’s going to remember is, did they give me an opportunity to be more than I thought I could be? What people want is a sense of recognition. They want a sense of belonging. People want to sense that what they’re doing makes a difference.
Q. Other overarching thoughts about leadership?
A. To me, the fundamental basis of leadership is trust. If you don’t have trust, you have no leadership. I’ve also always believed that you have to be passionate about what you do, and have compassion for people. I don’t think you can teach passion. You know it when you see it. You can just look in somebody’s eyes.
Q. Do have any favorite sayings or expressions?
A. One of the most important pieces of advice I ever got in business, and I tell this to every new employee: “You don’t have to have the answers. You just have to know where to go for the answers. Don’t think you’re a lone ranger.”
Q. How do you hire? What qualities are you looking for?
A. One of the very first things I look for is intellectual curiosity. People have to walk through the store to get to my office, so if someone’s come in here for an interview, I will ask them, “What didn’t you like?” I don’t ask them, “Tell me what you liked.” I say, “Tell me what you didn’t like.” Their back will go up a little, and I’ll say: “I asked a question. I’m not taking notes.”
I know what they probably shouldn’t have liked, but do they have the intellectual curiosity? What do they do when they’re not working? I’ll also say, “What should I know about you that I haven’t already asked about?” It’s interesting what people say.
Q. If you had only five minutes to interview someone and could ask them only a few questions, what would they be?
A. “Tell me the best business decision you’ve made in the last year. What’s the worst decision you’ve made in the last year? What are three areas of self-improvement that you’re working on?”
Q. You talked earlier about the importance of compassion. Can you elaborate on that?
A. I do not claim to be the smartest or the swiftest, but I have an ability to listen to people and empathize with what I think they’re going through. I think empathy is a large part of life, and being sincere and truthful is a large part of life.
Q. Some of the C.E.O.’s I’ve interviewed have talked about the tricky balance around empathy — yes, you have to care about people, but you also have to make hard choices and difficult decisions about staffing. Your thoughts on that?
A. I went to work at Giorgio in 1986, and after I was there awhile, I had to let a sales manager go. He was in way over his head. It was the first change I made, but I watched and waited for months until it seemed like an appropriate time. I had such angst about it. After I let him go, I said to the fellow who was in charge of human resources: “How’s the staff? How are the younger account executives in the field going to feel?” And he said: “Listen, they want to know what took you so long to do it. They like him personally, but he wasn’t the leader he had to be.”
I think that 95 percent of the time, when we wait too long as leaders to make hard decisions about people, we’re marked down by the team, because the team is wondering, what took so long? It has to be right for the company and the person, just like the job.
But I don’t know how you can be a great leader without warmth and humility. That doesn’t mean you can’t cut bait if you have to, and it doesn’t mean you’re not honest with people. Honesty is day in, day out. People have to trust you and know you always have their back, in the good times and the tougher times. I don’t think you can have too much warmth or too much empathy.
Q. What about career advice?
A. I give a lot of people a John Gardner article from 1990 on personal renewal. Life is an endless process. When you get out of college you say: “I’ve got my degree, I graduated with a solid G.P.A., I played intercollegiate sports, I spent a year in Europe. Now I’m going to go work.” No, you’re not going to go work. You’re going to go learn. Part of what you’re going to learn about here is retail and part of what you’re going to learn is about life and interpersonal skills. It’s everyone’s role at Bloomingdale’s to make sure these kids are learning. And it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep learning.
I had one of my top executives say to me a few years ago, “I don’t want the same job next year.” I said, “Well, you’re not going to have the same job next year.” I’ve had the same title for 14 years, but I haven’t had the same job. You have to evolve.
Interview via: The New York Times
I’ve been lucky enough to have seen him speak on the importance of “giving” & not taking life to seriously. It’s amazing to see a CEO speak in such sincerity about enjoying your job& not taking life to seriously, but also making sure that you are there to be able to help someone. And make sure there is always someone there to help you… After all, it’s all a learning experience.