This article was written by Harry Bernard for WWD.

The best executives and designers are those with an indefinable yet vital quality.

This story first appeared in the August 27, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Getting “it” requires a rare combination of intellectual and instinctive traits. People who “get it” are those who have vision, think creatively, are flexible and most of all combine the instincts of the entrepreneur with the rarest of all commodities: common sense. No one has yet been able to explain satisfactorily why something that is so rarely used — and by so few — can be called common. When you do meet those men and women blessed with entrepreneurial common sense, it can take your breath away!

As headhunters for over 30 years, we’ve developed a set of criteria using this definition of “it” as a measuring stick that allows the best individuals to rise to the top. And when those people who get “it” find a business culture that reveres and nurtures those traits, great things happen. The organization is flexible and can more easily adapt to the dynamics of change as well as demands for growth and profit. When a corporate culture doesn’t evolve or is forced to remain in stasis by managers who don’t get it, bad things can and do happen to good people — including shareholders. There are also those who once got it, but lost it along the way. We’ll have more to say about that further on.

Every manager is faced with the fact of change — whether it’s a matter of simple fine-tuning or a total refocusing of priorities and goals. To the basics of entrepreneurial common sense, those who get it are able to respond to both market change and shareholder expectations by adding a heavy dose of logic and a grasp of history: How did we get here? Where are we going? How do we get there?

Because they are logical as well as creative visionaries, ceo’s who get it constantly want answers to these questions:

  • What does the market demand?
  • What do our shareholders or investors demand?
  • What does meeting these often-divergent sets of demands impose on our internal structure, our human resources and our brand-building efforts?
  • What do we need in terms of concept, capital and commitment to achieve our stated goal?

    Both top- and bottom-line strategies are covered — or uncovered — by the answers to these four basic questions. There are certainly other questions, but we’re talking about the basics as interpreted by entrepreneurs with vision, flexibility, creativity and common sense.

    Before these ceo’s present business concepts or organizational ideas to their boards, they examine and research them from the outside in. Then they evaluate the results through the prism of an objective outsider’s point of view based on experience, knowledge of the market and the ceo involved. They’re on a constant lookout for warning signals or alerts regarding competitors, changing market dynamics, trends and opportunities. They demand an objective assessment of concept feasibility, as well as a nonbiased opinion of their key executives’ effectiveness.

    Their most important HR decisions are derived from the above.

    History is the final arbiter of who gets it and has demonstrated that, for instance, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei and Ben Franklin definitely got it. Their vision and common sense not only changed the way we see our world, but through the media of art, science and politics, they showed us how to adapt and change our lives for the better.

    Looking at the world around us, we can point to Richard Branson as the entrepreneur who, among other things, gave us Virgin Airlines, a new way to travel in style without giving away the bank account. Then there are Warren Buffett and his bridge partner, Bill Gates — can we doubt that the two most powerful and wealthy men in America get it? Not because they are so rich and powerful, but because of the way they got there.

    More relevant to our industry, let’s think about some of the people who have changed the way we think about buying and selling those things we use in our daily lives. In the world of retailing, no one got it as clearly as Sam Walton. His vision became a reality. And some reality it is — a rural general store offering a one-stop shopping experience has morphed into the world’s largest company and retail enterprise, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. There is no doubt in my mind that Sam Walton has changed the way our industry does business. And with sales of a quarter trillion dollars, Wal-Mart gets it big-time and never stops trying to get it in new ways.

    And before we look at some other legendary pioneers in the world of fashion, we should recognize Paul Pressler, ceo of Gap Inc., as today’s retail poster boy for those who get it. He’s not only taken Gap’s merchandise back to basics, but has applied the business basics we described as entrepreneurial common sense to bring the company’s three key brands back to prominence and profitability.

    Did Pressler get some of it from departed Gap ceo Mickey Drexler, now with J. Crew? It’s hard for us to say at this time, but it’s undeniable that Pressler didn’t lose any of what he might have inherited.

    Men and women who get it have forced us to rethink the way we view ourselves, judge our neighbors, how and where we shop, how we dress, how we travel and how we want to live. Coco Chanel gave us ready-to-wear, Giorgio Armani allowed men to like fashion and pursue it, Ralph Lauren gave the world a view of the American dream as lifestyle and Calvin Klein gave us both American minimalism and took the first significant bite out of Levi’s hold on the denim jeans business. More important, he built a worldwide reputation based on two commodity items — sexy underwear and denim jeans.

    Liz Claiborne forced retailers to create an entirely new classification and her brand was the first to garner its own open-to-buy and buyer. This was accomplished by giving career women clothes to wear to work designed to be understandable and accessible. Her vision has been developed into one of the industry’s largest and most profitable organizations.

    Still, when he recognized that the brand was facing oversaturation, Paul Charron, the company’s ceo, began building a coalition of 33 brands to make up the Liz Claiborne corporate entity. This approach gave the company access to multiple channels of distribution, and a wide range of consumers who can select styles from the most basic to trendy fashions at prices ranging from mass market to bridge.

    And say what you like about dehumanization, but the new LizPlanning initiative between Claiborne and Federated not only reinforces just how clearly Charron and his team get it, but adds to the growing body of evidence that Terry Lundgren, Federated’s ceo, gets not only what needs to be done to make department stores competitive and compelling again, but also is putting it to work.

    Mindy Grossman has made Nike a serious player in the women’s market, a business dominated by others until recently. Dick Baker, Ocean Pacific’s lifestyle-driven ceo, has literally brought the company and the OP brand back from the dead. Not content with merely bringing the brand back to life, he’s completely restructured the business to make it a pure marketing company, with revenue derived from a strong licensing program driven by OP’s top management.

    And what about staid old Phillips-Van Heusen and its presumably sleepy ceo, Bruce Klatsky? The Calvin Klein acquisition and tie-ins with Andy Grossman and Kellwood say it loud and clear — Bruce Klatsky gets it!

    I’m saving the names of those who got it and lost it for that book I’m always being asked to write. But you know who they are. They were seduced by their own press and press releases, by yes-men and yes-women, and failed to recognize and accept the reality of their current position, especially as it related to the immediate dynamics of the marketplace. Because they often depended solely on their own point of view, they didn’t recognize the value of objectivity in developing strategic business and marketing plans. And a good helping of the uncommon common sense would have reminded them that “survival must come before ego.”

    In his new book “Big Brands, Big Trouble,” Jack Trout identifies the belief that “We’re very successful” as one of the biggest miscalculations made by brands that are poised to lose market share. Success can lead to arrogance, and arrogance to failure. Those who get it don’t allow previous excellence to blur their objectivity and never allow it to satisfy their appetite for future success.

    Yes, there are others who get it. The names that appear here are easily recognized and are examples meant to readily define and simplify our definition of getting it. If you feel strongly about any individual who has created a new market dynamic or changed the way business is conducted, or someone who once got it but lost it, let’s talk about them. And maybe I’ll write that book sooner than later.

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