“Change is really hard, and really scary.”
Charlie Cole, chief digital officer and vice president at Tumi, should know. He was once head of e-commerce for Lucky Brand, where he helped drive sales from $4 million to $60 million in two years. Afterward, he was chief executive officer of e-commerce firm The Line, and later an entrepreneur in residence at venture capital firm Maveron LLC. In his presentation on “Starting From Scratch: How to Help Transform a Brand When Coming From the Outside,” Cole provided leadership pointers on how to successfully effect change.
According to Cole, “Be aware of your individual biases.” He spoke about biases you can’t change, and how that can impact change in an organization. Also, “know what you suck at,” Cole said. He explained that when talking change, one needs allies. “Who do I need to make friends with?” is a key question to think about, Cole said.
“Don’t alienate everyone around you and focus just on your department. When I was at Lucky I alienated everyone. You need personal relationships across departments or you are doomed to fail,” he said.
He explained that these other individuals can “help in ways that your immediate circle can’t.” Cole said he worked with a project manager and found out that this person was also a really good photographer, so he made a point to utilize those photographic skills on a project. Cole’s key point here is: “You never know who in the company you should collaborate with until you get out of your immediate circle.”
He also spoke about working at Tumi and how the company was convinced that it was evolving, when in fact it was facing a typical pattern of seeing revenues and margins climb for a period of time before hitting a plateau and then seeing revenues slip and margins drop. He said it would have been easy it is to add promotional days to generate sales, but noted that was the wrong thing to do with a heritage brand like Tumi. What the company needed to do was to evolve the brand, but as an insider “it was easy to get lost as to the internal realities of the brand.”
In addition to figuring out how to evolve the brand, aligning compensation to meeting key metrics provides incentives. And decreasing e-mail cadences while increasing the relevance of each e-mail outreach are also ways to scale your successes.
“What do you do that you should do more often?” Cole asked. He spoke about thinking of what should be reviewed systematically every month, every quarter and every year. Things change and priorities change. He noted how the tablet strategy was important two years ago, but now isn’t as important as before.
He touched upon cross-department collaborations, and having team members rewrite job descriptions, but this time having them “focus on what they actually do and what they want to do.” Then there’s the review of the product pipeline and whether that still makes sense or if it needs to be adjusted.
Cole touched upon other tips for leaders, such as corporate ownership changes and the new learnings stemming from Samsonite’s acquisition of the brand earlier this year.
“Understand what you can’t change,” Cole said, explaining that one needs to “understand how to work within the structure.” That means knowing your boundaries, as well as understanding the people around you.
Further, when you come in from the outside, you also have to give your team a chance to prove themselves, as well as be a team player yourself. Cole spoke of working in the trenches on a project with his team, and taking shifts with his team so he can “walk the talk.”