NEW YORK — Michael Gould may be gone from Bloomingdale’s but he’s on the lecture circuit preaching what he’s long been passionate about — leadership.
This story first appeared in the June 16, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“The most precious and tangible quality of leadership is trust,” said Gould, Bloomingdale’s former chairman and chief executive officer, last Wednesday at the CEO Speaker Series at LIM College. “It starts with integrity. Right after that, I put intellectual curiosity.”
On what should be the top priorities, “The single most important things a leader should do are to have a succession plan, and have a strategic plan to get to your numbers,” Gould said. “You need to give people the opportunity to grow, that’s what it’s about. You can’t stop learning. Life is about education.
“Give opportunities to people so they grow to be leaders.”
No stranger to the halls of LIM, having received an honorary degree and a distinguished achievement award from the school two years ago, Gould was encouraging and philosophical in conveying his message to the students — that life should be a perpetual journey of learning, and that there’s room for leadership at any level, regardless of the type of job you hold, even a waitress who tells you to go for the tuna, instead of the chicken salad. “That’s an element of trust. Everyone of us has it in themselves to be a leader.”
He stressed that by building trust in employees and helping them to grow as workers and individuals, they’ll stick around. During his 22-year run as head of Bloomingdale’s, the average tenure among the 11 members of the executive committee was more than 20 years, Gould noted. “Instilling an attitude that prudent risk taking is vital.”
He also spoke up for the brick-and-mortar channel, stressing that it will always endure, even as digital shopping mushrooms, though the four-walls of retailers have issues.
“No more than 35 percent of [those] who walk into a store buy something,” Gould said. “Two thirds of the people are just walking through. They didn’t buy anything because either they didn’t have time, didn’t see anything new, or no one engaged them. I passionately believe that if four-wall businesses are done right, done with creativity, not me-too, they have a far better opportunity than they ever had. It’s all about relationships, social connections. We’ve been going to the market since the time of the Greeks. We want to be connected. I don’t see brick and mortar going away. You can’t make a connection online. You can go to the store and make a connection.”
Gould’s presentation was interactive, posing questions to the students that seemed curious at first. “What do you hear when you are in the forest?” Gould asked. “What don’t you hear?’’ The grass growing, the sun beating down on the leaves, Gould said, as a device to get the students to look at situations from more than one vantage, to see things from the top of the mountain and take another look closer to the base, to try to understand somebody and what’s on their mind, even when nothing is said.
“How do you get people to look at the other side of the situation? How do you get people to push back, so you are not attacking people but rather attacking the subject? It’s not disruptive.”
Underscoring the point, Gould, an inveterate article sender on business and self-help topics, urged the students to read “Mandela’s Way,” written by Richard Stengel, which while at Bloomingdale’s, he recommended that employees read — and more than 4,000 did. “It’s a book of life that changes our way of thinking,” Gould said, and at the store, it encouraged better communications and changed the dynamics.
He also called out John Gardner’s “Personal Renewal” to underscore another point. “How do we seek things that are going to make us better people?” asked Gould, who will find a new way for himself, post-Bloomingdale’s. “I want to be relevant. I want to continue to learn….The day anyone on the job stops learning, that’s the day you take the pictures off your desk and go somewhere else to work.”