She listens intently. [She] has trained herself not to interrupt or seem rushed. Her eye contact never wavers, and while she insists she couldn’t function without her briefing folders, she never seems to need to look at them. [She] mixes folksy sincerity and laser focus […] effortlessly. Unlike corporate chiefs who favor an inaccessible, imperial style, Ahrendts seems comfortable with dissent; her executives joke easily with her, and aren’t afraid to press their points.
This is the stuff of managerial grace, isn’t it? A boss who solicits staff opinion. A boss who listens well.
Listening is a good idea for lots of reasons. It is the signature of corporations in which information moves easily and well. it is the stuff of candor which is the stuff of transparency which is one of the vital signs of the corporation (Bennis, Goldman, and O’Toole).
But listening well matters for Ahrendts especially because she is, as every CEO is, an exalted creature. She travels and lives in a well upholstered, carefully modulated world. Limos, corporate jets, luxurious homes and hotels.
This doesn’t matter much if you make electronic components, but it matters a lot when you are the CEO of a luxury brand. Burberry has survived aristocratic lows, licensing lows, and it will flourish now only if it learns to run the rapids of contemporary culture.
And the trouble is that there is some kid in Norway, or maybe it’s Cheng Du, working on music, software or a video that will help shift our culture. This kid is extremely hard to see from the deep comfort of a corporate limo.
Now, of course, Ahrendts is not without resources when it comes to staying in touch with culture. Christopher Bailey serves as her brilliant Chief Creative Officer. Her kids create and curate culture. She lives in the American heartland so there is no island (i.e., Manhattan) captivity to worry about. Burberry has experimented successfully with social media and cocreation. Plus, it sounds like Ahrendts can pick up the phone and call David Bowie any time she wants and that has to be quite a good thing.
The trouble is it’s not just that kid in Norway. The malls of America are a Petrie dish. At the moment they are nursing a new set of values. These values won’t matter directly to a luxury brand like Burberry, but they will matter indirectly and that’s the question in its fully difficulty. How will they matter? How will they concatenate into the world Burberry must master? America is having one of its periodic thinks on the ideas of fashion and luxury. This is hard to conger with from the inside the world of fashion and luxury (and a corporate limo).
And this is why it is so very critical that Ahrendts listens well. Because she is surrounded everyday by a small army of young people who are a little less cushioned and a little more connected. (It’s not perfect, but hey…as they say.) But this body of information, opinion and pattern recognition is only available if you are the kind of boss who invites people to insist on what they know. These kids are the aquifer out of which Ahrendts can and plainly does draw great things.
I believe it’s true that most corporations are a little less inclusive. Most corporations ignore the great stock of knowledge that generations X and Y bring to work every morning. Occasionally, from the precipice of a decision, someone will say, "run this down the hall and see what the intern thinks." Tthis is listening very badly indeed. I keep hoping that new generations will find a way to insist on their inclusion, that they will stage a palace coup if necessary. Indeed, I hoped Chief Culture Officer might serve as a rallying cry. But so far I’m not seeing any evidence of a fifth column. Just the noblesse oblige of a CEO listening well.
Bennis, Warren, Daniel Goleman, and James O’Toole. 2008. Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor. Jossey-Bass.
Hass, Nancy. 2010. “Earning Her Stripes: Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts Balances Life and Work.” WSJ Magazine, September 9 http://magazine.wsj.com/features/the-big-interview/earning-her-strips/ (Accessed September 17, 2010).
On the listening question, there’s a nice opportunity to compare Ahrendts’ style to that of another CEO in the garment industry. Here’s how Paumgarten describes Mickey Drexler, the CEO of J. Crew.
His inquisitions have an auctioneer’s temp and a depositional intensity, but they also project an ease that derives from the pleasure he seems to take in them, and the pleasure, albeit of a wary and poised kind, that his employees seem to take in him. Some combination of self-possession, insecurity, good humor, and good tailoring makes him approachable. His command of a room is sneaky; it is unexpectedly fortified by curiosity and self-effacement.
Paumgarten, Nick. 2010. “The Merchant.” The New Yorker, September 20, p. 79.