For the last decade we’ve been running private dinners for etail leaders, spiced with people from outside the sector. Ian Jindal reviews a decade’s ‘thank you’ notes and realises that one of the most-expressed concepts is that of humility.
THE INTERNET Retailing Dinner series matches ecommerce and multichannel leaders in a convivial dining setting, free of sales, presentations, speeches or other impedimenta to interesting people enjoying each other’s company. Initially our aim was to thank keynotes and speakers at our Conference, but we now run five or six a year. Part of the fun is inviting people who aren’t strictly retailers or ecommerce folk, but people in whom we’re interested: entrepreneurs, brand leaders, media people… the overall aim is that our wonderful guests feel it’s a good use of their evening.
Our guests’ thank you notes routinely say how lovely the other guests were and how much they learned. A recurring theme is how down to earth and humble was each of the famous industry leaders – people who, in fact, have many achievements worthy of recognition and every reason to cite their successes. This is a double compliment since the guests are often meeting people they admire deeply and recognise their achievements.
My normal response is that we work in a friendly and down-to-earth industry, but I think there’s more to it that simple niceness.
You’ll note that I’ve used the word ‘humility’ rather than ‘modesty’. While they often go hand in hand, modesty can be affected: Oliver Herford (sometimes called ‘the American Oscar Wilde) quipped that “Modesty is the gentle art of enhancing your charm by pretending not to be aware of it”. No such art in humility, which is a recognition of one’s own worth – neither falsely singing our own praises, nor playing down our accomplishments.
Based upon our conversations, interviews and observations there are a number of underlying factors that lead the most successful leaders to be the most understated – a sort of ‘ambitious humility’.
The first is that leaders increasingly orchestrate the talents of others – success really is a case of aligning all silos and skills to deliver upon the multichannel promise. Understanding one’s own role necessarily demands recognition of the other contributions.
Another reason is that we know success is temporary. While our direction of travel may be set, the means change. In the last century, the focus in retail was upon optimising operations (since capital and capabilities were the limiting factor for successful competition). In multichannel we see our leaders having to master, optimise, synthesise and change all of their tools and silos every few years. From technology to web, data to CRM, cloud services to store operations, successful retail leaders are engaged daily with change, improvement and balance. This means that every success is based upon a shifting arrangement of resources and that continued effort is required simply to sustain current wins.
A third reason for humility relates to ambition. Without exception, I have never met an ecommerce leader who’s “just satisfied”. The current state of their achievements, however grand, is still below their ambition and vision. We are always one iteration, one test, one experiment away from an improvement. As such, while they recognise the platform they have created, they see its value in how close to their vision it takes them, not how far they’ve travelled.
A fourth and fundamental reason for humility is clarity of vision and insight. While we all appreciate luck and being let off the occasional miscalculation by the Fates, retail leaders don’t depend upon fortune’s favours. Rather, they are deeply analytical, curious about facts and the underlying causes of performance. Most importantly they are able to distinguish those measures and inflexion points which most highly correlate to success. Given this clear thinking, they are therefore aware of their own contributions and talents as well as the often-unseen contribution of others.
After a decade at InternetRetailing I’m convinced that the attributes of orchestration, balance amidst change, and clarity of thought and vision all correlate to success, especially when harnessed towards a compelling and ambitious vision. That this also creates leaders who are great company and interesting people is an accident for which we all have cause to be grateful, and sets the tone for business culture in the decades to come.