Best Buy CEO Takes Lessons From the Front Line

Discussion
Aug 18, 2009
George Anderson

By George Anderson

Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn started out working in stores and knows that associates on the front line are a valuable source of information that he needs to tap into.

In an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Dunn recalled an experience where the store manager sought out his opinion as a 14-year-old manning the checkout. After giving a no insight answer, Mr. Dunn recalled the manager saying, "I asked you about this ’cause I really care what you think. You’re doing this every single day and I want to know what you think about it."

Mr. Dunn, who moved from that first job in a supermarket to working in a consumer electronics store and eventually up the ladder to his present position, added, "I know it seems simple, but just that notion of learning from people who are actually doing the work, and the encouragement he gave me to tell him exactly what I thought really stayed with me, and it was a recurring thing throughout the time I worked for him."

Today as CEO of the consumer electronics chain, Mr. Dunn told the Times, "It’s really important to me to get out where the customer experiences the brand, and that means I surf our Web pages. It means I call our call center. It means I visit our stores and talk to our associates about what’s working, what’s not."

Discussion Questions: What is your assessment of Brian Dunn’s approach to leading Best Buy? Does Mr. Dunn’s store-level experience give him an edge over CEOs leading other companies who did not come up from the front lines?

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27 Comments on "Best Buy CEO Takes Lessons From the Front Line"


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Dan Raftery
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

Clear lines of feedback are key to any CEO’s success. Most expect their direct reports to provide it, as I’m sure Mr. Dunn does. The advantage for Mr. Dunn goes beyond the obvious. A senior executive at Best Buy once told me that the demographic for their associates and target consumer were basically the same. Many Best Buy associates work there so they can be on the leading edge of electronics. Talk about loyalty programs. This may be the best one ever. Mr. Dunn is listening to his best consumers who also happen to be company insiders.

Pradip V. Mehta, P.E.
Guest
Pradip V. Mehta, P.E.
11 years 8 months ago

Mr. Dunn’s approach to leading Best Buy is very practical as Mr. Dunn will be able to manage and lead not simply based on numbers but also taking into consideration unfiltered information he himself would collect and analyze based on his own encounters with customers and store level employees. No doubt, this will lead to improved quality and timeliness of his decision making. Mr. Dunn’s store-level experience gives him definite edge over CEOs leading other companies who did not come up from the front lines.

I am always amazed how many CEOs base their decisions on filtered information that reaches them and never leave the ivory tower to see what is going on at the customer level, and when they go to see what is going on at the customer level, they go with an entourage which makes their visits meaningless!

Chuck Palmer
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

The best leadership comes from real experience. It takes an exceptional talent to keep the simple things like connecting with the front lines and the complexities of being a CEO in balance.

It seems Mr. Dunn may be cut from the same cloth as traditional merchant leaders–that’s a good thing. Best Buy has in recent years proven that it can gather meaningful insights from many places. They are not afraid to try different pathways to address opportunities that come from those insights.

I expect Mr. Dunn won’t fix what is not broken and make it better and better. I’m looking forward to what they do on the international stage.

Kevin Graff
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

I’m not saying that senior managers don’t ‘get it’, but it’s amazing how many of them don’t spend much time in their stores yet still stomp around like they’re the expert on their brand and business.

The front-line staff are the ones who have to execute all of those head-office plans, who have to sell the product that some buyer decided was worthy, and who have to deal face to face with the customer. So, who really knows the reality of the business?

It’s shocking that Mr. Dunn’s approach is considered revolutionary and print worthy when it’s such a common sense thing to do. How did management get so far off track in the first place?

Mark Burr
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

Building success is much more likely from the bottom up than the top down. That’s why they call that thing under your house a foundation. You can’t quite hang roof joists without it and before adding the walls.

Mr. Dunn’s approach is exactly right and is yielding results. And, as mentioned, I agree that it’s shocking or even noteworthy that this type of approach is somehow out of the ordinary pattern where success is found. In much the same way Jim Sinegal’s approach at Costco has been branded as revolutionary in the past.

Marge Laney
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

Mr. Dunn’s story reminds me a lot of McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner. They both moved up the ladder in the company from the front line; they can relate to it because they lived it. The problem with so many retailers today is that top management rarely gets out into the stores. And when they do, the store has been notified well in advance and spends days prior to the visit making everything look perfect; a far cry from the reality the CEO should see. These skewed views of perfection lead top management to dream up customer experience strategies that are too complicated and lack any connection to reality. And attempts to execute at the store level are met with resistance from the front line associates because it just doesn’t make sense. Successful CEOs like Mr. Dunn and Mr. Skinner came up from the front line and are not afraid to visit unannounced and often.

Susan Rider
Guest
Susan Rider
11 years 8 months ago

Smart man! The front line tells the story. Usually when consulting, I’ll spend some time on the night shift or front line. It’s amazing what you find out. Kudos!

W. Frank Dell II
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

The number one failure I see in senior retail executives is not spending time in the store listening to customers and associates. Too often they think they know or imagine that they know what is going on. Not being in the store enough causes headquarters to be frequently caught by surprise when the world changes.

All the great merchants spent considerable time in the stores as they understood that the store is the heart of every retail company.

Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
11 years 8 months ago

The danger of being in headquarters is that you start to believe that “truth” comes solely from intellectual analysis and planning. It is true that great insight can be gathered from understanding trends and performance tracked at the customer level. At the same time, most Marketing initiatives that fail do so because of a failure to translate those insights to the grassroots level–where the pedal meets the metal–where customers meet salespeople to conduct transactions and provide support and service.

I have seen executives rise from the store level and fail–they believe that insight and innovation ONLY come from grassroots and they discount any corporate initiatives at all. I believe the most important attribute that Mr. Dunn holds is the belief that the place where corporate meets the field is the land of real opportunity. Get smart people who know customers together with people who know THEIR customer and exciting things can happen. That is the real insight of Mr. Dunn.

Phil Rubin
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

People like Brian Dunn are so refreshing to learn about, especially when they are at the helm of a retail leader like Best Buy. All the people there who supported his career deserve a lot of credit as he sounds exactly like someone who deserves to be where he is.

At the same time it’s sadly uncommon to hear a CEO of such a large company–especially a retailer–so well grounded and so willing to speak the unvarnished truth. And how many CEOs actually contact customers based on social media, much less make it a point to actively listen and fix things?

As he said, he didn’t wake up with a higher IQ when he was named CEO. In other words, it ain’t rocket science. Pay attention to the details, listen and learn. Actually that is like science, isn’t it?

Steven Collinsworth
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

Amazing! Mr. Dunn may have spawned the “new way to manage.” Seriously, this is what leadership of every company should be doing and doing it often and across the breadth of the company, not just in one area around the headquarter offices.

Mark Johnson
Guest
Mark Johnson
11 years 8 months ago

This gets back to the old “managing by walking around idea” and this is another example of “voice of the customer.” The fact remains that this is a great example of how listening to those who have the day to day experience with doing a job can lead to great results.

I just finished Jim Collin’s new book, “Why the Mighty Fail.” He compared Circuit City to Best Buy and how Best Buy was always listening to their feedback and constantly updated the format of the store, the layout and the personnel in the store based on this feedback.

Yet the key to being successful is to make sure that you are not only listening, but implementing and rewarding those who are providing you the feedback. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Carol Spieckerman
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

When I read this interview with Mr. Dunn a couple of days ago, I was instantly impressed by his accessibility, humbleness and lifetime-learner persona. Sure, we’d all love to say that these qualities are the baseline for CEOs, however, that just isn’t retail reality. Plenty in retail leadership today have spent their careers drifting among various retail organizations, taking their same habits with them. Some will still tell you with pride how they don’t check their own email (gasp!). Mr. Dunn’s store-level background would only be a big advantage if he CONTINUED to seek store-level insight. Luckily for Best Buy, that’s exactly what he’s doing.

Ian Percy
Guest
11 years 8 months ago
My obsession lately is identifying quantum principles from nature and the universe and translating them into business practice. A couple of those have to do with this very issue–that of the interdependency of all things and the presence of common mind. Biologists have explained that every one the multi-trillion cells in our body thinks. Our thinking does not happen just in our brains. In fact “brain” and “mind” are very different things. One is physical and one is spiritual. Now to apply the metaphor. If a company thinks its thinking comes from the “brain” or senior executives/corner office/board room, it will have a severe handicap. The truth is every “cell” (employee) is capable of accessing critical information, wisdom and creativity. Many companies have geniuses earning an hourly wage and no one knows it including the genius. The challenge is accessing these incredible and limitless resources that we have right at our fingertips. It is NOT a matter of getting “feedback.” That is an insult. There’s a big difference between “What do you think about what… Read more »
Roger Saunders
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

Great to see Leadership that practices the art/science of “Walking around Management.” If you’re in the retail business, that means getting around to stores. If you’re in manufacturing, it means getting around to factories. If you’re a Head Coach, you’d better get to the practice field. If you’re in education, get to the schools, etc.

It is worth the read to review the entire Saturday, August 15 interview with Brian Dunn. What comes across is that he is not merely spending time in the stores. He’s spending time LISTENING, asking questions about Allocation, Merchandise, Associate Satisfaction, Customers, and more. Then, he follows it up with reading and ongoing communication/feedback on monthly and quarterly Webinars.

And, Dunn even points out the essential need to have his organization FOCUS on the VITAL FEW issues–he’s trying to move the big rocks, he’s not drowning in quicksand.

Little wonder that BEST BUY continues to stand out in Consumer Electronics, and that they captured 3+ points of Circuit City’s 6.2% market share.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
11 years 8 months ago

We all admire a CEO who knows he doesn’t know what’s going on where he isn’t, then goes where he can gain more knowledge. Mr. Dunn seems like smart front-line guy to work with.

Jonathan Marek
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

It’s great that the BrainTrust is lauding this; it deserves to be lauded. But it isn’t exactly new. Read Sam Walton’s book “Made in America”. He lays out his exact “walking around management” approach, and it’s from the guy who was the best there ever was at this style.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
11 years 8 months ago

It is tough to learn anything inside the four walls of your world headquarters. The real learning opportunities are happening in store and at your competitors. I have participated in several meetings with executives that were discussing strategies on how they were going to go to market and compete effectively against their competitor. What has surprised me on several occasions is how many of those decisions were based on things developed inside the headquarters and not from visiting the field.

Mr. Dunn’s past retail experience does not give him the competitive advantage. What gives him the competitive advantage is he knows from that retail experience that he needs to go out to stores to learn what’s happening in the market. That is the key difference.

Lee Peterson
Guest
11 years 8 months ago
The only problem with starting your retail career on the sales floor, as I did, is that it can be extremely challenging dealing with the endless amount of seemingly idiotic ideas that get presented to you on a daily basis. However, the key to overcoming your visceral knowledge of what works and doesn’t work is to stay as open minded as possible and actually give some of those idiotic ideas a shot. That’s the conundrum. For example, as a retailer, would you have thought that the Geek Squad was a good idea at first blush? What about Genius Bar? How about a wall at your entrance with a huge graphic of a shirtless man on it?? Staying innovative when you know retail history is difficult. It’s easy to play it safe. But knowing that if you don’t stay fresh, you won’t have anything but “Ye Olde Retail Stories” to tell . . . is the best knowledge of history you can have. This next decade is going to be the make-or-break for many retail concepts… Read more »
Bill Hanifin
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

This is a refreshing and encouraging story of a CEO who understands the fundamentals needed to deliver consistently good customer service and a “Customer Strategy” that will keep the company at the head of the category.

Training of front line personnel in retail is a sore spot for many companies and I believe that improvement in this area is more a matter of willpower than capability. The opportunity for return on investment in this area is tremendous and understanding and commitment from the top level of the organization ensures that the investment will be made.

The CEO at Zappos has been made famous for similar reasons, monitoring the pulse of customer commentary via Twitter and other social media tools. This is the approach that I believe will contribute to market leadership in the future.

Kai Clarke
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

Mr. Dunn is doing the right thing. However, it is not the best use of his time or perspective. To get a good idea of what is really happening, they could contact a single associate, at random from different stores in different locations and ask a fixed set of 5-10 questions (verbally). This could also be a simple IM Chat room that the president could invite everyone to and get immediate feedback from, while gaining perspective from different stores and different employees. A few physical feedback perspectives is not enough to provide resolution to a chain of several thousand stores….

Tim Henderson
Guest
Tim Henderson
11 years 8 months ago

This discussion item is closely related to the previous item about c-store careers. Specifically, Dunn’s career path is a great example of the stories that this industry needs to publicize, i.e., stories that show retailing as a viable, rewarding career.

As for Dunn, the article offers great insight on leadership. I couldn’t agree more with his approach of getting insights directly from front-line staff and from consumers. That approach is exactly what every retail exec and manager should be doing, i.e., they should actually shop their stores, actively solicit feedback and then act on it.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

Wow! He surfs the web and uses the call center. Every CEO should call their own call centers and find the level of frustration that consumers experience working through menus that often times don’t have enough flexibility to meet a consumer’s needs.

Dunn is impressive. Many CEOs do the trips to the stores, but without the in-store experience, those field trips are quite limiting. There is a special insight that one develops when you are on the firing line. There are experiences that no one can teach. It is not dissimilar to having real sales experience in a CPG company. At the highest levels, sales are not often well represented.

Too often as organizations grow and become more sophisticated, they opt for the academically trained managers. Unfortunately, that front-line experience is sometimes looked down on, to the detriment of good decision making.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
11 years 8 months ago

Brian Dunn is demonstrating the common thread that runs through all the retail companies that lead their channel. Namely, he recognizes and acts on the principle that the center of gravity for a successful retailer is on the sales floor and not in the corporate office.

Spending time on the sales floor and talking with the associates who actually spend their time with the customer pays far greater dividends than sitting in meetings and staring at computer screens. It is also the hallmark of all the truly successful retailers–Walmart, Bed, Bath, & Beyond, and Home Depot (pre-Nardelli). The simple truth is that you don’t see customers in the home office. Secondly, this interest in the field organization fosters a sense of ownership in the field that is priceless.

Look for great things from Best Buy.

Mike Kraus
Guest
Mike Kraus
11 years 8 months ago

We’re all aware of the dichotomy that exists between the corporate office and the field. The fact that the CEO and other execs spend time in the field, rubbing elbows and kissing babies (so to speak) helps break down those barriers, creating a more unified team instead of an “us vs. them” mentality that exists between the home office and the field in many retail companies. The fact that the corporate execs get to see firsthand, learn, and get inspired to think in new and fresh ways is an added benefit. The creation of a unified culture in a retail environment trumps all.

Aman Nanda
Guest
Aman Nanda
11 years 8 months ago

I am sometimes amazed by the number of people I meet in the retail industry who don’t really pay attention–forget working in a store–when they go out shopping. When you have someone who rises from within the ranks, it helps employee morale and stands as an example to someone starting today that they can also rise to the top. As far as the other benefits of this are concerned, I think everyone on the forum has already done an exceptional job of describing why we should listen to the front lines….

Lee Johnson
Guest
Lee Johnson
11 years 8 months ago

You’re right, not much to add that hasn’t already been said. It’s about time that those is senior management positions realize that all the hand wringing and strategic planning in the world doesn’t do a thing to increase top line sales, if the customer is disappointed at store level.

Excellent customer service, clean, pleasant and safe shopping environment (inside and out), good selection and value and associates that are professional and well trained will win hands down over and over again. Time to get folks out of the office and into the stores–the last time I checked there weren’t any POS systems in the board room!

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