Limited’s Les Wexner: To Lead is to Teach

Discussion
Dec 06, 2010

By Tom Ryan

Leslie Wexner, the founder of Limited Brands Inc., mentions having
a natural curiosity, overcoming the fear of failure and trusting your successes
as some of the keys to leadership. But he particularly believes in the importance
of effective communication and, ultimately, teaching.

“Words matter,” Mr. Wexner told Smart Business Columbus in
a discussion focused on leadership. “What’s clear in my mind’s
eye in terms of imagining something, if I’m not real clear about my communication,
you won’t understand what I’m really thinking in the fullest sense.”

Over
his more than 40-year retail career, Mr. Wexner’s Limited empire has launched
Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, Bath & Body Works,
Express, Limited and White Barn Candle, among other chains.

He told the business
periodical that what’s important is reinforcing the “main
thing” and continually asking questions to probe whether the team is on
the same page.

“I really like chocolate,” Mr. Wexner offered an example. “I’m
imagining milk chocolate, and you like chocolate but you like dark chocolate.
When I say I like chocolate, you go to what you’re thinking, not what
I’m
thinking.”

“I’m always fluent when I talk to myself,” Mr. Wexner added. “If
you’ve got friends or a spouse or other people, there is the opportunity
for confusion. An organization is just a large group. That gets to the subject
of leadership. First, you have an idea. As the organization gets larger, you
tend to discover what you know and don’t know about leadership.”

Frustrated
in his early days that his team wasn’t grasping what he was saying, he recognized
that his communication focus should be more centered on teaching.

“You have to see yourself more as a teacher,” said Mr. Wexner. “You
have to be able to distill what it is you know and what you’re thinking,
whether it’s the values of your organization or things about quality
or products, into a point of view where you can teach it. Part of teaching
is for you to have a clarity of what it is and why. If I just tell you something
and I can’t give you the reason, I don’t think it’s nearly
as effective.”

Discussion Questions: What do you think of the metaphor of the CEO’s role
as a teacher? What are some steps to communicating more effectively across organizations?

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9 Comments on "Limited’s Les Wexner: To Lead is to Teach"


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Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
10 years 5 months ago

You know, I’m more a believer in the Love and Logic method. The creators of this method apply it mainly to parents and their kids, but I think it works in almost everything–and it’s not so much about teaching as it is about letting people discover how to learn for themselves. First, model the behavior that you expect from your employees (this seems to trip up a lot of CEOs). This means if you expect honesty and integrity, you better be a model of honesty and integrity. On the flip side, if you’re not, nothing will send a quicker message about the real culture of a company than the CEO’s behavior.

After that, it’s all about consequences–good or bad. And yes, there are teaching moments (“Why do you think this went wrong?”) and it involves asking a lot of questions. But the best leaders have people who can answer those questions themselves.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
10 years 5 months ago

Leslie sees the center of the target. Clear communications are cardinal to any organization and society. That allows for more productive teaching, which in turns expands secular thought and self-interest actions.

Everyone should be a teacher and a mentor, not just CEOs. We must all learn how to determine common objectives and then have the self-discipline to accept and live by them. But that has also been true for centuries.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
10 years 5 months ago

With all due respect to Mr. Wexner, I totally disagree.

I think too many leaders focus their effort on getting their people to understand “WHAT they know.” And to use Mr. Wexner’s example, who’s to say his idea of chocolate is the right one?

I don’t think teaching others WHAT you know is the point of leadership or the role of a CEO.

What history tells us is that great leaders maintain a relentless focus on communicating WHY the organization does what it does and WHY it matters to the world and WHY everyone who works there should care. It’s the WHY that matters. Not the WHAT.

Great CEOs are the guiding light of purpose. They leave the WHAT and HOW to their people.

Marge Laney
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

Les Wexner, Steve Jobs, and Mickey Drexler have one thing in common; clear vision. They understand that as CEO they are the author and keeper of the corporate vision. They grow it by surrounding themselves with like-minded people who understand the vision and can translate that understanding in their day to day jobs. They understand that successful organizations are not democracies, but rather benevolent dictatorships. These great leaders don’t tilt at windmills or whip saw their organizations during times of economic turmoil, they maintain the vision and hunker down to weather storms by correcting not changing course. This type of leadership is entrepreneurial and darn hard to find in the upper echelon of big retail.

Don Delzell
Guest
Don Delzell
10 years 5 months ago
One of the roles of leadership, in some cases, is to provide a coherent and dynamic vision for the organization. Communicating this vision is often overlooked. So when Wexner talks about loving chocolate, it’s so much more complicated than that, because in a company, it matters “why” he loves milk chocolate more than dark, as well as what that love translates into in reality. Is leadership about teaching? Sometimes. Really though, the best texts on leadership I’ve read make it clear that the critical skills, tasks and focus for leaders vary depending on the organization, the mission and the environment. This is why we see companies fail to evolve, or win in the market when it appears as if an enormous change has occurred in leadership style and approach. Rarely does the market allow an organization the luxury of sustaining the same leadership style and focus year after year. The specific circumstances which promote the learning dimension of leadership apply very well to Mr. Wexner’s experience. They applied to the repositioning of JCP in the… Read more »
Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
10 years 5 months ago

Communication/teaching skills are most definitely a major requirement of successful leadership, but not, in my view, the most important. Not to be too simplistic, but the primary role of a leader is to, well, lead. This means being in front; in front of industry trends, in front of recognizing competitive opportunities, in front of imagining exceptional products/services, in front of building and inspiring a great organization.

As Les says–Words count. They only count, however, if they first inspire the organization and, ultimately, the customer. Otherwise, it’s just hot air.

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
10 years 5 months ago

I much prefer to think of leadership in terms of coaching, rather than teaching. To me, teaching implies a detached passivity, while coaching implies engaged involvement, taking an active stake in the development and success of each team member/associate.

Bill Bittner
Guest
Bill Bittner
10 years 5 months ago
Understanding the ambiguity of the English language, I always try to express my point clearly and will often include examples when dealing with others. I don’t know how effective this. One time I had a peer (another supervisor) ask “Why must you always explain everything?” This outburst always confused me because as a peer, I never gave him direction although many of our direct reports did associate with one another. I never learned whether he heard about my habit from frustrated staff who reported to me or him. At the CEO level, the effort is more about principles than it is about skills. The CEO is not going to teach an accountant how to do a double declining balance depreciation schedule. But the CEO can make it clear that the accounting records are an important management tool that should reflect an accurate picture of the company’s health. By elevating every employee’s contribution to the proper level of recognition, the CEO can give them the pride in their work that leads to extraordinary results.
Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

Teaching in my mind, as Mr. Wexner said, is what I conjure in my mind when you say the words. Teaching conjures learning, studying and then passing a test. So Mr. Wexner, I agree with the concept of what you mean; but not your use of the word teaching. I would be happier if you had used coaching or leading by example.

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