* At the time of this interview Michelle was the Chief Executive Officer of diva, BBRC Retail
After 6+ years at BCG specializing in the luxury / fashion retail industry, you left for your current role as CEO of a large multinational retail and fashion company. From our vantage point as an executive search firm, we know you weren’t the average BCG Principal, and you landed a not-so-average opportunity post-consulting. How did you select and secure your current role, and how did your unique experiences set you up for success?
My time spent at BCG certainly had a big impact on landing my current role, but I think it’s important to note that I also had the benefit of eight years experience, ending in senior management roles, in industry before I went into consulting. When I went to BCG, I was very specific and targeted in terms of what I wanted beyond my management experience, which was a breadth of experience focused in the retail space. Along with the combination of my time in industry and my focus in consulting, I took advantage of an externship opportunity while at BCG which helped set a base – spending a year as the acting Chief Merchandising Officer of a $400 million revenue retailer that was a client of ours at the time. In terms of the opportunity, when I returned to BCG from my externship, I wasn’t planning to leave – I was happy there and well on the path to Partner. A couple of years later, I was asked to help head up a project in Australia for a few months (my husband had moved to Australia after he left BCG, so it wasn’t hard to convince me to go). While there, I met a BCG alum who is now CEO of one of Australia’s leading fashion retailers, and she referred me to someone she knew who was looking for a CEO to lead one of his companies. Not expecting to get the job, I had a call with my now boss (Chairman of the Board), and two days later had the offer – so it was really through the BCG alumni network that I even heard about the opportunity. As for why I took the role, it was the trifecta for me: First, it was a CEO role, so I knew it would be a high impact position. Second, it was for a fashion retail company. Finally, it was located where my husband had moved. Beyond that, despite my lack of true CEO experience, the person who would be my boss said he was looking for someone who was smart, had global experience, and who “got” retail – and he would coach me on the rest. I thought “Wow, this is someone who is really going to invest in me,” and it was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.
You are in the top job in a growing, near-$1 billion revenue company. How did you prepare yourself to hit the ground running?
I wasn’t naïve enough to think that I was going to be an amazing CEO on day one, but there’s only so much you can do to prepare beforehand – even though I tried to prepare myself the best I could. I did a lot of store visits to get to know the customer, products, and brand, and I asked for / studied all the quarterly financials from the few years prior so I had a bit of a baseline. I also read a lot of books, blogs, etc. that various friends and colleagues recommended and talked to a few retail CEOs that I know, but in the end, there was really one piece of advice that ended up being truly valuable: don’t make any major decisions within your first month. Do a lot of listening and get to know the company, the people, and the way things are done. Otherwise you can put things in motion that may not have been right because you hadn’t fully understood the company at the time.
What specifically have you leaned on from your consulting experience in your current role, and what else have you employed to bridge the gap in your first CEO position?
In consulting, I learned how to think about problems from different angles and come up with a solution relatively quickly. As CEO, I am now in charge of every function, and I have to admit that I intuitively understand certain functions better than others, so I use these skills almost every day now. After six years at BCG, I think they’re embedded in the way I think and approach situations.
The next most useful tool I learned in consulting is how to tell a good story. At BCG, writing a concise, powerful story was the key to ensuring the message was delivered and getting buy-in from the intended audience. There’s a good reason that multiple training sessions on writing decks (at all levels) were mandatory at BCG – it’s a hard skill to master. The second part of this was learning how deliver the message verbally for maximum impact.
As with any new role, there will be gaps until one comes up to speed. In my current role, the most important things I did while I was coming up to speed were to listen, think before I made any decisions at first, and to ask a lot of questions! Also, I found it was critical to have an understanding of how the company operated. To that end, I spent four days during my first week working as a salesgirl in a couple of our different stores in Sydney. It was humbling: the first day, I was so green that I had to learn how to operate the register! Also, I had to help replenish the stock, and it took me about seven hours to do it, while the sales team basically rolled around on the floor laughing at me. They told me they could have done it in two. The fifth day, I was a picker in our warehouse. Every day, each picker is measured on productivity… needless to say, I came in dead last and left with sore feet (tip: don’t wear heels in a warehouse!). It was hard work, but it forced me to quickly learn some of our systems, understand the product better, and connect with our customers and team members. It probably also gave me some credibility in the head office and helped set the tone that I am willing to dive in and get my hands dirty.
Arguably, the CEO spot is the most coveted position out there. Is it all it’s cracked up to be? What were some of the surprises, and is there anything you just can’t prepare for?
It’s funny, because I think people have this idea that being the CEO is glamorous. It is exciting, but in reality it’s a lot of hard work, and you agonize over decisions because you are ultimately on the line for them. A bad decision can impact a lot of people!
In terms of surprises, I would point to the people and human resources aspect of the role. Every company’s culture is unique, and you need to establish an understanding of what motivates your employees. At BCG, everyone was similar – all highly driven, always willing to go the extra mile, and all motivated by similar things, so it was easier to manage my teams and get the best out of them. Compared to consulting, you get more of a mixed bag of talent and in industry, and the range of what motivates people is just so much wider. I actually spend around one third of my time on HR and talent topics, which wasn’t something I expected coming in.
It takes a certain kind of person to have success in the CEO role. Apart from the traits that are associated with most all consultants (highly intelligent, driven, etc.) what other characteristics do you think you need to be successful (i.e. in the sea of consultants who focus on the CEO role, who are the ones who should really think about it)?
Being a CEO is not for everyone. You have to truly enjoy being a leader. In my opinion, here are the characteristics that I think are important:
The first characteristic is a certain level of charisma. It’s not just about being smart and coming up with a great strategy or vision – you need to be energetic and articulate, and have the ability to inspire the team to drive your company forward. Although I think that a certain level of charisma is natural, I do believe what one has can be honed – I’m probably a better example of the latter than the former! In line with this, I think a high level of EQ is critical.
Second, you also need a level of decisiveness and willingness to make tough calls. Some people want to be nice – too nice – and avoid making the tough changes that may be most necessary to the organization because they will ruffle some feathers. Certainly, my experiences at BCG have helped me understand how to uncover issues quickly and drive to a solution or a few key findings. But, it’s quite different than consulting because as CEO, you have to implement the decisions, not just recommend the direction to take.
I suppose this leads me to the next trait: The ability to see clarity and order out of chaos. There is so much information, and to be able to pull out pieces from various departments and put them together into a cohesive whole that leads to better decision making is the difference between a good individual contributor and a leader. Consultants are generally good at this – this is what they are paid to do!
Fourth, and I touched on this before – I think it’s of utmost importance to understand what motivates your key team members and do whatever you can to get the best out of them. I really view the core of my role as making sure I remove roadblocks so that everyone can perform well.
This next one may be a surprise, but I think it’s really important to be a product person if you sell products. Sometimes, I think my background in design – I have an undergrad degree in it, and I worked as a designer for a few years – comes in as handy as what I learned at BCG. As CEO of a product company, I need to take a lead role in the design and buying process so I ensure we are delivering what our customers want.
Finally, you have to be an optimist in order to set the tone for the team. Despite anything that’s going on beneath the surface (frustration in a meeting, worries over something that is happening in the business, etc.), you must stay positive – within boundaries, of course, or you might seem fake. People are watching everything you do as the CEO, and when you lose faith, they do. For example, I had to make some layoffs in my first couple of months, and I’m sure people were worried about what was next. I had to communicate that same day what was going on, why, and outline what our future plans were. I was super nervous – after all, I was new and still getting myself established so there was no real reason for the team to trust me yet, but then I realized that I had to put that aside, talk about the recent wins that the team had had before I even joined, and the amazing things that were in motion. I had to get them excited about our journey.
Having maintained a focus on the luxury / fashion retail industry for the latter half of your career, what are your thoughts on industry specialization and its effects on the opportunity for post-consulting advancement? Any advice for consultants aiming to get into the industry?
Actually, when I joined BCG, I knew that I immediately wanted to specialize in retail, and I chose the firm because of the true variety of retail experience I felt would be available to me. I was also lucky in that I was able to quickly land a few of the “sexy” retail projects in fashion, which in turn set me up for others down the line. Specializing allowed me to have a set of fantastic experiences, particularly growing a couple of luxury businesses in Asia, that were incredibly important in my career and likely imperative to my ability to get my current role.
I will say, though, that despite my personal experience, I do not think specialization is right for everyone. I’ve seen a lot of people who don’t want to specialize, and understandably so. For new consultants who don’t really know what they want to do, being in consulting is a massive opportunity to learn about different industries and functional areas. But I do think it is important to try to get on projects that align with areas that interest you. As you know, with consulting, you could end up on a large project that lasts a year, then move to another project in a similar space that lasts six months because you’re already an “expert” in that area, and before you know it, you’re a manager, at which point it starts getting hard to switch from one industry or functional area to another. That’s not a good situation to be in.
Whether specializing or taking the general route in the top consulting firms, however, I do believe that it can be more about the teams with which you’re working over the specific content. Again, I was very lucky in that there was a small group of us focused on fashion and retail during my time at BCG, so I was able to grow close with those people as I continued to work with them throughout my consulting career, and I count some of these people among my mentors today. My advice would be that while you are in consulting, get close to the Partners on the projects that you enjoy – they’ll be incredibly knowledgeable on the subject you’re dealing with, and will have fantastic relationships with people in the industry who could be clients – or even your employer – down the line.
A final note – consulting is great, but don’t be afraid to take an industry role if it comes along. When I took on my current role I had to ramp up very quickly, and there are some things that would have come much easier had I had more actual industry experience beforehand in specific areas – take Merchandise Planning, for example. There’s nothing like doing it yourself and really getting your hands dirty. I was fortunately able to lean on my BCG externship experience to some extent, but to that end, my advice would be to make good connections with the people who have the experience / expertise within specific areas of your industry – they can be incredibly helpful, especially in those areas you might be lacking.
What do you find most exciting about the luxury / fashion retail space today?
With everything on the web and the interconnectivity of people and products, I think the industry as a whole is changing more rapidly than it ever has in the past. I was just reading an article, for example, that argued seasons won’t matter as much because people will still want the fashion of the moment, whether it is summer in New York or freezing some place in the other hemisphere. It requires retailers to be much more nimble. People can always price shop and compare as well, so you lose a certain uniqueness there – it puts an added pressure on the brand to be the most up-to-date and on top of the hottest trends.
Knowing you and your husband, Dave Kluz, we know that each of you have had fantastic career opportunities that required spanning the globe and numerous BCG offices – at times (or many times) landing you an ocean or continent away from the other. What are your thoughts on international experience and travel re: opportunities, and how do you think it has contributed to your success as an executive? Do you have any thoughts to share with folks who are not as open to relocation and travel as you have been (pros / cons)?
If you have the opportunity to go to another office, take it. It is a very different experience to actually live in a country – when I worked in China for two years, for example, I was able to experience a BCG office with an entirely different language, culture, etc. I think I worked in 10 different countries while at BCG, and that global experience has given me so many opportunities. I understand the world better, and I am a more successful executive because of it.
Of course, I understand that you can have success while staying in one place, and people stay put for a variety of reasons – if you have a family, or want to settle down, for example. The cons of constant travel and relocation are clear – you’re away from your friends, away from your husband in some cases, and you’re living out of a suitcase. As a girl, you can get really sick of your outfits because there’s just not that much room to bring different handbags and shoes, etc. (laughs). But for me, travel and international experience has always been a major factor. The benefit of working at a firm like BCG is that you’re surrounded by similar people who are all around the same age – it’s easy to make friends, and there is this fantastic comradery around travel. You get to wake up every day in a different city to explore and take in, sometimes even a different language. Sometimes I miss the comradery around that aspect of consulting.
As CEO of diva today, what are your goals for personal development and career growth?
Having been in my position for almost a year, I’ve finally established a level of comfort with the different aspects of my role. I don’t have a time limit on what I’m doing – as of now, my goal is to be the best CEO I can be, for this company, and to continue to see the business succeed.