It’s all about passion and compassion

By Jonathan Trivers

Michael Gould is the CEO of Bloomingdale’s, the 160 year old superfine department store chain that was Nordstrom cool before Nordstrom was around.  (You shopped at Bloomies and considered yourself a loyal Bloomie.) Mr. Gould didn’t plan to be in retail; when he graduated from college he was turned down for a job in the research department of Goldman Sachs and ended up at Abraham & Straus, a New York retailer.

He believes that a retail leader (not just the lead dog but all those that are in a leadership position) must have passion about their job and compassion to those in their employ.

Passion can’t be taught and can’t be faked (being a gung ho ‘yes man’ is not a sign of passion, it is a weak attempt of ingratiating yourself and does more harm than good.) It doesn’t show up just because you work more hours than most; passion is multi-dimensional. Those that are passionate have an intellectual curiosity about the business, strive to continually learn, they are critical but positive and love the look, smell and rhythm of retail or whatever business you are in.

For potential new hires Mr. Gould asks, “What didn’t you like about our store?” If you ask “what did you like about the store” you will invariable get fawning, kiss up compliments.  But ask the reverse — the person must have looked at the store not just marched up to the corporate office ready to impress. But this is a retail business and Mr. Gould believes if you are truly passionate about retail and his company you will have put a critical eye to your future home.

The other part of that is being “critical but positive.” The problem with large companies is that far too often those that suck up move up. And those that are critical are known as complainers. The fact of the matter is that those that are critical but positive as to a solution to their criticism are far more valuable. It’s that bad news that needs to be fixed; managers can’t do anything about positive feedback but gloat. And congratulate themselves.

Jim Furyk has been a consistently very good golfer on the PGA circuit. If he isn’t winning, he is right there within the Top 10.  Many have made fun of his swing; David Feherty says it “looks like an Octopus falling out of a tree.” Nevertheless Furyk has been in the Top 10 for 360 weeks from 1999 – 2010.

Furyk got injured and had a terrible time getting back to where he had been. He was physically fine; he realized the problem was he had lost the passion for the game. Golf became another day at the office — something he did because that’s what he did. So he took a rest and when he missed the look, smell and rhythm of the golf tour so much he could hardly stand it, he rejoined the tour. The game is fun again; the passion is back and so is his game.

Back to Mr. Gould. The issue of compassion is tougher to get right. Many bosses talk about the tricky balance around empathy; you have to care about people more than policies but you also have to make hard decisions about future potential of employees.  He tells of his first time when we decided to fire an employee; he was so nervous and concerned that he waited and waited. Finally he did the deed. When he asked what the other folks thought, they all wondered what took him so long. They knew the employee was way over his head.

Lesson: When it feels right for the company to move an employee out the others are in tune with your decision. And being compassionate and empathetic dictates you not delay and procrastinate.

Finally, Mr. Gould believes you can’t be a great leader without warmth, humility and honesty. It’s not possible to have an overabundance of some; it doesn’t make you a wimp. It makes you a pretty good human being. That’s worth striving for.


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