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CEO Corner: Searching for Creativity in the C-Suite

As the founder of Karen Harvey Consulting and the Fashion Tech Forum, Karen Harvey is always searching for the best executive talent—for that corner office and the stage. Her advisory firm, which specializes in training, development and executive search, gives her added insights for what companies need to grow, and she found that creativity needs to be at the center of it all. Sourcing Journal caught up with Harvey to learn what that really means, and how companies can find and channel that creativity.

Where did you start your career?

I began in corporate training and development—consulting and developing customized training programs for mega firms like Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Nike and Benetton.

At Nike, I was working with creatives and marketers around the world on presentation and storytelling workshops. Creatives are notoriously not excited about selling their ideas—they made the work to speak for itself. The idea was to enable creatives to better land their concepts and ideas internally with marketing so that the best product could get into the hands of the consumers. We would create week-long off-site events for Nike on places like Orcas Island, Washington, where various teams and disciplines would work together to innovate.

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We would also spend 90 days on campus in Portland sitting in on design, adoption reviews and conducting interviews to really learn the culture. There were very few if any firms working in this narrow and deep way—learning by customizing programs for multibillion dollar global companies. I worked with Nike in this way for more than 16 years.

Sounds like great training for Karen Harvey Consulting. What do companies misunderstand about the executive search process as they look for new talent, and what do CEOs really need today to be successful?

Most leaders don’t put creativity at the center of everything they do, and I don’t just mean people who design, draw or make things. More than ever before, we see the need for creative CEOs who embrace design and strategy, and understand creativity as a differentiator.

If operations were the answer, all of this would be easy, right? But today, there’s a revolution coming from Gen Z and Gen Alpha—people working differently and the revolution of marketing. Think about how companies are sorting marketing dollars. You can see from their P&L very clearly where they’re distorting their money versus where they did in the past.

In terms of finding that right talent, is it helpful to look outside the fashion industry to bring a fresh eye?

European luxury brands have always been very good at bringing people from premium consumer packaged goods and training them into CEO leadership roles. The fashion industry is very good at grooming CFOs, operators and merchants, but not so good at grooming general managers who understand luxury in the true sense of the general manager world.

We’re in this interesting place now because when fashion brands need to recalibrate and move fast, they need people who understand fashion. I believe we have to cross pollinate from various sectors of talent, but it is by discipline. If you’re recalibrating and trying to make your brand more relevant with new consumers, you need to understand marketing and digital platforms in a whole new way.

Speaking of new consumers, how can legacy luxury fashion brands target a younger customer?

We’re in a moment now that looks different in every possible way than almost any other moment. That is the greatest challenge today; maintaining heritage doesn’t mean something has to always look the same as it always did. Of course, it’s crucial to have core product recognized by current consumers, but some of those core consumers are aging out of that.

Fashion has always been about youth culture. There have always been moments where young consumers want nothing more than to play with a brand with rich DNA and make it their own. This isn’t evolution, it’s revolution.

Was that the thinking behind the Fashion Tech Forum?

We started getting outreach from companies in the technology sector to help them find creatives to work on the next wearable technology. Most of the CEOs I was working with in fashion did not see the onslaught of emerging companies and brands that put data and the consumer in the center of their conversation. Fashion was still speaking wholly and completely to itself.

I used my experience launching, creating and building off-sites for companies like Nike and Benetton to create Fashion Tech Forum. I wanted to put CEOs and CMOs together from both sectors in a room to learn from each other, with the understanding that data was at the center.

This year we are emerging from three years of one crisis after the other, and now the crisis of leadership. Not bad leaders, but we have a crisis in how to think about being leaders in a time where people really do want to work differently.

We are holding our Fashion Tech Forum April 11 at NASDAQ. We wanted to bring actionable insights and help CEOs from the technology sector connect with CEOs and creatives and engineers. And it’s not just technology, it’s culture too.

You talk about creativity as a way of thinking, but we can never lose sight of creative product, right?

Product matters more than ever before, and that’s coming from this young millennial and new Gen Z consumer. Think about what some of these new creators have been able to do with collaboration and drop models.

Does that mean creatives will be the new CEOs?

Not at all. It means the CEO understands that creativity is their differentiator. And technology will help us constantly evolve and bring freshness and newness to scale. That’s the enabler of something going viral.

What did leaders learn from the pandemic, and will they slide back into their old ways?

We must give tremendous credit to those leaders who had already made big bets on technology, and those who pivoted and said, ‘This could be a long haul and we need to prepare to meet the needs of this crisis.’ You had to have people in place and understand how to move fast. Technology wasn’t just some word, but an important enabler to customer experience.

What three things do companies need to future-proof themselves against further disruption?

One, and [Starbucks’] Howard Schultz said this: create a company, environment and platform where people feel connected and valued. Put your teams in the center of the conversation as they are your first consumer. Especially those in retail dealing with consumers online every day. That’s the data that’s important, what the consumer is saying. Second, count on the fact that things will change, so you need vision and agility. You can’t rest on your laurels. Third, creativity will always win—as long as it can be scaled, optimized, and is authentic to the brand.