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Colin Powell Talks Leadership and Retail Today

It was only natural that the former U.S. secretary of state and the country’s once highest ranking military officer would liken retail to combat, and Colin Powell opened his keynote at the National Retail Federation Retail’s Big Show 2016 Monday by telling retailers he understands where they are coming from.

Retail, he said, is like combat, where retailers are the soldiers and the enemy is like the consumer—though those enemies have to be friends too for businesses to succeed.

As Powell put it, there’s one overarching concept that’s going to help retailers win in today’s shifting landscape: the right kind of leadership.

“It’s often said that your job is simply to make money but you have to remember where that money comes from, and you have to please your stakeholders and shareholders,” Powell said. “Of course you have to increase shareholder value, but don’t forget the stakeholders; they give you the means to increase shareholder value.”

Powell got his start in retail, working in a South Bronx toy store where he learned how to listen to what was happening in the store, how to mark things down and how to empower people that work for you.

And empowering people means allowing them to make their own decisions within a certain range, and only aiding them when they get beyond that range or make mistakes within their own range.

“That’s what a leader does, you trust your people,” Powell said. “When you empower them by trusting them, they trust you, they believe in your organization.”

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Retailers are facing multifold challenges with changing consumer demands as well as greater competition from big box stores and the near-instant gratification of online retail.

But fostering a team that believes in the brand will be key to combatting that competition, or at the very least, surviving in the face of it.

“The most important thing you have in your companies, your organizations, are your people,” Powell said. “You have an obligation to take care of them, give them the equipment they need, give them a sense of purpose, not just a mission and a goal and ‘how much do we need to make next year?’”

Once you give them the tools they need, like up-to-date software to better keep up with the needs of the market, say, then it’s time to change what Powell called the “brainware.”

“You have to change the brainware of the company so that people have the tools to use the new software,” he said. More than that, he added, “You have to constantly be looking at technology and see what it’s telling you and not pretend that it isn’t telling you anything.”

Kip Tindell, NRF’s chairman of the board led the Q&A portion of Powell’s talk, and reminded him of a past comment he made on leadership: “The essence of leadership is building the bonds of trust in your organizations.”

Powell said the key behind that comment is that leaders build trust by convincing people they are important, and by working alongside them, learning what they have to learn in order to build up trust and respect.

“Without followers you don’t have an organization, you have people on the line that only care about putting the widget on,” Powell said.