How inspiring leadership can transform struggling companies

Holly Kramer shared some of the leadership lessons she learnt at Best & Less, the ailing retailer she helped steer back into the black.

Speaking at the recent Indue Leadership Forum: The Art of Thinking Differently in Sydney, Kramer explained how she was asked to run Best & Less four years ago. Owned by South African group Pepkor, it had 200 stores in Australia and employed 4,300 people. “Best & Less was in big trouble and I had never worked in retail,” she said.

Here’s some of the things she learnt while at the retailer’s helm:

Have a plan

“You must have sense of where you are going if you are a leader. Otherwise, no one will follow,” said Kramer.

Her plan evolved from gaining an understanding of what customers really wanted. It was simple, focused and easy to understand.

Build the right team

Kramer replaced most of Best & Less’ senior managers when she arrived because they were either incompetent or unwilling to go along on the journey. Great skills were important, but new hires also had to be team players and fit in with the company’s culture.

She looked for a diversity of views. Her new mix included experience in Australia, other countries, small operations and big companies. She chose introverts as well as garrulous marketers with big ideas.

“I didn’t want one group of people telling me the same things. I wanted to hear everyone’s take on something so that we could get rich thought into the conversation to make good decisions. To me, diversity was about making good decisions and having the right voices in the room. But we also had to create an environment where people felt free to speak up.”

Set the culture

Best & Less spent much time thinking about its culture. Kramer even visited Pepkor in South Africa because it had a great culture. “This was all about values and treating customers with dignity and respect because they were among South Africa’s poorest people.”

In South Africa, they used a lot of high fives. For Australia, Kramer came up with the concept of “Besties” to foster a feeling of belonging to something bigger.

Create purpose and meaning

When Kramer got roped into doing the Vinnies CEO Sleepout, she told her team she’d wear a onesie if they donated money. They did. The stores also got involved and she raised a whopping $150,000, beating the other CEOs and attracting press coverage.

“The stores loved being part of a company that was doing the right thing,” observed Kramer. “We were starting to live our values and beating everyone else. For a company that had many years of decline in just about everything, this brought a great sense of pride. I stumbled into this without knowing what was going to happen, but it was incredibly powerful and galvanised the organisation.”

Understand the customer

To hear from customers, Kramer ran a competition for women wanting to win a makeover. “I read every competition entry and every email from customers. Stories about the meaning we make in people’s lives started to come through.”

From this, she created a story around a typical customer and used it to move everyone towards a customer-orientated culture.

Take people on a journey

Kramer noted that leaders may say something a few times and then believe that everyone in the business now knows about it. That doesn’t happen. “You have to say it a thousand times, or two million times, and after that, you still can’t stop,” she said.

Because Best & Less had limited resources, Kramer also used Instagram to communicate with staff. “I started telling stories and attaching our values to them.”

Mistakes are okay

Like other leaders, Kramer made many mistakes. Unlike others, she started to talk about them. “By letting people know it’s okay to make mistakes, we can all learn and get better,” she said.

Listen

“To be a leader you have to have self-confidence and sometimes that means you think you are the one that’s right, or have all the answers, or that you need to have all the answers,” noted Kramer.

“One of the best things that happened to me in this job was there was no way I could have all the answers because I had no previous experience in the industry. It didn’t come naturally to me, but I was forced to listen to my team, the stores managers and so on.”

While this helped her make better decisions, she advised against listening to just one comment, saying it was important to look at comments as collective data points.

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