64: "The Empowering Leader" - Avery Baker

Avery Baker 2018.jpg

"The Empowering Leader"

This is my conversation with Avery Baker - the Chief Brand Officer of Tommy Hilfiger. It was recorded live on stage as part of this year’s Cannes Creativity festival. Over the last two years, Avery has been instrumental in changing how Tommy Hilfiger shows up in the world. I wanted to talk to her about how she encouraged so many people across the organization to take the leap with her, and how she learned to push herself out of her own comfort zone in the process.


Three Takeaways

  • The willingness to push your own boundaries
  • Empathy and kindness for your people
  • Learning from every experience and attempt

"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 64: "The Empowering Leader" Avery Baker

I’m Charles Day and this is Fearless!!

This is my conversation with Avery Baker - the Chief Brand Officer of Tommy Hilfiger. It was recorded live on stage as part of this year’s Cannes creativity festival.

Over the last two years, Avery has been instrumental in changing how the company shows up in the world. From a business that required five months to take clothes from the runway to the consumer, she led an internal and external revolution that produced a brand capable of delivering ‘see now buy now’ fashion.

I wanted to talk to her about how she encouraged so many people to take the leap with her, and how she learned to push herself out of her own comfort zone in the process.

This episode is called, “The Empowering Leader”

And I've always believed that great ideas come from anywhere and it's really about like the power and the thought of the team, not ever of one person. And that's because that's been instinctive, I think I've been pretty comfortable for a long time, managing from a more open point of view, that I don't have all the answers all the time.

There is an unattributed quote that, “a leader without followers is simply a person taking a walk.”  

It used to be true that leaders gained followers by virtue of the org chart - a series of boxes showing hierarchy and imbuing authority.

In today’s world, it takes more than bureaucratic power to be an effective leader.  Draw whatever boxes and lines you want, if you can’t convince someone you’re worth following, your impact will be light and your stay in in the job short.

People follow leaders that they believe can make their lives better. And better, in creative companies, comes down to one simple frame of reference. Can I make a difference? If your leadership is built on helping others make a difference, you’ll succeed. 

If you bring that philosophy, you create the foundations on which all modern, truly creative companies are built. Which is that ideas truly come from across the entire organization and everyone brings creativity every day.

Those easy words to say but hard for some leaders to live by. It requires you value ideas more than titles.

For leaders whose own power is title dependent, that’s a circle they can’t square.

So you need confidence plus humility. A rare combination. But worth its weight in gold.

Here’s Avery Baker.

Charles:

Good afternoon. Thanks for coming. So this is, actually, part of a podcast series that I started a little over a year ago called Fearless Creative Leadership where I interview leaders of a very diverse set of creative businesses from ad agencies to big global brands, content companies and so on. And the story that I'm interested in is the journey that they've gone through and how they lead and what they've overcome in that process and what they've learned about unlocking creativity both in themselves and in other people. So I'm thrilled that Avery Baker has decided ... has been able to come in and join us today.  Avery and I have known each other for some time. And I think this is gonna be an amazing story so with that being said, let's jump in.

Avery, let me start by asking you the first question that I like to ask all my guests, which is when did creativity first show up in your life? When were you first conscious of something appearing to you as creative?

Avery Baker:

Probably around 12, maybe late in the game, when I suddenly discovered that I wanted to be an actress and no one knew, in my family, but me.

Charles:

You wanted to be an actress? What kind of actress?

Avery Baker:

I decided that I wanted to do musical theater and my mother didn't even know I could sing. So, I think that was an awakening moment. I had no idea before then.

Charles:

And did you pursue it?

Avery Baker:

Yeah. I saw an ad in the local paper and I said, "I wanna go to that audition for that play." And she said, "Really? You don't ... You don't even know how to sing. It's Sound of Music." And I showed up and they pressed play on the boombox and I started to sing and then I was in the show.

Charles:

Wow! So you knew you could sing, clearly. You sang-

Avery Baker:

I was not conscious that I knew. I could not even remember how that happened, it just happened.

Charles:

Do you sing today?

Avery Baker:

Only in the quiet of my own home.

Charles:

Were you a risk-taker as a kid?

Avery Baker:

A little bit. I wouldn't say that it was beyond the bounds, but I had a lot of older siblings and an older brother who was a daredevil so they were always encouraging going out on a limb.

Charles:

How many siblings?

Avery Baker:

I'm the youngest of five.

Charles:

And where did you grow up?

Avery Baker:

Outside of Philadelphia. Nice suburban, American town.

Charles:

What did your parents do?

Avery Baker:

My father was an entrepreneur and he built the largest chain of luxury car washes in America.

Charles:

Is that right?

Avery Baker:

Yeah. And came from really nothing, built that, was super successful, and then, eventually, lost everything. So interesting journey. And my mother was, basically, supermom, but also always worked ... Was, kind of, a counselor and a model and a decorator and superwoman.

Charles:

How old were you when your father's business struggled?

Avery Baker:

Later. So, it started when I was in college and then in, probably, the years after that.

Charles:

That must be a tough thing to be part of and to witness and experience.

Avery Baker:

Yeah. It's very painful to see someone that you love and admire so much experience that when that means so much to that individual.

Charles:

Yeah, I can imagine. Where did you go to school and what did you study?

Avery Baker:

Me?

Charles:

Yeah.

Avery Baker:

I went to Northwestern University and I, actually, studied theater.

Charles:

Oh really? So this was a thing all the way through.

Avery Baker:

So this was the start of a creative streak. Yes, indeed.

Charles:

And you, actually ... Did you perform in college?

Avery Baker:

Actually, no. That's why I knew it wasn't for me. I suddenly developed the largest case of anxiety and stage fright in my life when I suddenly ended up in this very amazing theater school and competitive environment and I completely shut down and I did all the classes and I loved it, but I just didn't put myself out there. I, kind of, stopped taking risks, at that particular moment in my life.

Charles:

And do you remember what triggered that? Was there some moment or just ... ?

Avery Baker:

No, I think, probably, it was the first moment that I felt fear about exposing myself and failing. And I hadn't failed, much, at anything in my life until that point and I think I just didn't wanna go there. When, fortunately, I ended up getting over that later in life, but I never got back into theater.

Charles:

Wow. That's so interesting. What was your first job coming out of college?

Avery Baker:

Well, first I moved to Asia for a while and had crazy jobs.  English-teaching, bartending, modeling strange Chinese wedding dresses, working for a Taiwanese politician, so really interesting, weird jobs and then I moved to New York and my first job was to work with Swatch Watches in the advertising department.

Charles:

Why did you go to Asia? What made you follow that instinct, desire?

Avery Baker:

I really wanted, number one, to see the world and travel and just experience something different and, number two, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. And I was hoping that there would be some lightning bolt that would find me on my nomadic journey.

Charles:

And did it?

Avery Baker:

Nope.

Charles:

So you came back to New York still looking for "What am I gonna do?"

Avery Baker:

I came back, didn't know what I wanted to do, and then became very Virgo and systematic about it and started to do a pro and con list. You know, "These are my strengths. These are my weaknesses. This is what I enjoy and what I don't enjoy" and ended up circling around the area of advertising and marketing, because I was really interested in people and behavior. How do you connect with people? And I loved creativity and being around it but I knew that I wouldn't be like, "The creative genius." But I liked the idea of helping to really organize and stimulate thought.

Charles:

Did you see yourself as creative back then?

Avery Baker:

No, not so ... Well, on the edges of creative. On the edges.

Charles:

For you, yourself?

Avery Baker:

I think I felt ... Yeah, I would definitely say I felt more on the creative side than, let's say, on the stem side.

Charles:

And has that view changed over the years? How do you feel about your own personal creativity today?

Avery Baker:

I think I'm more creative than I would've expected. But, at the same time, I'm very right and left so there's another part of me that is very analytical, conflicts to think about things in an organized way and I like how those two things interact. So the balance for me-

Charles:

So do you find that you have to be conscious of one getting in the way when you need the other?

Avery Baker:

Definitely. The rational can ... I think it's ... That always can be more dominant, particularly when you end up in a corporate environment or a business environment where it's not a purely creative-led organization. So, I think it's been ... It took many years, actually, to probably get back to a place of letting that creative thinking lead and getting to a place of taking risks, creatively, rather than letting the rational part lead.

Charles:

So are you conscious of developing your own creative attitude? Your own creative sensibility? Is that something you're always aware of working on?

Avery Baker:

Yeah. I guess, for me, what I define, rather than the word creative, is thinking differently. Or I've become more conscious of what it means to think out of the box versus in the box. And that can apply to a creative solution, but it can be any kind of a solution.

Charles:

So, you come back to New York, you start working for Swatch. Where then?

Avery Baker:

Then, Tommy Hilfiger and that was in the late 90s, at the time when the brand was like the coolest brand. All my friends said, "Like how did you get a job there?" You know, 1998. And I went and I took the entry level position that was, knowingly, the worst job you could have in the marketing department but I wanted to get a foot in the door. And that was 20 years ago.

Charles:

Wow. And you targeted Tommy, specifically?

Avery Baker:

Somewhat. You know, it came through the boss, the friend of the friend, you know, at that stage of your career, you also, kind of, go where there could be opportunities. But it was definitely a dream to be able to go and work in the fashion industry and in a brand that, at that moment in time, was one of the hottest brands in pop culture.

Charles:

And what was it about fashion, in particular, that drew you to it?

Avery Baker:

It's interesting. I didn't target fashion. I always enjoyed it, but it wasn't, "I wanna be in the fashion industry." I think what I liked about the company was that it felt more like a lifestyle brand and that it was, at that time, really just part of what was happening, culturally, engaging with music, crossing borders. So, the fashion aspect, although I always enjoyed that, but that was something I came to learn and came to love as I got into it.

Charles:

So there's a very specific culture at Tommy. Has that always been there? I mean, it's a very, sort of, entrepreneurial spirit? You were talking about entrepreneurialism with your father before. Did that attract you?

Avery Baker:

Yes. It felt, kind of, family when you were there. And really a positive energy and very, this sounds extremely [inaudible], but really nice people. And in the fashion industry, especially in that era, that was not the norm and I think it's still not always the norm. So it was really ... it felt like a welcoming, inclusive place to be.

Charles:

And that encouraged you to lean in emotionally?

Avery Baker:

Definitely. And I had some wonderful mentors and a lot of people that really embraced me and my journey and when that happens and when you're lucky enough for that to happen, then doors open.

Charles:

So you started in the marketing. You started at the ground floor in the marketing department. What was marketing about back then? What was different between then and now?

Avery Baker:

Oh ... Print, print, print, print, print. That's pretty much it. There was nothing about purpose. It was very aesthetic, very one-dimensional and we were starting to go into territories where we, let's say, blurred boundaries between industries. We did, in those days, partnership with Nintendo or naming rights for venues but, for the most part, I would say most companies, fashion marketing, lived by a certain set of rules and I think that continued for quite a long time.

Charles:

And when did it start to change?

Avery Baker:

Really, in the last few years. I think, as our world has changed so dramatically, probably, in the last five years, you've really seen things shake up.

Charles:

And you mentioned purpose, just now. I know that you guys have been on a purpose journey. So when did that start? When did the importance of purpose start to show up for you?

Avery Baker:

About that same time. About five years ago. I had the chance to take a new role in the company, beyond marketing and, really, brand development, brand strategy and architecting where do we wanna go and who do we want to be? And as I was experiencing, personally, all of the incredible changes happening because of technology and the shifts in, just, behavior that that resulted in, it just started to become very clear to me, personally, that there needed to be more to hang onto. That consumers, myself included ... It wasn't enough, what, I think, we were experiencing or maybe being fed by a lot of the traditional brands and I realized that this brand, that I was lucky enough to be a part of, had so much depth and so many values and like a real soul, that actually wasn't showing up in all of our focus groups and research. That was not coming through. It was a very, kind of, surface view of what the brand stood for and represented and sometimes really wrong in terms of what the true values were. And it was a real wake-up call to me and an amazing opportunity which, we're still just starting on of how do we bring the amazing spirit, of what this brand was built upon, to life in a way that has a lot more meaning? And it's a long road, but it’s a great [crosstalk].

Charles:

And you've been part of the brand for so long and you understand it so well, internally, that you have a, sort of, a visceral emotional connection to it. How big a role has that played in the purpose journey that you guys have gone through? I mean, do you think somebody who has only been there a couple of years would've been able to bring the kind of depth of understanding of the company's DNA to that process?

Avery Baker:

It's hard to say. I mean, maybe someone who had experience building purpose in another organization could have had success, in a different way. But I think in an established house where the codes are very instinctive, they're not documented, it's just something people feel, I think having that deep connection probably positioned me and is positioning me, uniquely, to help us bring that to life in a more tangible way for our own people.

Charles:

And a purpose process is pretty disruptive, right? I mean, you have to pull a lot of people along on that journey. I understand the motivation there, but what was the selling point? How did you sell-in the need for that, because the business performance wasn't bad, right? You didn't see it showing up in terms of how the top and bottom line were being impacted. It was a feeling that you had that you were becoming ... beginning to be disconnected from younger consumers.

Avery Baker:

Yeah, you're right. I think I had to make some pretty uncomfortable, bold statements ...

Charles:

To shake people up?

Avery Baker:

Yeah. And that's not, normally, my style. But, I felt very, very strongly that even though the business was very successful and I had some research to back it up, but it was also just a gut feeling like "We are losing relevance." We might be big and successful, particularly, in Europe at that time, but we aren't relevant and if we don't change, we're not gonna be here in five years and, fortunately, our CEO had a similar feeling, in terms of the need for change, and implemented a vision in terms of how the company would operate and ambitions. So it really dovetailed well and he was very open to also creating change in terms of how we look at our own band and how we show up to consumers.

Charles:

And, really, I'm interested in that notion of you acting in a way that you describe as sort of out of character, right? To get people's attention enough that they were actually willing to embark on this fairly long and somewhat cumbersome and somewhat risky journey, I would imagine. What did you feel like when you stepped out of the Avery Baker that the world sees and steps into this sort of more assertive, provocative, kind of point of view? Was that comfortable for you? Tell me how you felt about that?

Avery Baker:

It wasn't the most comfortable place for me. I'm usually pretty diplomatic or at least I try to be and, you know, get things done in a way that is effective but isn't always the boat rocker. And clearly, it was a very, very strong gut feeling that I had. And that was really what motivated me to not stop and worry if I was rocking the boat. Actually, I just believed it so much and cared so much about trying to make the brand as great as it could be that I stopped overthinking it. I just didn't stop and think I just did it.

And normally, I think I'm more of like the thinker. And this was, I think, a big change that has propelled me in recent years to become much more of a doer and without losing the thought, but I think we all have to be more action oriented and move faster today. Stopping for too long is a luxury that we can't always afford.

Charles:

Yeah. I'm struck by how many of the leaders that I know and have talked to have found a moment or several moments in their career where they've had to step out of what they have felt is their true character and lean in, in a different way, and discover something else about themselves. It sounds like that's very much the transition of the journey that you went on.

Avery Baker:

Definitely.

Charles:

What did you think was going to come out of the purpose process? When you walked into it with your sort of sense of order and organization, what did you think was going to come out of it? What was purpose going to result in?

Avery Baker:

Okay. I thought it was going to be like, "Tada! Here we are! And this is magic line of, you know, not just what we look like as a brand, but what we mean, and this is why we're here." And I thought that it would kind of be immediately understood by everyone in the company, because there is an instinctive feeling for the brand, and that it would be like, " Great!" [crosstalk 00:19:33] finally."

And then they were like, "What? Why do I need this? I wasn't, I wasn't waiting for this. So, you know, nice to have. But what does it mean for me?" It was a little bit like ... it was like a rock at the beginning.

Charles:

We're presented purpose through the lens of it as this Nirvana. Right? It is the gold chest in the middle of the forest that when we open it, the light will shine forth and everything will be revealed. And the business will have just been meteoric and we'll have total consumer engagement. And that when you don't get to that point, you have somehow failed. Right? Is that how you felt at the end of that process?

Avery Baker:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). It did. I mean, it didn't come immediately. And I will say I think we've made a lot of progress, which we can come back to. But there was definitely a moment of having to acknowledge, you know, we are far from being where I'd hoped we would be. And some things aren't, you know ... this isn't going as planned. This isn't working as planned. And I think that was a really important to be able to ... a moment to acknowledge that, and to acknowledge that in front of your teams or in front of your management.

Charles:

How often did things not go as you plan?

Avery Baker:

I mean, it happens. But it doesn't happen that much.

Charles:

Not very often, right? So something this big to have not actually landed in the place you thought must've been a big deal for you.

Avery Baker:

Yes, I think it was the biggest deal to me. To be honest I don't think, you know, as I said, it's not that the company was waiting with the trumpets and then ... you know. But for me it wasn't.

Charles:

So how did you pick yourself up and move forward? What did you do next?

Avery Baker:

I kind of sat with it for a little while, and then I thought, "Hmm, maybe it'd be better we just leave it. Maybe we don't really need it after all." And then, actually we did ... one of the big initiatives that we launched to try to really create an impact internally was we launched a program with TED. The purpose line was to be the brand that inspires you to express your own twist. So we brought TED in because we said, "If we want to live this, we need to really live this with our people." And we gave all of our employees the chance to become officially trained TED speakers. And then, we hosted a live TED event within the Organization for all the global employees from everywhere around the world.

And when we did that moment, even though nobody could have walked out of the room probably afterwards and said, "Oh, this is the brand purpose and this is why I feel this way today," it was such an incredibly impactful, moving important event, I think, in the culture of our company and for our people, that it made me realize that even if no one knows what it is, we have to keep doing this. We need to create this kind of impact with our individuals and eventually with our consumers. So it kind of got me back in the game.

Charles:

So, you started to see green shoots essentially of the benefits of going through this.

Avery Baker:

Yes.

Charles:

So getting people who worked for the company involved and invested by allowing them to express it on their terms is obviously helpful. What else did you do to get people to lean into this? Were you going around as kind of a purpose leader? An advocate? Were you selling in the concept of purpose? How did you get people to lean in?

Avery Baker:

Yeah, we were. I mean, I was doing some of that, you know, and kind of bigger meetings and bigger moments, and then working with certain smaller teams, store marketing. There was ways where I think there were pockets of the company where people were really embracing this. And in those areas, I think we were really able to start to bring to life basically, a more focused set of values that we really wanted to stand for. And I think because of that, we were able to initiate and launch a lot of consumer facing programs that were driven by that, even if that wasn't the line on the ad.

But in hindsight, I realize now, this has to grow bottoms up. It's not something that you can just put top down and expect it to land. And you know, as we now continue on this journey, I think there'll be a really different approach to how we engage our people on a day to day aspect with that.

Charles:

One of the things you've done in the last couple of years at Tommy is massively accelerate the company. I mean, a company that  ... working in an industry that's used to working what? 9/12/15 months out in some cases? And you realized, I think, that the company had to move faster and had to engage in real time. Was purpose part of that? What role did purpose play in that recognition and the changes that you then engendered, engineered?

Avery Baker:

Um, I think it was a driver of that. It wasn't the only driver of that. But through the process of kind of landing on what we, what we felt our purpose should be, what was the territory that we really could own and why we exist, one of the pillars of that was to re-embrace this pioneering spirit of the brand, a brand that was founded on breaking conventions and doing things differently. That had become very dormant. So we kind of dusted that off. And in doing that, I think just having that in my mind and in our team's minds of like reclaiming that territory of risk taking, I think that led to some big initiatives like the see now buy now, which we wouldn't have done had we not gone through that exercise.

Charles:

See now buy now was your realtime runway.

Avery Baker:

Yeah. Yeah.

Charles:

So you went from a process that would normally take what? Nine months, 12 months to put together? Typically at Tommy, when you had a runway show and the models are walking down the runway, how long normally between that and the time a consumer could buy those clothes?

Avery Baker:

Yeah. So normally there's about five months from when you see a show and when the product, it's four to five months, is actually available. And we just thought that feels really out of touch with this society today of basically everything is immediate. Everything is kind of instantly shoppable or buyable. And the fact that we and many other brands create so much excitement and attention, that's amplified now through digital media at this one particular moment, and then you actually can't even get the product until months later, just felt like a very fundamental disconnect. And that's when we decided to just flip our entire approach to the model, which was ...

Charles:

Which sounds easy, but how many employees do you have globally?

Avery Baker:

Tommy has about 5,000 employees. Global.

Charles:

So you took a 5,000 person multi billion dollar company, and went from "Here's the clothes, you can have them in five months" to " Here's the clothes, you can buy them right now." How long did that process take?

Avery Baker:

Well, the interesting thing is that we kind of made the decision to do it and communicated it before we had fully baked the process of how we were going to do it.

Charles:

So you said out loud, "We're going to do this. We don't know how."

Avery Baker:

Yeah, we kind of knew how, but we didn't fully know how. And therefore, we had a very tight window of time in order to make it happen, which I think was better. So that first initiative happened between ... We announced it in February. And then, the show itself with all of the product being shoppable was in September --

Charles:

So six months, seven months.

Avery Baker:

Six months.

Charles:

Wow.

Avery Baker:

Yeah.

Charles:

So okay. So you took 5,000 people and in seven months went from being a business that operated fundamentally in one way and turned it into business that operated fundamentally in another. What did you have to go through based on the way you've described yourself as being sort of orderly and organized? What did you have to break within yourself just to see how you could do that and get other people to follow that?

Avery Baker:

I had to really trust that we ... because it definitely was not an I thing, that we would figure it out. And I kind of was used to making sure that we kind of had all the answers and things were relatively educated and calculated. And this was a gigantic leap of faith that relied a lot on incredibly hard work and talent and belief from people in all different parts of the company. So it was a real exercise of trust without knowing exactly what the end goal was going to look like. That was pretty scary.

Charles:

And how did you get other people to follow that?

Avery Baker:

Well, it helps when you do a press release. Then, they have to. No. You know, I think it was very, although daunting, I think it actually was really exciting for a lot of the people in the company involved in this because they were excited to be a part of something that was just disruptive, and you know, kind of breaking the rules and writing new rules. And I think that says a lot about the culture of the company and the culture of the people. So the opportunity to kind of be on the forefront of that, and to be given the chance to kind of author that while it was happening I think was very motivating to most people in the team.

Charles:

And where did you find the biggest resistance?

Avery Baker:

Just, you know, day to day logistics. This was like a monster to try to figure out and I would say that there wasn't a lot of emotional resistance, which is amazing because that's much harder to get through, But there were just, you know, just constant roadblocks. And you had parts of the organization working together that never did before. You'd have supply chain and the design team and the marketing group and the developers, everyone having to do something at the exact same time, when normally it was a very linear process. So I think just the natural frictions that happened, because it was not a process that we ever had before, was one of the biggest challenges.

Charles:

And emotional resistance, I think, is often the biggest obstacle in any company. Right? Both at the individual and the group level. So why do you think that you felt less of that than I would think most companies do. What was the binding agent that allowed people to move past that anxiety that change brings in human beings in general?

Avery Baker:

I think that they, I hope, ... I think that our teams felt trusted to try to figure this out. We don't run the company with a culture of fear. There is room to test and learn and test and fail. And especially in recent years there has been a big emphasis on. "Okay, now what? And what's next?" And really actively looking to do things differently. So I think there was a feeling that this is a new day, this is a way of looking at things that's very open and fresh and I think the sense of trust that came along with that, and the kind of optimism with which I think we tried to bring the vision to life, gave people maybe more confidence to just get in there and give it their best shot.

Charles:

And trust is both essential and incredibly fragile. Particularly in, I think, creatively driven businesses as obviously yours is. Were you conscious at the time of not only building it but maintaining trust? Was that a thought process for you or was that an instinct?

Avery Baker:

It was probably more instinctive because we were just moving fast. But that's always instinctive, I think, for me in the way that I work with [inaudible].

Charles:

Yeah, Partly, I think of building trust as actually just being willing to be, or being able to be consistent. Right? So saying what you mean, and then doing what you say is fundamental. Were you conscious of being as clear as you could and consistent as you could as you went through this massive change?

Avery Baker:

Yes, I think it was that. And it was also the fact that I didn't have all the answers either. I knew where I wanted us to go and we set a very simple and clear objective. But beyond that I was pretty candid with, you know, certain like lead teams that, you know, we didn't have this all figured out and we needed to do it together. And I think that creates a real vested interest. And I think that really being able to say, "Look guys, I don't have the exact blueprint but we're going to do this together," I think can be a great motivator, instead of pretending that you know all the answers, at a moment that maybe you don't.

Charles:

And a lot of leaders I think fall into that trap of feeling like they need to have all the answers. That was not an issue for you here. Has it ever been an issue for you?

Avery Baker:

There's always a tendency to fall into that area, especially I think when you're young in your career and wanting to prove yourself or if you find yourself in a situation where maybe you're a little bit in over your head. But I don't know, pretty early on, I learned this actually from my dad, I just try to be quite honest about things. And I've always believed that great ideas come from anywhere and it's really about like the power and the thought of the team, not ever of one person. And that's because that's been instinctive, I think I've been pretty comfortable for a long time, managing from a more open point of view, that I don't have all the answers all the time.

Charles:

Yeah. Absolutely. We're obviously living in extraordinary times, in terms of equality, Me Too, Time's Up, those issues are obviously coming to the floor, you are ... I read an article, I think recently, that said that the fashion industry is dominated, from a leadership standpoint, by men. Despite the fact that something like 75% of all the purchases made, are made by women. What's the experience of being a woman in that kind of industry like? How have you had to adapt yourself in order to be a leader in that kind of industry?

Avery Baker:

Hm. Well, there's definitely, there are a lot of men in my company, too. More and more women in leadership positions, but not as many as I would like to see. But it's funny, I hesitate to say that I've ever had to 'adapt' myself. And I hope that I haven't had to do that too much, because one's hope is that you can be who you are and make it through that path, whether you're a male or a female.

I think I've ... and I've found, that maybe just being more true to my own approach to communications or making things happen, has been more effective than when I've tried to adapt myself to what might have been expected of me, as either a senior leader or as a senior female leader. I think there's stereotypes there.

Charles:

Have you, are you clear about ... have you defined a clearly held set of leadership values, as we might describe them?

Avery Baker:

I'm starting to, yeah. And especially I have to say at this moment and time, it makes one reflect more and it's really, really important and there's a greater sense of responsibility, I think, to articulate that and to share that. But, it's been taking shape.

Charles:

I think the current era is challenging for both men and women, right? There's a sense that there is a black and white reality, at the moment, that you're either on one side or the other of this issue and there's no gray area in the middle. I think that's gonna evolve over time, because I think we're dealing with a reflex of a lot of years of really destructive behavior, clearly.

As you look to the future, what does the modern business look like, from a leadership standpoint?

Avery Baker:

I believe that a lot of the qualities and this might be a stereotype one too, itself, but a lot of the qualities that female leaders bring to the table are very important qualities for modern leadership. That will resonate and do resonate, especially with younger generations. So some of the things that I mentioned earlier, but I think it's the ability to show vulnerability, less ego driven, more team oriented. And this is not to say that there are not many, many talented men out there that also have those qualities, but I think innately and maybe traditionally, these were not valued as leadership qualities. Empathy, you know, creating human connection. I think it's a very different way of engaging with people than maybe, like, old school corporate culture might have said was effective. And I really believe, and I see with the people in our company, but I really believe that's going to be much more in sync with the values and the mindset of new generations, and that's gonna get people probably more motivated, rather than do this because I say so.

Charles:

Yeah, I think somebody wrote this week, in the last day or so, that empathy has been the word of the week, here, at camp, actually. How do you lead empathetically? Because obviously we're running, people are running these enormous businesses with quarterly earnings requirements, right? And so there are real expectations, people lose their jobs when the numbers fall. How do you combine that? How do you tie that to an empathetic, sensitive, human-first kind of mindset, from a leadership standpoint?

Avery Baker:

Well the good news is, I think, because we're in this crazy moment in time, there is a recognition that's standing up for the things that you believe in and the more human things that companies or brands or people believe in, is really important. And I think that's a great opportunity, because previously, in both publicly held organizations, it was only about the numbers. And I think you see more and more, companies that are, whether it's purpose or values oriented, where that's becoming much more important and also what a company stands for, how they treat their people.

So, I think the path is starting to open up for those two worlds to merge and to me, it's always been just the basic way of how you engage with everyone you come in contact with, on a daily basis.

Charles:

Do you find the companies that you're working with, in whatever area, supply chain or marketing, communications, do you find that you're having different kinds of conversations with them? Are those leaders showing up in different ways? Are you conscious of the fact that those companies are going through cultural evolution as well?

Avery Baker:

Yes, almost every company that we meet today, even from different industries. I was recently ... spent the day with the people at Mercedes, they're a big partner of ours, and even an organization like that is going through purpose and values and how do we engage with our consumers and our employees, in a modern way? I think everyone is going through these changes and probably the companies that will stick around, are the ones that are tackling that head on and no one knows the answers yet.

Charles:

Yeah. That's true. How do you lead?

Avery Baker:

Like this ... probably. No, I try to be always, I try to be straight-forward and honest, but respectful and kind. And I think I ask a lot of people, but I ask probably even more of myself, and just try to create, also, just a positive vibe. I think everybody wants to kind of, in the end, feel kind of good about what you get up and go and do every day, and you want to feel valued. And I think if, even in a moment of giving constructive criticism, if there's a way to still give people a sense of value, whatever it is that's being done, no matter how big or how small, that's what I strive for. It's not always possible, but that's what I strive for.

Charles:

What are you afraid of?

Avery Baker:

In general? I'm less afraid of failure, but still, I think that's always in there. Hm. Wow. Do I have to answer that in front of this group?

Charles:

Why do you think you're less afraid of failure?

Avery Baker:

Because I've taken some risks and kind of, gotten away with it.

Charles:

So pushing your own boundaries, discover what you're capable of?

Avery Baker:

Yeah. Definitely. And, I think, we all realize as we get older, you're much more resilient than you think you are. No, but I think, you know what? I'm afraid of actually, these days, standing still too much, and becoming out of touch, with what's happening in this world and especially from a professional sense, where we need to go and how we need to stay connected with people.

There's, every day, there's so many incredible things happening in the tech space, in the digital space, I think the worse thing as a leader, is if you end up in an ivory tower, where the value that you bring is kind of irrelevant, to the organization. And so, that is a fear, and I think that's something that has to be kind of consciously, you have to consciously give time to stay connected and to put yourself out there and keep learning and staying curious. Because, I think it's not that hard to become irrelevant, pretty quickly, in this day and age.

Charles:

And the challenge of that, I'm struck by the contrast with the fact that time is the big challenge for every senior leader I know, right? There isn't enough of it, and not to minimize the role that men play, but you are a wife, you're a mother, you're a daughter, and so you've got the challenges of those, not just responsibilities, but that passion as well. How do you reconcile those two? Where do you try to find the balance between that, given that's an impossible task?

Avery Baker:

It's so hard. I mean, honestly, that's the hardest thing of my life, is to try to navigate that ecosystem. And I've chosen it, so for now, it's worth it. But I don't know, trying to be present wherever you are, when I'm home with my kids, I'm with them. And it's easy to let the lines get blurry. And I've found that when I end up in that zone, it doesn't help anyone. Especially me.

I think that what probably what helps more, is carving out time for one's self, I think that goes to the bottom of the barrel. And that is probably, that's not good, because I think that's where you can get a lot of important thinking done, around yourself, the world, your family, your profession. But it's a constant challenge.

Charles:

Yeah. I can imagine. I wrap every conversation with three things that I've heard. So I'm gonna try and restrict these to what I've heard from you today. Things that I think make you successful from a leadership standpoint.

So the first is, your willingness to push your own boundaries, in fact, as you said, somebody who’s comfortable being organized, willing to jump in and say, "I need to take risks and discover what else I'm capable of," and take the business on that journey.

Second I think is just very human kindness and thoughtfulness and generosity about the fact that other people are living lives on the other side of this decision, on the other side of this reality. And therefore, being conscious of the fact that that's a human being that we're dealing with, which I don't think every leader is always conscious of, in the moment. And that strikes me as a strength.

And, then I think the third piece, actually, is the flexibility to say, "This didn't go the way I thought it was going to, and I'm not gonna beat myself up about that. And I'm gonna use what we've learned so far as a catalyst for the next stage of evolution."

And, again I think, for too long, too many leaders have gotten stuck into a, kind of a black and white analysis, so they didn't want to throw it all out. But I think you learn from the experience and then apply it and take people onto the next stage. Does that resonate?

Avery Baker:

It does, actually. And I think it's important to learn, or I've learned, you have to take responsibility, even if it's not always your responsibility, you have to take responsibility for things, but I think we're in an age where it is about test and learn, and there is no shame in saying, "Okay, this didn't work, but here's what we learned, and here's how we are gonna go forward."

I think that's probably one of the only ways to navigate this incredibly changing time, that we are in. But I also love that. I think constantly learning is what keeps us engaged and interested and young.

Charles:

Yeah. And the whole mark of great leadership, I think. Thank you so much for being here today and thanks for doing this.

Avery Baker:

Thanks, Charles. Thank you.