You spent your pre-MBA days in a variety of roles at top retailers. After graduating business school, what led you into consulting and Kurt Salmon specifically?
At business school, I quickly honed in on the fact that I loved the retail work from my pre-MBA days, and I wanted to stick to that, but at the time virtually no retailers offered MBA internships. I thought Kurt Salmon would be something I would do for the summer to build my resume before going back into industry, but I fell in love with it. I remember being in a Steering Committee meeting my first week that summer and the CEO turned to me and said, “Oh, you’re the intern who worked at Bloomingdale’s. What do you think of our product at Bloomingdale’s?” Immediately, I saw that in consulting you could have a dialogue with C-level executives, you were constantly progressing through projects, and solving problems at a rapid pace, which was really exciting to me.
I went to Kurt Salmon specifically because of my passion for retail. Consulting wasn’t really something I explored with all the big firms. My personality lends itself to more operational consulting, and Kurt Salmon is known for that in the market, which translates very well to my role at Ross. But more on that later…
So you loved the problem solving and the diverse projects, but what really kept you there for almost 10 years to Partner?
When I joined I told myself I’d only do it for one or two years, but I loved it, and it’s really exciting to be at a job you love, so work became fun. It was the first time in my life where I could really see that work isn’t something you have to do; working is something you want to do. The nature of the projects, the sharp people, and the enjoyment I was getting from this strategic consulting role led me to stay. I don’t know that I ever said, “I must make Partner.” In fact, I would say that was never a goal for me, but I wanted to continue to do well and be promoted. As I got more senior at each level, I would look at the people above me and knew I could achieve that. I would ask, “What do I need to do to be at the next level or where do you see gaps?” I would close those gaps, and the promotions would follow. After a few years at the Manager level, I saw a clear path to Partner and that was exciting to me in many ways.
Why did you decide to leave? How did you learn about the opportunity at Ross, and what made it so appealing?
I started to consider other opportunities at a point where my family situation changed. Consulting is really fun and dynamic, but I have never seen it in any context across any firm where it isn’t also extremely intense. The more senior you get, the more intense it becomes. You don’t really give up responsibilities – you just take on additional ones and you take them more seriously because you are a shareholder in the firm and you are responsible for driving your own revenue. As a Partner, there were so many more competing demands on my time right when I had my first child. I realized that perhaps I would look back at this point in my life and not feel good about how I was prioritizing my commitments.
I cultivated strong relationships at all of my clients, and Delaney Steele (SVP Strategy and Marketing at Ross) was certainly one of them. I saw her as a role model who was on a similar path as me and had seen her leave a Partner role at BCG and head to Ross. It seemed like a great move for her, and as I got more serious about wanting to rebalance my life, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it could be the right move for me as well. Of course, Ross would never have solicited me, so I approached them, which led to a number of rapid discussions with the entire Executive team. The whole thing happened very quickly, but with each conversation, I felt more certain that this was exactly what I was looking for. I continue to feel so grateful that things unfolded as they did. The lesson here is that the relationships you cultivate while on the consulting side are extremely valuable and powerful in helping you find opportunities. Additionally, the quality of your work really speaks for itself in people wanting you to join their company and seeing the value you can bring.
What tips do you have for people onboarding at Ross and at a new company more broadly?
At Ross, onboarding is about listening and learning, but not doing. Onboarding is a unique opportunity where you have time to learn and explore, so you should take that very seriously. Ross is a culture that promotes that, but even if you end up in a culture that doesn’t promote it as intuitively, make sure you approach it that way yourself. Even after 18 months at Ross, I am constantly learning new things that shape how I craft a solution. I may have seen a similar problem numerous times in consulting, but nuanced things that are unique to Ross make me answer it differently in my new role. So take the time to absorb as much as you can about your new company, both the big or obvious characteristics as well as the more nuanced or cultural details. It will strengthen your credibility throughout the organization, as they see the work you put forth account for what you’ve learned.
Additionally, spot people who you view as successful at the company and create a ‘short-list’ of people worth getting to know. Just like in consulting, your network is powerful, so cultivating those relationships is important. Similarly, people who are well respected or highly successful can give you invaluable advice, tips, and guidance for what to steer towards and away from.
On the other side of that coin, do you have any across-the-board don’ts?
Watch out for “consultant speak” and the air in which you carry yourself. For example, don’t talk about where you got your MBA or the fact that you worked at a Hedge Fund if you’re at a retailer where people grew up in the garment industry. Tune into your audience and position yourself in a way that makes you feel closest to them or most like them. Consultants are often trained to go into a company and reflect as super smart in order to prove their worth. The tables really turn in corporate. Try to pick up on the nuances of the culture, how people dress, how they act in meetings, how they speak, etc., and do your best to acclimate. Another small tactical tip – consulting operates around the clock, but other companies may operate differently, so be mindful. If it’s not a norm to send an email on the weekend, hold it until the Monday. Don’t overwhelm people with the style and pace that you’re used to working in consulting. Observe and adapt!
What is it about your current role that excites you the most? How has it been different both working on the consulting side for Ross and now at Ross?
Everything! It is really fun to be part of a growth company, and in a sector that is so exhilarating. Working at a company, as opposed to consulting for a company, certainly makes you feel more like part of that story, and your investment into the success of the company is on a different level. Of course, you want your clients to be successful – it reflects well on you and it brings back more business – but when you work internally you feel an even stronger sense of ownership.
The Strategy role inside an organization is really dynamic – there is just so much more breadth and depth to the work. In consulting, you can end up doing a lot of similar types of projects, but once you’re in an internal strategy role, you get pulled into things across all functions, and that’s really stimulating. Getting so much exposure to all facets of the company, while at the same time building deep knowledge on each topic, really rounds you out in terms of ability to take on more senior leadership roles as you progress in your career.
Now that you have been at Ross for over a year and a half, what advantages do you think off-price retail offers folks who are thinking about careers in retail?
Off-price is hands-down the most interesting sector in retail right now. At business school, I remember people were coming to talk to me about how to get into luxury retail, and I would laugh because there is just so much more growth, excitement, and financial upside with the value players. I think it’s important to focus on what excites you – but if you really love retail, then it should extend beyond the smoke and mirrors of a sexy brand or attractive employee discount.
If you are passionate and experienced in retail, and then have a chance to learn the ins and outs of the off-price model, it is fascinating. Though all retailers like to claim “we’re different” in most cases, they’re not. Retail is retail. But that’s not true in off-price. The off-price game is different. It’s fast paced, dynamic and requires incredible discipline. When I look at the off-price merchant, it is a more unpredictable and demanding job than the typical merchant. It’s definitely harder yet at the same time, if done correctly, is so rewarding.
Raines has done a lot of work with your team over the past few years and brought in great talent from the top firms. How can someone stand out in their interview with Ross? What qualities are you looking for in candidates that will lead them to be successful at Ross?
At Ross, smart and competent is a given. Beyond that, we want to hire relatable people who will be able to adapt to the organization, be willing to roll up their sleeves, and build strong relationships within the company. The people who say, “I’m almost Partner, and so I’m looking for an SVP role reporting to the CEO,” are the people who will not be the right fit for our team. We also look for people who have taken an interest in Ross and gotten to know us. They’ve done their research, visited a store, and gathered as much information as they can. They come in understanding our model and with a strategic perspective on some of our strategies (e.g., why we don’t have e-commerce). Even if a person isn’t a retail expert, they can still do all of the above and have insightful views about what we’re building.
Our job as strategy executives is to help drive the company to success and partner with the CEO on initiatives that are going to move the needle for our business. Many times those projects involve shifting core processes or fundamental behaviors of the organization. We need people who are willing to get very operational and tactical, have a desire to train and coach, and then deliver new ways of working to a huge organization. People who view strategy as an ivory tower that only interacts with the CEO will not be successful at Ross.
How can someone assess a corporate strategy role as a stepping stone to a senior functional or GM leadership position?
A strategy role at a company that understands how to leverage strategy is a great bridge between consulting and industry. Given my experience on the inside, I think it’s hard for consultants to jump into a functional role from consulting and be as successful, or feel as rewarded, in a short time frame. In a strategy role, you get to see all aspects of the organization and work side by side with members of the functional teams to really learn their problems and opportunities. By the time you take on a functional role, you’re more informed. It gives you a greater platform for success and it is well-respected by the organization. I think 80% of our strategy team comes here with the hopes of moving into a functional role, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so.
At the same time, don’t sell short the role of strategy itself. When I think about my path forward, I feel it will be hard to go narrower and focus on one thing. I get to work on such a breadth of topics across all different functions. So, I think that people who loved the diversity of new projects in consulting will find strategy to be a great place to build a career that will set them up for success in many executive leadership roles down the line.