Marvin Ellison, President, Northern Division
The Home Depot
Location: Atlanta, GA
Powerplay: Manages 700 retail stores and 110,000 sales associates, he understands that everyone is valuable, “from the regional president running a multibillion-dollar business to the associate clearing carts out the parking lot.”
Which combination of sensibilities is essential to navigating the rank and file of retail?
Successful leaders have a very good knack for selecting talent. They understand that as leaders, the IQ of the team is much more important than the IQ of the person leading the team. Selection of talent is critical. Second to that, you have to understand what steps you have to develop your own skills. You have to be very honest and have clarity around [what] you are good at and things you need to work on. Electing people is important and being able to develop oneself is equally important. The other thing that is essential is the ability to effectively communicate. As leaders who have spent a lot of time getting advanced education, we are sometimes fearful of creating things that are simplistic. Sometimes we think a simple plan may make us appear simplistic as leaders [and] as people. I’d argue that the most effective leaders are very good at taking complex analyses and processes and developing a simple way to articulate them.
Are people skills the hallmark of a great leader?
“People skills” is an overused term. It means you’ve taken the time to get to know the inner workings of the people you interact with. You understand their strengths and developmental needs. You understand their natural competencies, and the things that put them outside their comfort zone. When you truly understand your team’s skills, simply stated, their people skills, you then have the ability, as great leaders do, to get more from them than they ever thought possible. And you get it in a way that allows them to transport what [they’ve learned]. The great thing about people skills is that [they are] transferable from industry to industry, function to function. Great leaders are like great farmers–they fertilize and grow everything around them. If you have good people skills you [will see it] in the people around you, in how well they progress in their career and sustain a high level of performance.
How have the metrics used to judge a person’s people skills changed over the last 10 years?
The good news about the last 10 years is that you have a lot of available resources–online tools and very systemic tools. Things like online 360-degree evaluations that allow a person to get anonymous feedback from their peers, direct reports, and supervisors. It’s a 360-degree look [with] the person providing their own input on what they believe are their strengths and different leadership competencies. This is a very good evaluation because it gives you the opportunity to compare a person’s internal perceptions about their leadership skills [and] people skills to what their direct reports, peer group, and supervisors think.
We also use different types of assessments to measure business competencies along a lot of different areas such as business acumen around finance [and] people development. We are measuring competencies by putting them through role-playing to see how they react in a real-world situation where they’re dealing with conflict, addressing a group, or [have] to take data and put that into a workable process [to] present to a group of people. These systems are great, personally, but nothing substitutes spending time face-to-face with the people that work on the frontlines of the organization.
One thing that I do that is very useful, and is something my company encourages, is town hall-style meetings. I go into the store and gather 20 employees around a table and have a candid conversation about how the business is going. More often than not what comes out of those sessions is that they would talk about the leaders that support them. So I get a clear, unfiltered message from the associates who interact with our customers–how they feel about the leadership competencies and people skills of the leaders that support them.
How do you define brilliance in retail industry terms?
I define brilliance as someone who has the ability to create a team that drives sustainable results. In business you have economic cycles where you’ll have positive results. Then, the results trend down [and] at some point trend back up. Without fail, you have leaders in every industry, retail included, that find a way, even in economic down times, to get a team to perform at a very high level, to deliver results consistently and in a very sustainable fashion. There is nothing magical or mystical about success. It’s about creating a clear vision, developing a good plan, understanding the needs of the customer, staffing a team that can deliver upon that, and having good measurements in place to understand how you’re progressing. Then you make the necessary adjustments by listening to customers and your team–making the necessary course correction but reacting quickly and delivering value. Success itself is a definition of brilliance.
© SEAN DRAKES
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