Rethinking Business as Usual: Spotlight on Retail and Governance

Image: The Corporate Director Podcast Episode 32 with Anddria Clack-Rogers Varnado

Listen to Episode 32 on Apple Podcasts

Guest: Anddria Clack-Rogers Varnado, Chief Strategy Officer, Macy’s; board member, Umpqua Holdings

Hosts: Dottie Schindlinger, Executive Director of the Diligent Institute, and Meghan Day, Senior Director of Board Member Experience for Diligent Corporation

In this episode:

  1. Seize this opportunity to rethink business as usual. Scenario-planning and “what-if” ideas can lead to long-term innovation, so make time in your calendar for these conversations, Varnado advises.
  2. Make sure “all hands on deck” includes less visible roles. When was the last time the board heard from the chief marketing officer, or the head of HR? Varnado asks.
  3. Think beyond “technology for technology’s sake.” Instead, ask how can technology can make online experiences more human and enhance a customer’s in-store journey?

Summary:

Declining foot traffic. The migration to digital and e-commerce brands. More globalization and lower barriers to entry. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic sent in-store shoppers and their wallets home for months, the future of retail has been called “dire” and “apocalyptic.”

Have online retailers like Amazon won the battle for good?

Anddria Clack-Rogers Varnado brings a dual perspective to this question from the worlds of retail and governance. She’s held executive strategy roles with Williams-Sonoma and Macy’s, where she’s currently chief strategy officer, and serves on the board of directors for Umpqua Holdings.

“Almost every industry that’s over 15 years old has had some forecast for doom,” she says. “Think of the forecast for media, for services, for movie theaters and travel. Each of these industries has been disrupted with this moment of ‘will it all continue or will it all die?’”

For retail, the answer is decidedly continue, she says. Varnado joins co-hosts Dottie Schindlinger and Meghan Day to talk about her industry’s landscape, prospects, and opportunities—and how board members in all industries can apply retail’s lessons to change and digital transformation in their own organizations.

Seize this opportunity to rethink business as usual

As COVID-19 forced the closure of stores, branches, and communications channels worldwide, forcing retailers to adapt, Varnado says it concurrently presents the opportunity to ask: How do we re-energize the business model?

She points out that many companies have been maintaining the same verticals, organizational structures, and more for decades while their industries have fundamentally changed. Rather than moving pieces around, ask: If we are going to start this business all over again right now, how would it look? Would it have different division and concepts? And make these discussions part of your regular board.

“If you were to remove one piece of your business, how would your business adapt?”

Anddria Clack-Rogers Varnado, Chief Strategy Officer, Macy’s; board member, Umpqua Holdings

Make these discussion part of the recurring board calendar, she advises, even if such “what if” conversations don’t feel immediately relevant or operational. Some of the ideas that emerge could lead to long-term innovation.

Make sure “all hands on deck” includes less visible roles

The historical targeting of CEOs and CFOs for board membership can lead to other roles, like marketing and HR, not getting the same visibility in the board room, Varnado says. The “all hands on deck” expertise demanded by the current landscape—with COVID-19, digital transformation, racial injustice, and more—is changing this picture, however.

“When’s the last time you heard from your chief marketing officer? When’s the last time you heard from other divisions directly and not through the board summary?”

Anddria Clack-Rogers Varnado, Chief Strategy Officer, Macy’s; board member, Umpqua Holdings

She cites the example of a chief talent officer or someone else within the HR organization who can speak on diversity and cultural community, adapting the business, and working from home—either by reporting directly to the board or as a board member.

“Those conversations should already be happening from an executive in management level, but it’s also good to have someone on the board who can reflect that back and who can push the conversation,” she says.

Think beyond “technology for technology’s sake”

Varnado recalls a time in retail when “stores were just putting iPads and computers in the store, and you have this moment of practicality when you say as a customer ‘if I wanted to type on an iPad or computer I would have stayed at home.’”

As much as technology drives efficiency, there are some things in retail that work better in person, like examining the look, feel, and fit of an interview suit first-hand or getting an expert’s opinion in five minutes rather than doing hours of online research.

Varnado anticipates a move to a “hybrid” model, with digital features that bring the human experience online and technologies that augment the in-store experience.

“There are so many ways to get information, it’s almost overload. Sometimes you just want to go and talk to someone who has that expertise.”

Anddria Clack-Rogers Varnado Chief Strategy Officer, Macy’s; board member, Umpqua Holdings 

Also in this episode…

Varnado and Schindlinger talk more about the changing retail landscape, from the potential of virtual reality and voice-activated search to the future of barbershops and hair salons post lock-down.

Resources in this episode