Thoughts on Leadership From Margo Downs, Former Chief People Officer, Stitch Fix and Lululemon
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
Margo Downs is a force of nature. Passionate, inspiring and wise, she looks at work as a "catalyst for transformation" and has personally demonstrated that with her executive roles at Stitch Fix, Lululemon and Starbucks. In our interview, she shares her thoughts on authenticity, how to show up when the going gets tough and inspiring leadership.
How and when did we first meet?
At Starbucks. We were always in each other’s orbits but I believe the real connection came in early 2008. I was newly promoted as the Vice President Global Learning and you were the Director, Global Learning, Retail North America. I was very excited to have you on the team - your reputation preceded you and we had big work to get up to!
What's one of your favorite memories of our work together?
2008 was a very momentous time in the world...and at Starbucks. Howard Schultz returned as CEO and charged our team with returning quality to our stores. You led the team that came up with the idea to close the stores simultaneously and retrain on quality. I loved this time - we had a mission, a great team and were driving for innovation and true change. We also had fun while doing it which is key.
You've had experience as a top executive at some very well known brands: Lululemon, Stitch Fix and Starbucks to name a few. How did those experiences shape your views on leadership?
Starbucks (and Howard Behar in particular) taught me the importance of Servant Leadership and ingrained a deep respect for keeping the person closest to the customer top of mind when leading people and strategy. Lululemon was pivotal in helping me see that personal development could be a vital part of the workplace - when your life works, work works. At Stitch Fix, we declared that leadership was available to everyone and not solely a title. This gives agency throughout the organization which is essential to innovation and growth.
You talk about the concept "inspiring leadership". What does that mean?
People want to be inspired in all areas of our lives. I really believe that. I think we are each capable in our unique way to inspire others- to think, to act, to dream, to grow. Lighting the spark in other people is truly the leader’s role. This is not “motivating”. It’s truly igniting what is already there.
I love the idea of authenticity in leadership. How can a leader practice being more authentic? You must have the courage to be yourself and show that to others. It means being vulnerable, sharing your successes and your mistakes. Traditional leadership structures are restrictive and not inclusive. It’s important for people to see diversity in leadership in every way and authenticity drives this. Early in in my career, I was encouraged to actively not be myself and it took me awhile to develop confidence in leading in a way that was authentic to me. By showing up, we encourage others to express their authentic leadership which makes everything better.
When the going gets tough, what type of behaviors instill confidence in the leader? What erodes confidence?
This is a great question. I’ve been accused at times of being relentlessly optimistic. I’d modify that a bit to being pragmatically optimistic. I think it’s important to face what is challenging, cry or scream a little, and then create a plan to move forward. Being honest about what is really happening instills confidence and trust. Being evasive and not acknowledging challenges erodes trust and makes moving forward harder.
What do you think are some of the most impactful ways to build leadership capability?
Experiences build capability. Reflecting and learning from experiences is a massive multiplier. And doing this with trusted advisors and colleagues takes it to another level of growth.
What's one trait that you think is essential in a leader and why.
It’s hard to pick one so here are my top 3. There’s a synergy between them for me.
Curiosity - The desire to learn and grow makes for a developed person and an interesting life.
Courage - This is not being fearless. It’s feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Being able to listen, assess and make the decision/take the action that often has an unknown outcome.
Resilience - There will be setbacks and disappoints along with the successes. The ability to learn and regroup without getting cynical is key.
It's rapid fire round time! Try and answer in just one word.
Favorite leadership book: A New Earth by Eckhardt Tolle
Describe your leadership style: Innovative
What gives you energy: Creating
What drains your energy: Cynicism
Your dogs names: Pippa and Daphne
Dream vacation: Anywhere by the ocean
Check out Margo's website, https://www.margodowns.com/, to experience more of her fabulousness.