Mike Gould on Leadership


What makes a great leader?

The topic, by all accounts is very close to Mike Gould’s heart, “It is the single most important thing any of us do, regardless of what we do.”

Mike Gould, one of the most accomplished leaders in all of retail, recently retired as CEO from Bloomingdale’s after a 23-year career. He spoke to a group of industry executives, FIT students and faculty on April 8th at a meeting of the Retail Marketing Society in NYC.

During his wide-ranging talk, he emphasized, “At the end of the day, what people remember are the opportunities you gave them to grow and to become more than they thought they could be; not the numbers that mesmerize our daily lives.”

How does Mike lead? He stressed that people come first; nurturing their growth and providing opportunities are the mark of a good leader.

Innovation and ethics may be the topics de jour, but Mike sees an enormous void in leadership. “Attitude is more powerful than facts, more important than anything; 90% of life is how you deal with the 10%, the stuff life gives you.”

When asked to define leadership, Mike mentioned a laundry list of its attributes:

  • Motivation

  • Honesty

  • Charisma

  • Communications skills

  • Fire

  • Example

  • Integrity

  • Listening

  • Trust

Referencing an IBM manual from the 50s, he summed up, “Trust is the most important characteristic of leadership, its most precious and tangible quality.” He cited the ‘parable of the forest’ as example.

“To hear the unheard,” remarked Pan Ku, “is a necessary discipline to be a good ruler. For only when a ruler has learned to listen closely to the people’s hearts, hearing their feelings uncommunicated, pains unexpressed, and complaints not spoken of, can he hope to inspire confidence in his people, understand when something is wrong, and meet the true needs of his citizens. The demise of states comes when leaders listen only to superficial words and do not penetrate deeply into the souls of the people to hear their true opinions, feelings, and desires.”

In Mike’s words, “Listen; what do you hear? There’s lots you don’t hear. Hear the unspoken and anticipate the problem. How? You ask the questions and then you listen.”

He invoked another parable that speaks to looking at a situation from more than one vantage point:

“The road to enlightenment is like the journey down the mountain. It comes only to those who realize that what one sees at the top of the mountain is not what one sees at the bottom. Without this wisdom, we close our minds to all that we cannot view from our position and so limit our capacity to grow and improve. But with this wisdom, Lao-li, there comes an awakening. We recognize that alone one sees only so much, which, in truth, is not much at all. This is the wisdom that opens our minds to improvement, knocks down prejudices, and teaches us to respect what at first we cannot view. Never forget this last lesson, Lao-li: what you cannot see can be seen from a different part of the mountain.”

Michael suggested having a devil’s advocate on staff whose job it is to find flaws in the leaders or prevailing wisdom. He advises, “Hire someone to push back! “

As CEO of Bloomingdales, Mike’s responsibility was human capital and capital expenditures. “Pay people fairly and give them the opportunity to grow in scope; then why would people leave?” He added that how you grow your people is by encouraging them to do other things. “People are paramount to the organization; they have an enormous need for emotional, spiritual and intellectual connection.” As an aside, he said this is the basis for why we love to shop with others in stores.

Similar to Nelson Mandela, Mike said a good leader knows his core values; is a slow and deliberate thinker in service to all, not just self-interest; maintains professional composure; and gathers advice from a wide range of people. As CEO of Bloomingdale’s, what worried him the most was anything that could hurt the image of the brand – a moral mistake, an errant email.

When interviewing candidates he looked for a person who would mesh with the team. Mike said he had the best team in retail at Bloomingdale’s, and reminded us that “There is no ‘I’ in team!” He also looked for passion and thoughtfulness, acknowledging that each of us expresses our passion differently. Among the questions he always asked, “What was your biggest success and failure in the past 12 months?

And what didn’t you like about Bloomingdale’s?”

Regarding Bloomingdale’s today, Mike said, “The opportunities have never bigger than they are today at Bloomingdale’s. The better the brick-and-mortar stores, the better the online business. In fact, 85% of online business comes from locations with a Bloomingdale’s store is a nearby zip code. What is the excitement and the energy in the store? If you can’t make the experience great, there’s no reason for going.”

Michael’s closing comment spoke to his good heart and how he lives his life, “Bet on your people. Trust them; you don’t take a markdown on people.”

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