“Retail is war without blood”: What Foot Locker’s CEO learned in the Army

Ken Hicks

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Katherine Bell for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.

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This post is part of an HBR Spotlight examining leadership lessons from the military.

Ken Hicks, the CEO of Foot Locker, formerly the president and chief merchandising officer of J.C. Penney’s, graduated from the United States Military Academy and spent six years in the army just after the Vietnam War. HBR talked to Ken about how his time as a young officer prepared him for a career as a retail executive.

Bell: Tell me about a couple of things you learned from your military experience that have made you a more effective CEO.

Hicks: When I took over my artillery battery, at age 25, I could shoot a cannon better than any of my section chiefs. And I had six guns. The only problem is, I could only shoot one gun at a time. I realized that what I had to do was train my section chiefs to be better cannoneers than I was. Because shooting 18% of the battery isn’t going to be effective. And my job really wasn’t to shoot a cannon, it was to develop an entire artillery battery.

So I learned that you’re very dependent on your people to be their best. You train and develop and motivate them. People think in the army that you tell somebody to do something and they do it, and that’s far from the truth. They actually have more options and pressures that can be very intense. Think about it — if somebody in Afghanistan screws up, they get sent back home. If they don’t, they stay in combat.

To be a successful leader, you have to understand what skills are required and be competent at them, and you also have to have confidence. Sometimes people mistake confidence for leadership, or competence for leadership, but it takes both of them together.

Bell: Do you see any connections between how the military and the retail industry operate?

Hicks: In retail and the military, you’re very dependent on the people at the front or the selling floor. You realize how important the sale associate is. It’s the same thing in the army; you’re very dependent on your privates and specialists, and so you talk with them and learn from them. Six or eight months after I’d left J.C. Penney’s, I was in a Penney’s store looking at some merchandise, and an associate recognized me and came running across the floor to say hello. She remembered me because I’d treated her with respect and listened to her. That’s what you have to do to inspire people. The people on the selling floor, just like the cannoneers, the gunners, and the infantry, are the ones who make everything happen.

Bell: How do you stay connected to frontline employees, besides going out and talking to them?

Hicks: Recognition. I send out a little note card every month to the employees who perform best, thanking them for doing a good job. If you think about the military, people are willing to give their life in defense of the country and their friends, and what do they get for it? They get a ribbon on their chest. Everybody thinks recognition needs to be a big bonus or a promotion. It really doesn’t. What you learn in the military is people do their work because they trust and respect you and they want you to be able to recognize them for that. I send out these cards and the next thing you know, they frame them and put them on the wall in their stores or their cubicles because it’s important to them.

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Katherine Bell is deputy editor at Harvard Business Digital, the online division of Harvard

Katherine Bell

Business Publishing. She has worked as online managing editor at America’s Test Kitchen, as web director for British celebrity chef and cookbook author Delia Smith, and as director of content at PlanetOut.com in San Francisco. Her short stories have appeared in Ploughshares and Best American Short Stories 2006 and she is the author of the book Quilting for Peace. She’s also taught at the University of Iowa and in Lesley University’s MFA program.

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