How this leader is driving social change and the future of retail

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In June 2020, Foot Locker, Inc. stepped up and committed $200 million over five years to improve the lives of its team members and customers in the Black community. The money will fund economic development and educational resources to drive systemic change and address inequality and injustice. In my latest episode of Leadership Lessons, I had the chance to spend an hour with the retail giant’s CEO, Richard “Dick” Johnson, and discuss driving social change, future of retail and the biggest lessons he’s learned throughout his career.

Courtesy of Foot Locker Inc.

Very few can say they have been with a company for over a decade, but Johnson has been with Foot Locker for over two years. After joining Eastbay as Vice President of Merchandising in 1993, the organization was acquired by Foot Locker, Inc. in 1997. During his tenure at Foot Locker, Inc., Johnson held various leadership positions at within the company. This includes Chairman and CEO of Footlocker.com and Eastbay from 2003 to 2007; Chairman and CEO of Foot Locker Europe from 2007 to 2010; Chairman and CEO of Foot Locker US, Lady Foot Locker, Kids Foot Locker and Footaction from 2010 to 2011; EVP and Group President of Retail Stores from 2011 to 2012; EVP and COO from 2012 to 2014; and Chairman and CEO since 2014 and Chairman since 2016.

“I don’t think much about my heritage,” Johnson told me humbly. “I hope 50 years from now, the striped associates of Foot Locker will continue to inspire and strengthen youth culture. Like any CEO, you don’t want to smear the company, do you? I hopes people will look back and say, “They forged a path that allowed them to become more connected and engaged with their consumers and communities.”

With headquarters in New York and 3,000 retail stores in 28 countries across North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, the leader of the global sneaker community inspires and empowers youth culture through its portfolio of brands, websites and mobile applications.

Here are 12 valuable lessons Johnson shared with me during our conversation:

1. Listen to learn, not just to prepare a response

“I think when we talk to someone and hear a question come up, we try to formulate the answer but we don’t really learn,” Johnson theorized to me. “We are determined to provide a response as quickly as possible, because this is the kind of world we live in today.” Instead, he says, we should listen to find the root cause of the issue.

Related: How Heineken USA CEO Maggie Timoney Succeeds in a Traditionally Male-Dominated Industry

2. Empathy in leadership is needed more than ever

Although Johnson tells me he has always sought to be an empathetic leader, the recent pandemic and social unrest has opened his eyes to the major chasm between knowing something is unfair and actually living it on a daily basis. “The empathy quotient is so important,” he says, especially when tasked with guiding people through uncertain times.

3. Don’t let yourself get too comfortable

It might be a familiar topic of conversation to say that discomfort can breed creativity and ingenuity, but that’s because it’s so often true. Johnson says if he could go back to our imaginary Leadership Lessons time machine and give himself advice in his twenties, it would be to take risks, fail fast, and then try something else.

4. With great power comes great responsibility

Being a CEO requires adapting to the kind of “big decision” you’ve probably never had to face before. Your decisions will redirect the business on a dramatic level. “You suddenly realize that this decision you are about to make will affect the lives of over 40,000 people in 28 countries,” Johnson reveals. “There’s really nothing that can prepare you for this.”

Related: How Tim Cadogan Used His Past Experience to Steer GoFundMe Through the Pandemic

5. Most success is due to strong teamwork

Johnson says this recognition is one of the company’s core values: “If you’re not surrounded by a strong team, I just don’t think you have the opportunity to succeed.”

6. Acting with integrity is the cornerstone of strong teamwork

So say what you mean and do what you say.

7. It’s not the degree that’s hanging on your wall that matters, it’s what you have to do to get it

Johnson highlights Foot Locker’s scholarship programs when he talks about the importance he places on continuing education to provide opportunities. “Paper you can hang on the wall,” he points out. “But it’s the learning process that prepares you to be a great leader.”

Related: How Supergoop! CEO Amanda Baldwin uses her Wall Street experience and brand expertise to create value and scale the business profitably

8. Business leaders are more important than ever to the world

There may have been a time in the early 2000s when the general perception of a CEO was slightly grim. But with the challenges we all face, business leaders will need to step up. “I think this is a huge opportunity for all of us,” Johnson enthused. “And this is the moment in time that we find ourselves in now.”

9. It is possible to find different opportunities to satisfy your wanderlust within your own company

We are currently in the midst of the Great Resignation, where people are quitting their jobs in droves, often with a “the grass is always greener” mentality. Johnson never planned to one day be CEO of a world-renowned company. His passion for running has seen him stay the course he was on with Foot Locker in several roles over two decades.

10. In-person purchases go nowhere

Johnson says that in 10 years physical stores will still be an essential part of the customer experience. But these stores will have to have a greater meaning and purpose than simply being the site of a monetary transaction. “We might be at the point where we’re 3D printing sneakers in the back room, who knows?” he speculates.

Related: How to Thrive in a Changing Business Landscape: “Everything Should Be Competitive.” It’s good for customers and it’s good for the industry.

11. Flexibility will be appreciated in the future, including in retail

Employees want to be able to choose their own shifts, especially when they are fully engaged in other life activities like school or early parenthood. Workers won’t want to be given a schedule of random days every two weeks, and it will be up to employers to make it work for everyone.

12. The higher you go up the ladder, the less time you’ll have to spend on what you’re passionate about.

You will need to make a more conscious effort to keep those passions burning. Although Johnson now spends much of his time with his board talking about governance issues, he told me several times during our conversation how much his fundamental love of sneakers and running foot drove his career.

To learn more about my hour with Johnson, watch the full webinar here. Our series’ growing collection of episodes gives readers access to best practices from successful CEOs of over 30 of the biggest brands, including Heineken, Headspace, Zoom, Chipotle, Warby Parker and ZipRecruiter, to name a few. only a few.

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