Tag Archive: corporate strategy

10 Turn-Around Lessons from Zale Corp.’s Theo Killion

Published by

Jill Griffin

When former Zale Corp. CEO Theo Killion shared his leadership lessons of turning around Zales at a recent NACD TriCities Chapter program in Austin, Texas, it jogged some childhood retail memories for me.

Growing up in the 1960’s, my small hometown of Marshville, North Carolina, boasted a thriving town square of mom-and-pop stores. Because my family’s home was a hop, skip and a jump from these businesses, they became my playground. I was their frequent visitor, and with those visits came benefits. For example:

  • Remember when white go-go boots were all the rage? Mr. Gaddy, who owned the shoe store, made sure my sister and I scored pairs from his first shipment.
  • As a child, I received a personal call from Mr. Creech, the toy store owner, when his long-awaited skateboards arrived.
  • One spring, I stood with other locals as the Chrysler dealer eagerly removed the drop cloths revealing that year’s beautiful new big-fended models. (The fact the dealership offered up lots of free doughnuts, coffee, and soft drinks didn’t hurt either.)

I was rapt throughout the program as Melissa Fruge interviewed Killion, a modern-day version of my favorite childhood shop-owners, but on a grander scale.

Zales was on the brink of bankruptcy in 2004. Something had to be done. The bold and unvarnished self-assessment undertaken by the company’s senior leadership uncovered the business’s truths. These revelations, combined with sheer perseverance not to fail, brought the national jeweler back from the edge.

Here are some of my top take-aways from Killion about what executives and boards should do to turn around a struggling business:

1. Stay humble. Killion prefaced his remarks by stating that they were his opinion, and that many of the tenets he spoke about originated from great thought leaders. A mark of a strong leader is his or her ability to acknowledge with humility the admired ideas of others.

2. Interim in any title keeps you focused. By the time Killion took the reigns, Zale Corp. had had six CEOs in 10 years. When Killion’s best friend was fired as CEO, the board needed a quick fill. Killion was named interim CEO—leaving him keenly aware that he was considered temporary. He entered the role ready to make the most of the time he had.

3. Follow the money. Zales had six short months before its cash ran out. The company was in desperate need of an equity infusion. From day one, Killion and his finance team were reaching out to possible providers.

4. Dig deep for insight. Over a three-month period, Killion and his two-member strategy team worked 12- and 14-hour days, including weekends, to put a decade of operational decisions under a microscope. They carefully ferreted out what worked, what didn’t work, and why. They then presented these findings to the board.  Killion observed and reported that management’s bad decisions were made on the board’s watch. He wanted the board to feel the same deep discomfort that the executive leadership team was feeling.

5. Detail the new strategy. Zales’ new strategy document totaled 150 pages and spelled out in clear, concise details what the company would do going forward—and why. For example, severe cost cutting had reduced the customers’ experience of buying an engagement ring into a commodity. Consider, for instance, that the customer left the store with the ring—which often times is one of the most meaningful, expensive jewelry purchases a person will make—in a plastic bag.

The new strategy brought customer emotion and meaning back to a purchase at Zales. The purchase process was no longer treated as a transaction, and store training ensued to make it a well-crafted, loving, and memorable customer experience.

6. Flip the pyramid. Before Killion stepped in, the leadership philosophy of the company placed management at the top of the pyramid. The pyramid was inverted and a customer-focused culture was born. It looked like this:

  • Top tier: customers of Zales’ 1,100 stores;
  • Middle tier: 12,000 employees; and
  • Bottom tier: corporate management.

7. Think like Jeff Bezos. Bezos has built Amazon.com to be customer-obsessed, keen on technology and analytics, and is always testing new concepts. Killion sees this as a road-map for any retailer succeeding today.

8. The nominating and governance committee is key to matching strategy to board composition. Killion pointed out that Zales needed board directors with skill sets that matched the company’s five-year plan. Retail expertise was a must, and the nominating and governance committee needed to ensure its goals matched those needs. This committee must ask itself what skill sets the business needs. In retail today, Killion advises, a board member with deep literacy in e-commerce is essential.

9. Apply lessons from Vanguard’s 2017 Open Letter. Killion admires Vanguard CEO F. William McNabb’s open letter to public company boards of directors. Vanguard has 20 million investors, and currently is the second largest fund manager in the world. McNabb is keenly aware of the responsibility boards play in the success of the companies that the fund invests in. Here are the highlights of McNabb’s message to directors that especially resounded with Killion:

  • Sell quality things.
  • Practice good governance.
  • Pay close attention to the compensation program crafted for senior management.
  • Understand the company’s risks, and especially the role of climate risks.
  • Inclusion of women and other directors from diverse backgrounds on boards is important.

10. Brick-and-mortar retail is not dying. Instead, Killion believes retail is entering its golden age partly because of the many ways today’s retailer can reach a customer and make a sale.

The program is available to view via NACD Texas TriCities Chapter’s YouTube channel. It’s a meaty discussion and well worth your viewing time.

By the way, to this day I’m a recreational bargain shopper.  Simply walking into a favorite store lifts my spirits, and I’m glad that Killion and the directors of companies are working to help the retail industry thrive in the twenty-first century marketplace.

Help Your Company to Face Its Future Confidently

Published by
Jim DeLoach

Jim DeLoach

The uncertainty of looking to the future presses boards to consider how confident their senior executives and supporting teams are in executing strategy. How can the board help the companies they oversee to face the future with a greater sense of confidence?

Confidence is neither a cliché nor an assertion of mere optimism. Rather, it is a quality that drives leaders and their companies forward. The Oxford English Dictionary defines confidence as “the state of feeling certain about the truth of something” and “a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.” This definition focuses on the board and management’s appreciation of the collective capabilities of the enterprise, including the ability to carry out a company’s vision. It raises three fundamental questions:

  • Do we know where we’re going directionally and why? Are our people committed to achieving a common vision that is clearly articulated, meaningful, and aspirational?
  • Are we prepared for the journey? Does our staff have the capabilities to execute our strategy? Do we have a great team, a strong roadmap, and the required processes, systems and alliances, and sufficient resources to sustain our journey?
  • Do we possess the ability, will, and discipline to cope with change along the way, no matter what happens? Does our board have the mental toughness to stay on course? Is our management team agile and adaptive enough to recognize market opportunities and emerging risks, and capitalize on, endure, or overcome them by making timely adjustments to strategy and capabilities?

Definitive, positive responses to these questions from the board will enable confidence across the organization.

Looking back on experiences working with successful companies, seven attributes were identified that organizations must have when facing the uncertainty of future markets.

How to Build the Foundation for Confidence

  1. Confident organizations share commitment to a vision. Commitment to a vision provides a shared “future pull” that is both inspiring and motivating. This perspective fuels enterprise-wide focus and energy to learn, which encourages participation and altruistic camaraderie. An effective vision crafted by the board and executive team leads people at all levels of a company to recognize that the enterprise’s success and their personal success are inextricably linked.
  2. Confident organizations have a heightened awareness of the environment. A confident organization constantly reality tests its market understanding by facilitating effective listening to customers, suppliers, employees, and other stakeholders. Boards should encourage companies to generate sources of new learning, encouraging systemic thinking in distilling and acting on the environment feedback received, with the objective of driving continuous improvement. The confident organization fosters a culture of sharing and supports formal and informal continuous feedback loops to flatten the organization, get closer to the customer, and promote a preparedness mindset.
  3. Confident organizations align their required capabilities. It is a never-ending priority of the board to ensure that the right talent and capabilities are in place to achieve differentiation in the marketplace and execute strategies successfully. Capabilities include an enterprise’s superior know-how, innovative processes, proprietary systems, distinctive brands, collaborative cultures, and a unique set of supplier and customer relationships.

How to Sustain Confidence

Achieving a foundation of confidence is necessary, but alone is not enough without concerted efforts to sustain confidence. Astute directors and executives know that the ability, will, and discipline to cope with change are also needed to sustain their journey. Those winning traits are enabled by the attributes below.

  1. Confident organizations are risk-savvy. The confident organization is secure in the knowledge that it has considered all plausible risk scenarios, knows its breakpoint in the event of extreme scenarios, and has effective response plans in place (including plans to exit the strategy if circumstances warrant). Most importantly, the confident organization should have an effective early-warning capability in place to alert decision-makers of changes in the marketplace that affect the validity of critical strategic assumptions. In a truly confident organization, no idea or person is above challenge and contrarian views are welcomed.
  2. Confident organizations learn aggressively. Confident organizations improve their learning by: creating centers of excellence; embracing cutting-edge technology to drive the vision forward; fostering an open, transparent environment of ongoing knowledge sharing, networking, collaboration, and team learning; perceiving admission of errors as a strength and requiring learning from the missteps; and converting lessons learned into process improvements. Aggressive learning stimulates the collective genius of the entire enterprise.
  3. Confident organizations place a premium on creativity. Innovation should be an integral part of the corporate DNA of the confident company, and should be evidenced by setting accountability for results with innovation-focused metrics at the organizational, process, and individual levels to encourage and reward creativity. Companies committed to innovation have the creative capacity to take advantage of market opportunities and respond to emerging risks. When innovation is a strategic imperative, companies empower and reward their employees to take the appropriate risks to realize new ideas without encumbering them with the fear of repercussions if they aren’t successful.
  4. Confident organizations are resilient. Confident organizations have adaptive processes supported by disciplined decision-making, and are committed to adapt early to continuous and disruptive change. They have the will to stay the course when the going gets tough, and are prepared to act decisively to revise strategic plans in response to changing market realities. They do not allow competitors to gain advantage by building large capital reserves, having great relationships with their lenders, and by cultivating trusting relationships with their customers, vendors and shareholders. The strategies that their boards approve include triggers for contingency plans that directors and management will implement if certain predetermined events occur or conditions arise.

In summary, the speed of change continues to escalate, creating more uncertainty about future developments and outcomes. If there was ever a time for a board to assess an organization’s confidence, we believe it is now. It’s one thing to have a confident CEO, but if the people within the entity lack confidence, the organization itself may not have the creativity and resiliency needed to sustain a winning strategy.


Jim DeLoach is managing director with Protiviti, a global consulting firm. 

Former CEOs Advise on Successful CEO Transitions

Published by
patrick-dailey

Patrick R. Dailey

The succession work boards oversee is more complex than it once was. Oversight of the internal talent pipeline has grown beyond a narrow focus on CEO successors to include other internal and external talent. This relatively new role for the board or governance committee demands the hands-on ability to assess upper-management aptitude and readiness for the top job.

On September 21, the NACD Atlanta Chapter invited three exemplary former CEOs who serve on public boards to advise Atlanta-area directors on how to navigate this more demanding process. The panel, moderated by NACD President Peter R. Gleason, was comprised of Richard Anderson, previously CEO of Delta Airlines, and member of the Cargill and Medtronic boards; Martha Brooks, former CEO of Alcan, and director of Bombardier and Jabil Circuit; and Frank Blake, former CEO and chair of Home Depot, and currently a director at Delta Airlines.

For context, CEO turnover within the world’s largest 2,500 companies has increased in recent years, according to a 2016 study by PwC titled 2015 CEO Success that analyzed CEO turnover data from 2015 in the U.S. and around the globe. Among the study’s findings were the following data:

  • CEO turnover around the globe reached a record rate of 16.6 percent.
  • In North America, the rate of CEO turnover was 14.3 percent.
  • Planned turnover accounted for 10.9 percent of all turnover indicated in the study.
  • Force-outs were reported at 3 percent.
  • CEO turnover triggered by mergers and acquisitions occurred at a rate of 2.8 percent globally and in the U.S.
  • Looking specifically at U.S. turnover data, of all CEO turnovers, 4.4 percent were planned and 2.2 percent of the CEOs were forced out.

The traditional tactic when seeking new CEO talent has been to “go inside” for the most qualified internal candidate, but boards are now deliberately bringing in external CEO candidates. When the same PwC study compared statistics from 2004 to 2015, the percentage of outsiders hired as CEO increased from 14 percent in 2004 to 22 percent in 2015—a 50 percent increase in external hires in 10 years.

Hiring an outsider to serve as CEO was once seen as a last resort—something that typically only happened when a board had to force out the incumbent CEO suddenly, had failed to groom a suitable successor, or both. In recent years, however, more companies have chosen an outsider CEO, and frequently as part of a planned succession.

The stakes are higher. The process is more transparent and invites activist investors, pundits, and media to scrutinize a company’s process and its decision. Often the current CEO is left somewhat in the dark about the progress and the remaining leadership team may just not know status, which leads to uncertainty and process dysfunction.

The distinguished panel offered these nine valuable lessons learned about successfully navigating this board responsibility.

  • Succession must be a CEO-driven process. The panelists urged that a board place the CEO in the middle of the succession process but not as a direct party to the final decision process. They argued that the current CEO brings unique knowledge and passion for the future of the business, and that he or she wants a leadership legacy that includes a smooth and smart transition to a new CEO. The CEO also knows the internal talent pipeline better than any director, which could be an asset to the board. The panel added that with the board’s involvement and perhaps that of external resources, the risk of the “favored son” effect could be mitigated.
  • Succession is a full-board endeavor. Ownership of the process, knowledge of internal candidate development, insight into what could potentially derail the process, external benchmarking, and strategic issues that await the new CEO are matters for the full board to address. Committees can execute on specific tasks but the work, insight, and decision-making process related to CEO succession must be owned by the full board.
    One committee member urged every board member to meet and assess final candidates against a written success and impact profile during lengthy one-on-one interviews. The panel expressed their belief that the successful candidate would develop a sound, unique relationship with each director. Panelists also perceive interviews as the gateway to relationship building and ultimately to the CEO being accepted into the board’s inner circle.
  • The lead director plays an integral role as mentor. The board’s succession method needs a quality control focal point, or someone who will manage group processes among directors so that the “loudest voices” around the boardroom table are not those that necessarily carry the most weight. The panel suggested that the board could task the lead director with this quality-control leadership.
  • Remember that the board’s loyalty belongs to the company—not the current CEO or internal candidates. The board needs and values input from the CEO and there may be internal candidates who are highly regarded. But decisions must be based single-mindedly upon duty-of-care philosophies—the company’s future.
  • Competition among internal candidates must be monitored and managed by the CEO and board. Internal candidates should be explicitly informed or they are likely to figure out whether or not they are a candidate for the CEO role. With that information or suspicion, a competitive “horse race” may begin and performance may peak. There is also the inevitable dysfunction that can occur between the contenders as well as their organizations as they “bid up” their candidacy. CEOs and lead directors may intervene to manage negative behavior, and reinforce that senior-level performance is a collective effort. Compensation schemes for these candidates should be aligned in the spirit that “we all row the boat together.”
  • Get a written exit report from the outgoing CEO. Have the CEO personally develop a lengthy perspective about the future focus of the business and the CEO’s most critical areas of personal attention. Develop an “issues list” of those matters that the new CEO will likely bump into in the market, inside the company, and with regulators. Ensure the list is heavy on issues and light on recommendations. Finally, ask the outgoing CEO to list what strategic items and enabling matters must be done by the incoming CEO.
  • Develop a plan for easing out a reluctant CEO. The chair or lead director must have a “personal legacy” discussion with the CEO, and the CEO will inevitably get the message that it’s time to transition, and yet the panel emphasized that this should be a clear—not a nuanced—discussion. Have a plan for how and when the cord will be cut and communicate that plan clearly.
  • Define how unsuccessful transition candidates will be treated. If these executives can see a good path forward, embrace them. If not, help them leave, and do so quickly.
  • With a C-suite succession event, corporate strategy is likely to change. The board should endeavor to ensure that a sound corporate culture makes it through the transition.

NACD offers research and expert commentary on the executive succession process. Review Success at the Top: CEO Evaluation and Succession, which is part of our Directors Handbook Series, and a succession guide authored by Korn Ferry executives for the September/October edition of NACD Directorship magazine.


Patrick R. Dailey is a partner in BoardQuest, a consultancy specializing in C-Suite and board performance matters, and a member of the NACD Atlanta Chapter advisory board.