Leveraging differences for success
“I was always willing to talk truth to power, and I still am.”
The MBA training has been a tremendous help in my career,” Ellison said. “The program broadened my thinking, especially in finance and business strategy. It also boosted my credibility with decision-makers within the company.”
Ellison’s rise and leadership style is about staying hungry, grinding out ways to successfully compete — with integrity. This narrative is rooted in his own life, growing up poor in rural Tennessee and performing gospel music across the Southeast. Inspiration comes naturally to him, and he earned respect by starting at the front door of retail: His first job in retail was providing security for a Target store at $4.35 an hour.
Today, Ellison is among only three African American CEOs in the Fortune 500, down from six in 2012. He remains down-to-earth, especially when making difficult decisions.
“I was always willing to talk truth to power, and I still am,” he said. “Sometimes it takes people a while to respect that. But you have to stand for who you are and be courageous not to go along to get along.”
“That’s how you win in business, how you win in sports. You lean into the things you are good at.”
Dream bigger than what you can see
Growing up in a family of sharecroppers in Brownsville, Tenn. (pop. 10,000), Ellison was age 6 when his family got indoor plumbing. He was the middle of their seven children who performed gospel music as the “Ellison Family.” Ellison played the bass guitar, setting the rhythm and keeping it steady.
His parents helped him and his siblings “to understand that our capacity to dream was much greater than what we saw around us,” said Ellison. Now a father of two, Ellison still calls his dad a couple of times per week to update him on his travel schedule.
“Every day, my father got up and went to work with a great attitude, juggling as many as three jobs to help pay the bills and support his family, while refusing the availability of government assistance,” Ellison added. “As a young black man growing up in a segregated rural community, his tremendous work ethic left a lasting impression on me. My parents would often say, ‘Don’t let your surroundings dictate your future,’ and emphasized education as the path out of poverty. I credit my parents’ positive influence for my trajectory in life and putting me on a path that led me to where I am today.”
At the University of Memphis, Ellison needed almost six years to get his business degree because to pay school costs, he worked at a convenience store, as a janitor and as a truck driver.
An early lesson in personal leadership
In the early 1990s, after he earned a promotion from Target, Ellison relocated to Minnesota. He dressed to fit in, with khakis and penny loafers, but the strategy didn’t work for him. Trying hard to be someone he wasn’t made him miserable, and his performance suffered.
“Be yourself,” his wife Sharyn advised. Ellison recalled his dad’s words: “When things get difficult in life, no one can beat you being you.”
This was Ellison’s aha moment: his differences gave him leverage.
Ellison began wearing professional clothes with a pop of color and sharing what he had observed as an hourly worker. “When I dressed the way I was comfortable, and talked about the things that were important to me, a funny thing happened. I started to stand out,” he said.
Today, his mindset is unchanged. “I know exactly what I’m good at,” Ellison said. “Every day at every minute of every hour I am leaning into my strengths and I’m staying away from things I’m not good at,” he said. “That’s how you win in business, how you win in sports. You lean into the things you are good at.”
When he recounts this story as advice to business students, Ellison punctuates his point: “It is important for you to identify the natural talents and gifts that God’s given you, and you take that talent and make that part of everything you do,” he says. “You’ve got to understand that by doing that you stand out.”
"Let’s find a way to win."
Differentiating retail from e-commerce
E-commerce, dominated by Amazon, has left a trail of chain store casualties like Sears and Toys R Us. “Dominant, but not invincible,” Ellison said to Goizueta students in his most recent visit to campus. “Amazon and other pure-play companies are tremendous competitors.”
Lowe’s is answering by leveraging the in-store experience. As noted in the retailer’s first-quarter earnings, 60% of online purchases are picked up at the store. In those moments, associates need to be equipped and responsive. “No one buys online to go to a store and stand in line,” Ellison noted in his Goizueta talk. At Lowe’s, 30% of those customers end up buying something else.
A retailer’s objective, as Ellison sees it, is this: “How do we understand the needs of our customer, how do we leverage our brick and mortar locations, our distribution center network and our e-commence digital platform to serve the customer as seamlessly as we possibly can in the way that they want to be served? For retailers who can’t deliver on that experience, it will be really tough today and in the future to find sustainable growth.”
By emphasizing transparency and connecting directly with associates through video podcasts, town halls and regular visits to stores across the country, Ellison is driven to give each associate a sense of opportunity. He strives to share a clear mission, measurable progress and accountability, which starts at the top. He wakes up eager for the challenge of competing in retail, and he won’t give up fighting.
“My philosophy is simple: We can either stay in bed and pull the covers over our head and wait for it [disruption] to go away, or we can get out of bed and say, ‘Man, how great is it to be in retail during the most dynamic change in the history of business? Let’s find a way to win,’” he told the Goizueta students. “So we are trying to find ways to win.”