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How This Leader Is Driving Social Change and the Future of Retail

12 leadership lessons from Foot Locker chairman, president and CEO Richard Johnson.

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In June of 2020, Foot Locker, Inc. stepped up and committed $200 million over the span of five years towards enhancing 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 fight inequality and injustice. In my latest Leadership Lessons episode, I had the chance to spend an hour with the retail giant's chairman, president and CEO Richard “Dick” Johnson and discuss driving social change, the future of retail and the biggest lessons he has learned throughout his career.

Courtesy of Foot Locker Inc.

Very few can say they have been with a company for more than a decade, but Johnson has been with Foot Locker for more than two. 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 has held a variety of leadership positions within the company. This includes president and CEO of Footlocker.com and Eastbay from 2003 to 2007; president and CEO of Foot Locker Europe from 2007 to 2010; president and CEO of Foot Locker U.S., 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 president and CEO since 2014 and chairman since 2016. 

“I don’t think about my legacy much,” Johnson humbly told me. “I hope in 50 years that the associates in stripes at Foot Locker are still inspiring and empowering youth culture. Like any CEO, you don't want to muck the business up, right? I hope people look back and say ‘They charted a course that allowed them to gain connectivity and engagement with their consumers and communities.’”

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

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

1. Listen to learn, not just to prepare an answer

“I think when we’re talking to someone and hear a question coming up, we’re trying to frame up the answer but not really learning,” Johnson theorized to me. “We’re hell bent on providing an answer as quickly as we can, because that’s the sort of world we live in today.” Instead, he says, we should listen to find the root cause of the question.

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

2. Empathy in leadership is more necessary than ever

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

3. Don’t allow yourself to get too comfortable

It might be a familiar talking point to say that discomfort can breed creativity and resourcefulness, but that’s because it’s so often true. Johnson says if he could go back in 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” thinking you’ve probably never had to deal with before. Your decisions will redirect the enterprise on a dramatic level. “You suddenly realize that this decision you’re about to make will affect the lives of more than 40,000 people across 28 countries,” Johnson reveals. “There’s nothing really that can prepare you for that.”

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

5. Most success happens because of 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 that you have an opportunity to be successful.”

6. Acting with integrity is the cornerstone of strong teamwork

So say what you mean and do what you say.

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

Johnson points to Foot Locker’s scholarship programs when talking about how important he believes continued education is for providing opportunities. “The 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 & Brand Expertise to Create Value and Scale the Business Profitably

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

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

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

We’re currently in the middle of the Great Resignation, where people are leaving their jobs in droves, often with a “grass is always greener” mentality. Johnson never planned to one day be CEO of a world-famous company. His passion for running led him to stay the course he was on with Foot Locker in multiple positions across two decades.

10. In-person shopping isn’t going anywhere

Johnson says that in 10 years, physical stores will still be an essential part of the shopper’s experience. But those stores will have to serve 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 an Evolving Business Landscape: 'Everything Should be Competitive. That's Good for Customers, and It's Good for the Industry.'

11. Flexibility will be prized going forward, including in retail 

Employees want to be able to pick their own shifts, especially when they’re engaged fully in other life pursuits like schooling or early parenting. Workers won’t want to be handed a schedule of random days every two weeks, and the onus will be on employers to make this work for everyone.

12. The farther up the ladder you go, the less hands-on time you may get with the thing you’re passionate about

You’ll need to make a more conscious effort to keep those passions burning bright. Although Johnson now spends much of his time with his board of directors talking about governance issues, he told me multiple times during our conversation how much his basic love of sneakers and running has driven his career. 

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

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