Les Wexner succeeds at leading Limited Brands by being a good teacher

Know it before you speak it

Wexner is hardly resting on his laurels after nearly 50 years in business. Limited Brands announced this year that it will open a Victoria’s Secret flagship store in London in 2012. The company’s brands have also launched their own Facebook sites to better reach their clients.

Fresh ideas are the lifeblood of a business and help it continue to stay relevant with a changing world. But you need to make sure the change is a good fit for your company before you implement it.

“People come in and say, ‘I really like what you’re doing. I’d like to come work for you. I would change it all,’” Wexner says. “I would say, ‘Maybe they’re right. Maybe as good as this appears to me, maybe it could be infinitely better. But my intuition is that this is working. I don’t think I want to let a stranger play with it. I don’t want it to get broken. You have to earn the right.”

Wexner illustrates his point by hypothetically placing himself as a new employee at Apple. In this imaginary role, Wexner says he suggests that the company use different fruits each month on its products, beginning with a banana.

“I’m sure they want to hire people who are creative and imaginative and can advance the company, but they have to earn the right,” Wexner says. “Do they understand the brand, their business and the customer when they are making suggestions? If they are seeing the world differently, is it in the context of something?”

The lesson is that in staying fresh, you can’t just hop on board any idea that is brought to your attention, just because it’s new and different. The idea has to be delivered with the context of organizational knowledge.

“I kind of like my own ideas, but have I really earned the right to have this idea?” Wexner says. “It may mean, ‘Well, it’s an idea. But I want to reflect on it.’ Sometimes I will argue against it. ‘I really like this idea, but if it failed, why would it fail? How would somebody else do it? How would a competitor deal with this?’

“I want to get other views. I could ask, ‘What do you think of it? What do you think of this idea? Help me critique it.’”

You need to have thoughtful people bringing you ideas and thoughtful people who can serve as a check against ideas that you get from outside your organization that just may not be a good fit for you.

“If I think Apple ought to be fruit of the month and next month it should be a banana, I’d like somebody to say, ‘You’ve lost your mind,’” Wexner says. “You don’t want people just sucking up and saying, ‘Yes, boss.’ They have to earn the right, and I think it’s an individual and a collective thing to judge.”

You need to spend time talking to your people about your business. Initiate conversations about where both you and they see your industry going to help stay tuned in to what your company needs to do to keep up.

“What do you do after everybody owns a hula hoop?” Wexner says. “It’s an easily copied idea. Successful people in their careers, whether they are entrepreneurs or working in enterprise, think about their own evolution and advancement in a way that they are always saying, ‘What if the dogs don’t eat the food? What if everybody had a hula hoop? What do we do next?’ Then they are able to extend their success.”

Despite all of the success he’s had, Wexner operates with a growing fear that his next idea won’t work.

“It’s probably just in my nature, but the more successful something is, the more successful I am, the greater the fear of failure,” Wexner says. “The more successful a product or a brand is, the greater the fear of failure.”

Every new idea that became great probably had quite a few people questioning whether it would ever work.

“Change implies taking a different tact,” Wexner says. “Most people will reject that new idea or a fair number will reject that new idea, because you’re describing an animal they’ve never seen.”

Wexner brings up the idea of people being willing to spend several dollars for a cup of coffee.

“We’re going to sell this product at a premium price, three or four times what anybody else sells a cup of coffee for,” Wexner says. “You’d say, ‘That’s the craziest damn idea in the world.’ But, in essence, you’re describing Starbucks.”

You need to constantly be asking yourself whether what you’re doing now is working for tomorrow.

“The world is always changing and you have to be sensitive to that,” Wexner says. “Whether it’s channels of distribution or the products you sell or how you organize or how you think. If you don’t keep that flexibility, you obsolete yourself.”