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

Les Wexner felt very insecure about the opening of his first store. It was 1963 and the youngster, a son of Russian immigrants, had watched and learned from his parents’ tireless work ethic. He had worked in their small store named Leslie’s in downtown Columbus and gained the belief that anything in life is possible, if you are willing to work hard for it. And he was ready to launch a business of his own, but he wasn’t sure it was going to work.

He had no idea at the time that this single store would be the first piece of a business that would one day register more than $8 billion in annual sales and employ more than 92,000 people.

“I wasn’t sure it had any commercial value,” says Wexner, founder, chairman and CEO of Limited Brands Inc. “Then people started coming in and buying and I thought, ‘Gee, it was a pretty good idea.’ So I was curious to play with the idea. Some of it was right. Some of it was wrong. It became more proven from a customer point of view. I could make money and earn a living, and I was very happy, because I wasn’t going to be poor.”

Indeed, not. Limited operates more than 2,600 specialty stores across the United States and its brands are sold in more than 700 company-owned and franchised locations around the world.

“You have to be curious,” Wexner says. “People who are really curious have an enormous advantage. They’ve had it in the past. Curiosity and the ability to see things will be, as I look into the future, a higher and higher priority.”

Curiosity helped Wexner build a business that today comprises some of the most recognizable brands in the world. Bath & Body Works, White Barn Candle Co., La Senza, Henri Bendel and, of course, Victoria’s Secret are present in nearly every mall and shopping center one can think of.

“I had this idea about creating a lingerie business,” Wexner says. “People said, ‘You’re entitled to make a mistake, but it’s not a business. You can’t make money selling lingerie.’”

Victoria’s Secret generated $5.3 billion in 2009 sales, part of the company’s overall tally of $8.6 billion in sales companywide.

Wexner believes such success can be achieved when you realize that in addition to being a great leader, you need to be a great teacher.

Paint a clear picture

You could have the greatest idea in the world. But if you can’t share it with others, it will never amount to anything.

“Words matter,” Wexner says. “What’s clear in my mind’s eye in terms of imagining something, if I’m not real clear about my communication, you won’t understand what I’m really thinking in the fullest sense.”

Wexner has always had a sense of curiosity about what isn’t being done and what markets aren’t being tapped. But if he hadn’t been able to share those thoughts with others, he couldn’t have built his business by himself.

“I’m always fluent when I talk to myself,” Wexner says. “If you’ve got friends or a spouse or other people, there is the opportunity for confusion. An organization is just a large group. That gets to the subject of leadership. First, you have an idea. As the organization gets larger, you tend to discover what you know and don’t know about leadership.”

It’s your job to take those creative thoughts and curious personal discoveries and capture the most important aspect of it. At Limited Brands, it’s known as the main thing.

It reads: The main thing is the main thing is the main thing.

“It’s easy in an organization, just as in a family or a community, for someone to drift off what the main things are.”

You need to paint a clear picture of your idea so that your people can see it, think about it and ask questions about it. The tricky part is, sometimes, you and your people think you’re talking about the same thing, but you’re really not.

“I really like chocolate,” Wexner says. “I’m imagining milk chocolate, and you like chocolate but you like dark chocolate. When I say I like chocolate, you go to what you’re thinking, not what I’m thinking.

“The tension in an organization is you want people thinking about what they are doing. They are not marionettes. You need the feedback from people to say, ‘Did you mean this or did you mean that?’ One of the things you learn as you are developing an organization is you say, ‘This is what I’m thinking and this is what I’m trying to get done.’ People say, ‘Yeah, I got it.’ And then you say, ‘Would you explain it back to me so that I know you really do understand?’”

There are brilliant minds who serve as teachers and professors and bring a great deal of worldly experience to the classroom. But if they are unable to convey it to their students, it’s useless.

It’s much the same way in business.

“You have to think about how you lead, not just what you know,” Wexner says. “I could know things technically, but I may not be able to lead. Good leaders, they see themselves as teachers. They have to know what it is they know. Then they have to get it to a teachable point of view.

It was an aspect of leadership that was a challenge for Wexner at first.

“You know and you’re telling people, but my frustration was they’re not learning,” Wexner says. “They said, ‘Well, you’re not teaching them.’ You have to see yourself more as a teacher. You have to be able to distill what it is you know and what you’re thinking, whether it’s the values of your organization or things about quality or products, into a point of view where you can teach it. Part of teaching is for you to have a clarity of what it is and why. If I just tell you something and I can’t give you the reason, I don’t think it’s nearly as effective.”

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.”