The Profile Dossier: Angela Ahrendts, the Fashion Exec Transforming Retail
Ahrendts has spent her career humanizing logos.
Angela Ahrendts has spent her career humanizing logos.
Ahrendts was working as the CEO of British fashion house Burberry when she got a call that would change her career trajectory. Apple CEO Tim Cook wanted to meet with her.
Over coffee, Cook made her an offer: Join Apple to lead retail operations. As flattered as she was, Ahrendts turned him down. “I told him, ‘Trust me, I’m not the right person. You really don’t want me.’”
But Ahrendts was the right person. She had led an impressive turnaround of Burberry, in which she revived the stagnant brand, rallied 11,000 employees around a common vision, doubled the company’s revenue, and tripled the stock price. Could she replicate that success at Apple?
When she got home, she thought it over — and over and over. After all, she had adapted many of the things she admired about Apple into Burberry. She doubled down on e-commerce, prioritized in-store technology, and oversaw a digital push that involved a partnership with Apple. “If I look to any company as a model, it’s Apple,” she said in 2010. “They’re a brilliant design company working to create a lifestyle, and that’s the way I see us.”
Now, she had the opportunity to take a shot at reviving Apple’s retail business. So in 2014, Ahrendts stepped down as Burberry’s CEO and joined the tech world as Apple’s senior vice president of retail.
And then, something surprising happened — she hated it.
“I got so insecure the first three or four months,” she says about getting used to Apple’s unique culture.” But then you have a talk with yourself, right? And in all your meditating and things, and it’s like, ‘No, would you stop it?’ There’s no way in the world I could possibly learn everything. And they didn’t bring me in to learn all of that.”
She focused on what she was good at — uniting a global team. Cook had hired her to unite two very different groups of people — the early adopters and the late bloomers. How could she make a seamless experience across employees that operated in different time zones and spoke different languages?
First, she had to get all 70,000 employees on the same page. Emails weren’t working, so she decided to try getting her message across via video — something that had worked for her at Burberry. Her colleagues advised against it, but she trusted her gut and recorded a three-minute, off-the-cuff video on her iPhone.
In the video, she said, “I’m going to talk to you once a week, three thoughts in three minutes or less, because I want you to be aware of what our plan is, where we’re going, I want us to connect. I want you to trust me.”
This type of clear and direct communication guided her throughout her tenure at Apple. She began doing what she was good at — cut first, add second. She eliminated the checkout counter and the Genius Bar — both required lines and wait times. Instead, customer service agents could help as you navigate the store, making for a better experience.
That was an example of her ability to listen to the retailers’ pain points and make necessary changes quickly.
Her crowning achievement, however, was something that humanized the brand and appealed to both the tech-obsessed with the tech-curious. Ahrendts helped launch “Today at Apple,” free educational seminars open to the community. “If you go into a store, you should have the most incredible 3D experience,” she says. “And that’s about humans. This is about human interaction.”
Ahrendts became the highest-paid executive at Apple, earning almost double what CEO Tim Cook makes. And then in February 2019, Ahrendts suddenly announced she would leave the company to pursue "new personal and professional pursuits."
Though executives often cite “spend more time with family” as a reason to leave, few actually live by their words. Ahrendts, who has been married to her high school sweetheart for more than 40 years, believes nothing is more important than family. She once said, “I don’t want to be a great chief executive without being a great mum and a great wife.”
Her LinkedIn speaks to her priorities — she may have been an Apple executive for 5 years, but she’s been a wife, mom, sister, daughter, and friend for 61 years.
Here’s what we can learn from Ahrendts about the importance of human connection in a tech-enabled world.
On finding calm in the chaos: For decades, Ahrendts had to always be “on” at work. That must be particularly hard for someone like her because she claims to be an introvert. When she was at Apple, she would carve out some alone time each morning (around 4:30 a.m.), draw a bath, and meditate. “That is my peace. That is my space,” she says. “The world is moving fast. Unless I can come in in the morning and smile, walk in the lobby and say, ‘Good morning!’–if I am stressed–I am not going to do a good job. Everybody is watching us. They are feeding off of our energy.” This is a must-read.
On transforming retail: No company is doing experiential retail with the same level of scale or ambition as Apple. When Ahrendts joined, she launched a new program called “Today at Apple,” which offers classes, talks, concerts and workshops. Ahrendts’ plan to transform retail ran contrary to the digital addiction Apple’s business model fuels. “I think as humans we still need gathering places,” she says. “And when you are serving digital natives, the thing they long for more than anything is human connection. Eye contact.”
On being a fashion outsider: Ahrendts wasn’t brought up into the glamorous world of luxury fashion. In this profile, we learn how she bought a one-way ticket to New York City after her final exams at Ball State University and began a 30-year climb up the garment ladder.
On what it takes to lead a turnaround: How do you unite a global team? When Ahrendts got to Burberry, she was tasked with turning around a company that had plateaued. So she had to use both her left and right brain — the logical and the creative to stage a renewed sense of purpose within. She did the same at Apple. This one is a must-listen.
On trusting your gut: How do you know when to listen to your brain and when to trust your gut? Ahrendts is a sharp analytical thinker with a mind for business, but she puts as much energy into embracing her intuition as she does studying spreadsheets. Here’s how she’s learned to expertly pair emotion with logic.
On creating a sanctuary: Throughout her life, Ahrendts has sought out sanctuaries – sacred spaces to reconnect and to dream, quiet moments to visualize what her next big decision might lead to, to stay open to the signs that help guide her. “Every new morning presents me with an opportunity to find a new sanctuary where I am,” she says. “Because the real sanctuary is within me.”
On her path to business: Ahrendts didn’t grow up wanting to be a CEO. She loved fashion, so she thought she would be a designer. She eventually ended up in merchandising, but throughout the way, she made sure to exercise both her creative and logical muscles.
On the power of human energy: Ahrendts says each of us has a unique energy that we can think of as ”emotional electricity.” She says, “It has a powerful way of uniting ordinary people, their collective spirit to do extraordinary things.” There are three aspects to harnessing your personal energy: trust, intuition, and belief.
On cultivating trust: Ahrendts believes that leaders have a responsibility to look ahead and steer the company toward a common goal. In order to do that, they need to unite thousands of people worldwide. “What underpins all of that is trust, ” she says. Here’s what she learned about moral leadership while she was the SVP of Apple Retail and the CEO of Burberry.
On staying rooted: Perhaps Ahrendts’s greatest attribute is her humility. Whenever she engages strangers or employees in conversation, she doesn’t lead with her title or her job. “I’ve never handed out a business card,” she says. “So if I sat next to you on a plane, you’d have no idea who I was or what I was doing. Because if I handed out a business card, then it changes the conversation.”
The first six months are the hardest: When you go into a new experience, keep in mind that the first six months are the hardest. When Ahrendts joined Apple from Burberry, she didn’t understand a ton of the Apple-specific acronyms, and she admits she hated it at first. “I don’t like the first six months of anything new,” she says. “Marriage, having a baby, going from my Blackberry to my iPhone, learning to play tennis — anything that’s new that we can’t control,” she says. When you do something for the first time, understand that it’ll take time to find your footing. If you go into it with that mentality, it puts you into a learner’s mindset and prevents you from feeling overwhelmed.
Never back up more than you need to: In a letter to her daughters, Ahrendts gives them the following advice: Never back up more than you need to. It applies to driving and life. “Just as you are blind to what's behind you while backing up a car, if you keep looking back in life and focusing too much on the past, you may find yourself running things over and over in your mind, often seeing or creating things that never existed in the first place,” she says. Even worse, living in reverse blinds you to what lies ahead. Keep your eyes looking forward.
Identify your core values: Ahrendts says that an early understanding of your core values could just be a shortcut to future success. That’s because your core values determine the foundation upon which you build a life and a career. Her three core values include compassion, ambition, and humility. Growing up, her father always reminded her that “you can teach people anything but you can’t teach them to care,” so she’s learned to develop empathy and compassion for other people’s journeys and circumstances. Second, when she told her mom something was “okay” or “fine,” her mom would tell her: “I didn’t raise you to be fine.” This taught Ahrendts to strive to aim high rather than settle for an “okay” life. Finally, her dad always said, “When you look at a photo, do you see yourself last?” This taught her to have humility as a leader. Remember, identifying your core values can help guide you from the very beginning of your career.
Find ways to celebrate the little things: One thing that Ahrendts remembers doing a lot in her household growing up was celebrating the big events as well as the small. Her dad was an only child, and her mom grew up in an orphanage. “And so they celebrated every holiday. So I learned the power of celebrating,” she says. Even though the Ahrendts family was large — a total of 8 people under one roof — it was easy for things to get lost in the shuffle, but her parents were adamant about acknowledging every win. They would celebrate every birthday, every good grade, and every life event. Ahrendts realized later in life that these small celebrations were a way to unite the family and reinforce success. Remember, she says, achievements deserve to be celebrated no matter how small. This is something you could implement in your family or at your company.
Authenticity builds trust: When she was a young executive, an HR manager advised Ahrendts that she would need to make some changes (like not gesticulating with her hands as much) if she wanted to one day be CEO. Ahrendts went to Minneapolis to be coached on her communication skills. "I was supposed to be there for a couple of days, and I went for a couple of hours," explains Ahrendts. "By lunchtime the first day, I just looked at them and I said, 'I gotta go. I don't want to be somebody that I'm not. I like me, and I've been pretty successful so far being me and I was raised in a really big family. So, I left, and literally a month later got the call to become the CEO of Burberry.” Ahrendts understands that it’s those little quirks and eccentricities that make her uniquely herself. Authenticity builds trust both personally and professionally. As Ahrendts says, “I have to wake up with me every morning, and I want to be the best version of myself.”
Remember the “Sixty/Forty Principle:” This advice is simple: With anything in life, “give sixty and take forty in everything you do.”
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"The foundation of any great relationship is looking somebody in the eyes and truly hearing them.”
“Talent with arrogance goes nowhere.”
“Remember - the universal language is not texted, emailed, or spoken. It is felt.”
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