Lessons from leadership virtuoso Les Wexner, CEO of L Brands, and all-around humble guy

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I was delighted to recently attend an event at Chief Executive Group honoring our long-time client and my personal friend, L Brands CEO Leslie Wexner, with a lifetime achievement award. There are many company and CEO awards, and Les has been the recipient of many, but this one stood out for me as deeply significant and highly deserving.

The day after this event, I was struck by the comment by Jim Cramer that Les is “Dean of Everything in retailing,” and the notion that he is certainly a leader with much to teach the world.

The longest-serving CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Les is nothing short of an American business legend. A son of Russian immigrants of meager means, Les started The Limited in 1963 with a little more than a $5,000 loan from his aunt, and something really much bigger: vision and passion. He opened his first store in Columbus, Ohio, in 1963 with first-year sales of $160,000. Today, Les is still leading L Brands and it has become a $10+ billion retail giant with some of the most recognizable and successful consumer brands in the world, including Victoria’s Secret, La Senza, Pink, Bath & Body Works, White Barn Candle Co., and Henri Bendell.

As I watched Les be reluctantly bathed in accolades at his recognition ceremony , I was touched and proud to have been a part of his leadership success story from the perspective of helping create The Limited Way culture at L Brands.

Having worked with and known Les for many years, I think he’s one of the best CEOs of the century, and one who has many traits that leaders should try to understand better and work to develop. Here are a few that come to mind:

Passion
Les has never wavered from his vision and passion for his work. As a founder, I understand and relate to his perspective on devoting a lifetime to building something much bigger than a company. Retirement is not in either of our vocabularies. In fact, in true Les Wexner style, he quipped during the award celebration: “If I had to make one suggestion it would be, instead of a lifetime achievement award which sounds terminal, how about the so-far achievement award?”

A growth mindset
When I asked Les how he sees the trends and invents new categories like Pink, a new lingerie line targeted to 15-to-22 year olds, he said that the late leadership guru Warren Bennis had told him he was the most observant CEO he knew. Les is very curious about many things in life and he sees patterns that suggest products he can test. By having a culture that is very agile and quick to market, he and his team can leverage those ideas. He also has the wisdom to exit from opportunities that he sees have less of a future. That takes having an open mindset and resisting being fixed in mindset: What works today may not work tomorrow so be in a state of readiness to stay ahead of the curve.

Les’s shadow of thoughtful, purpose-driven leadership has had a profound effect on not only the retail empire he built and nurtures, but also on many companies, thousands of leaders and aspiring leaders, and the untold number of lives he has enriched through his philanthropic efforts.

A towering but benevolent leadership shadow
With a growth mindset rooted in a deep curiosity about what makes a good leader and human being, Les has a profound interest in leading today by being at his best in how he shows up, but also in the development of tomorrow’s leaders. And he acts on it every day as part of his life’s path, including through his work at the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University; Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership and The Wexner Foundation, which has a graduate fellowship program to promote excellence in Jewish professional leadership.

Watch him describe his leadership and philanthropy principles in a talk to Harvard Kennedy School.

Humility and a higher purpose of doing good while doing well
Les has long been considered one of America’s greatest philanthropists, yet he shies from media attention and rarely gives interviews. Yet, over the past 25 years, he has personally given more than $500 million to philanthropic causes. In 2012, Ohio State University renamed its medical center the Wexner Medical Center in honor of his generous support of both time and money. And L Brands employees and Victoria Secret supermodels regularly participate in volunteering events. For example, for this year’s 22nd Komen Race for the Cure celebration in Columbus, Ohio, L Brands brought in nearly 10,000 participants and guests.

The majority of his philanthropy has been focused on his passion for educating the next generation of leaders through the programs of The Wexner Foundation. In addition, he has made substantial gifts to the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, The Columbus Jewish Federation, and a multitude of other philanthropic organizations.

Again, his response to being a philanthropist for the ages is mostly pretty humble and simple: “I’ve always believed that you have to do good while doing well,” he is often know to say. “It’s not enough to succeed in business. You have to give back.”

While many philanthropists give in order to leave a legacy, he’s more interested in giving and making a difference now, and every day, in both time and resources. “The easiest thing to do is to spend resource. The hardest thing to do is spend time,” he said in a talk to Harvard Kennedy School students.

Not every leader has wealth to share or time to spare, but if each of us did make efforts to give in our own way of our time, passion, leadership and knowledge, think of the difference we could all make?

Insights from Les on leading, winning together, and shaping a culture
In our work with Les and L Brands, we’ve had the opportunity to talk to him about leading culture and people. Here are a few of his personal insights he shared with us.

On winning together…
You have to start with the leaders and everybody has to understand the team winning is what really counts and that everybody has a shared responsibility not only to do their job, lead their team but also contribute to the whole enterprise and that winning is winning.”

On enterprise thinking…
“I think it’s about getting peoples’ minds around the thinking that two heads are better than one. Ten heads may be better than one and there’s something in it for everybody but most of all we can win and we can win on a sustained basis because we value partnership, we value sharing and you may have to supplement your individual priorities for the team win.”

On being a true team…
“If you’re going to value the team, then the players have to value the team. When people aren’t playing nicely with others, you have to call them out, and give them feedback, and give recognition to people who do share so that you’re getting a culture that values collaboration, not just individual performance.”

On being a leader…
My dominant skill is the merchant’s skill. So, I have I think good ideas about values and good ideas about the organization of the business and I’m pretty confident in those things. The notion of understanding how cultures are developed, particularly as an owner/founder, I think I have a pretty good idea that I have that. I think it takes more than just having good values and being confident in your values. How do you communicate them to an organization in a way that the organization understands? I think that’s very, very different.”

“I’m reasonably well read in the subject of leadership, funded the center at Harvard, will speak about leadership, but the notion in the here and now most people believe that the basics of leadership are values. What are your values? What are your ethics? Leaders have to be explicit about their values and their ethics.”

On leading culture change…
“I think it has to be front and forward in peoples’ minds. I think it’s like any fundamental practice. People have to be practicing it, thinking about it. So, I think it’s up to a large group of leaders to say, “This is important. We see the value and it is fundamental… Our way of thinking is fundamental to our enterprise and we’ve got to get better at it and we’ve got to keep it alive because we can’t take it for granted. I think what I look for primarily is the walking the walk and then the prompts that just keep it interesting and fun. The leaders of the business, the whole enterprise, have the walk to the walk and then there has to be the supportive things that make it fun.”

On results he saw as a result of shaping The Limited Way culture…
“The results are better and cross more areas and more functions, and we’re achieving results at a higher speed. Things that might have taken three months are taking two. Projects that would have been done in a year are getting done in 10 months. So it’s just an efficient organization that is energized. You can just see it.”

What do you think about these leadership lessons? What can you add? Please comment below.

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Dr. Larry Senn is a pioneer in the field of corporate culture. He is chairman and founder of international culture-shaping firm Senn Delaney, a Heidrick & Struggles company. Larry's vision and leadership for more than 35 years has helped Senn Delaney become an international firm that is widely recognized as the leading authority and practitioner in the field of culture shaping. Larry has led culture-shaping engagements for the leaders of numerous organizations, including dozens of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, state governors, members of two U.S. president's cabinets, deans of business schools and the presidents of major universities. He is an accomplished consultant, business advisor, group facilitator, author, CEO coach and public speaker. Larry has co-authored several books, including Winning Teams, Winning Cultures and 21st Century Leadership. In 2013, he published his latest book, Up the Mood Elevator: Living Life at Your Best. This book reveals some profound principles, fascinating concepts and useful practical tools to help people improve their experience of life, enhance results, build better relationships and create success with less stress. Prior to founding Senn Delaney, Larry ran his own retail business in college, was a senior engineer in the aerospace industry and a faculty member at University of Southern California and University of California Los Angeles where he taught leadership. Larry has a BS in engineering, an MBA from UCLA, and a doctorate degree in business administration from USC. Read his full bio.

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