By Walter Loeb

Mike Gould is the former chairman of Bloomingdale’s, a post he held for 23 years. Previously, he headed Giorgio Beverly Hills and J.W. Robinson. Mark Cohen is Director of Retail Studies and Professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Business; he previously was Chief Executive Officer of Sears Canada, Bradlees and Lazarus Department Stores. They recently shared their views on retail leadership during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic with Robin Lewis, publisher of The Robin Report. It was an honest appraisal of what retail leadership should be like, and what is needed in the current environment.

Both men defined the characteristics of strong, successful, transformational leaders in similar ways. Mike Gould felt they should build trust, demonstrate integrity, and display the power of recovery, empathy and resilience. They should identify a purpose and then work tirelessly to ensure that is clearly understood by every coworker. Good leaders must be innovative, optimistic, trustworthy, creative, and engender loyalty. They must also prove to be flexible at the same time. Leaders should empower associates to make decisions and feel they are a part of the vision that a leader has.  Both speakers felt that leaders should instill hope and trust among associates as well as customers. Mark Cohen added that they should have a strong awareness of customers and their needs, and they must know their competition. It was also stressed that they have to have an action plan the entire organization can implement – a plan that turns their vision and creative thoughts into measurable results.

Of course, the discussion went on to many other aspects of good leadership as well stressing a passion for survival, freshness, and the need for thoughtful meetings that inspire confidence. Bottom line, they both made it clear that effective leadership requires a great mix of extraordinary ‘people’ skills. And, ultimately, successful leaders must lead by both their words and their actions.

Both men looked to the future. Mark Cohen felt that normalcy in operations could come back by the end of 2022 or maybe 2023 for those companies who that have planned carefully and fully engaged a proper team. The speakers warned about keeping present teams intact so they could face the future with a cohesive, well-coordinated working unit.

It was pointed out that many aspects of consumer shopping have changed drastically during this pandemic. Groceries are now bought on-line and many activities from banking to store shopping have also adapted to new ways. It is likely that when the pandemic is over, many of the newly acquired habits will stick and customers will continue to turn to on-line options when banking, shopping for food, and buying apparel to a point where stores must change to keep up with their customers.

As a vivid example, it was cited that an Australian 400-unit bank might only need 200 units to service their customers after the pandemic since many clients have now switched to on-line banking and will continue to do on-line banking.  Similarly, we all have switched to zoom, and many meetings in the future will be scheduled on zoom, eliminating personal presentations. It is a drastic change from the past – a period that will not come back.

Michael Gould stressed the fact that while retailers have always had a lot of data available, it is only now that it is being used to a greater extent – and to the advantage of leaders. He is glad for that but admits that some of the information worries him. He is worried data shows that customers do not show loyalty to brands or retailers the way they used to; 30-40% have switched to other stores in the pandemic, and 40-60% of those plan to stick to their newly adopted routines.

One major question was raised by Professor Cohen – whether the Board of Directors of some companies had failed to challenge senior management teams enough about how they were responding to the increasingly more challenging market; shouldn’t they have asked to see more change? This question was somewhat rhetorical as Mark Cohen reminded everyone that there are no independent directors since they all draw salaries and often do not pursue such questions. While change ideally would come from within, some changes will now be imposed by external pressures and be necessary to continue.

When it came to building the organization that can best follow a great leader, Mr. Gould was passionate about the importance of hiring new staff in the right way. He shared his philosophy about hiring new executive trainees, explaining that he felt that it was not the grades or looks of the individual that mattered most, but rather their care for customers and love for merchandise that would make them valuable for a retailer – like Bloomingdale’s.

Mr. Gould cited three books on leadership that he liked and thought offered useful tips for anyone aspiring to be a strong leader in today’s challenging retail industry. He recommended.

1.   Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster, 2018, 473pp ($30.00 or on Amazon for $25.56, paperback $12.26)

2.   Mandela’s Way: Lessons for an Uncertain Age by Richard Stengel, Crown, 2009, 245pp ($23.00 or on Amazon for $16.58)

3.    Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic by Margot  Morell, 2002, ($17.00 or on Amazon $14.26 paperback only)

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