Leadership Lessons from Mickey Drexler (CEO of J. Crew)

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Fortune just ran (9/1/08) a great story on Drexler entitled, “The King of Cool.” For 19 years, Drexler was the CEO of The Gap before being fired in 2002. Six months later he was hired to take over J. Crew. For as James Coulter, who recruited Drexler said, “I believe that temporary career setbacks can make CEOs even stronger and better.” And he was right. Drexler has done a great job for J. Crew.

As I read through the article, I kept noting that there were a number of leadership lessons imbedded in the story you might appreciate. So here’s my list (ordered not by priority, but by how they appear in the story)

1. Being a control freak isn’t a bad thing. Drexler obsesses over every facet of J.Crew’s merchandise, not unlike his good friend and confidante, Steve Jobs. While empowering your people is a key to good leadership, being aloof is not. So dialing down to ensure your products are great is not a bad executive behavior. A favorite Drexlerism is, “Retail is detail.

2. Zig when others zag. Drexler is known for his ability to predict how shopping habits will change. He launched Old Navy in 1994 when he sensed a move toward injecting more personal style in young people’s apparel assortments. By doing so, he got a huge jump on big retailers, including Target. Now, he’s launching Madewell, which is more upscale, when the trend is to go downscale.

3. Talk with your front line sales people regularly. Drexler loves to walk his stores and quiz his associates about what they’re hearing and seeing. Questions like, “Which competitors’ shopping bags are you seeing?” or “Are customers complaining about designer prices yet?” are staples in his bag of questions he routinely asks.

As Drexler reflects on his life (and others) in retail, one of the major lessons he takes away is to never get too far removed from the sales floor and lose touch with what’s really happening.

4. Act on what you’re hearing from your people–FAST!. Early on at his time at J. Crew, Drexler was talking with a phone operator from one of their call centers who noted that she was getting a lot of orders for a particular beach dress, five at a time, in different sizes. Her conclusion was that the women who were ordering these dresses were ordering bridesmaids’ dresses. Drexler didn’t just file that info away. A few weeks later, J.Crew was in the wedding and party business.

5. Design matters. As the author of the article writes, “His eye for detail is the driving force behind some of the company’s new luxury-for-less ventures.” Little details like using pick stitching in lapels so that it gives the appearance of a handmade suit are the little things that make a difference. Caring about how something looks is fair game for an executive. As his design leader says, “Mickey understands good art can drive the commerce.” Amen!

6. Don’t grow too fast. Drexler learned this at The Gap (just as Starbucks has been learning it of late), While Wall Street might want him to add more stores at a faster pace, Drexler refuses to go down that street. Been there. Done that. Got fired for that. Not gonna do that!

So as you look at your business, which of these lessons from Mickey Drexler do you need to apply?

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3 Responses to “Leadership Lessons from Mickey Drexler (CEO of J. Crew)”

  1. Leigh 26 August 2008 at 8:05 am #

    Mickey Drexler really is doing great things with J.Crew. It’s a shame that customers had to deal with the website upgrade this summer. I know that has tainted many shoppers’ experience.

  2. Bruce Johnson 26 August 2008 at 8:22 am #

    You’re exactly right. The good news, however, is that J. Crew is still delivering the numbers. As the article points out, they’re getting 28% of their revenues from online and catalog sales (vs. 14% from places like Victoria’s Secret or Talbots at 19%). Everybody screws up, but at least they owned up to it. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Nida 14 October 2015 at 8:27 am #

    I really eenyojd the insights from your meeting with Drexler. I’m smitten with the stores in a way I haven’t been since the late 80 s (although back then I thought using twig and bark as sweater colors was pretty darn cool). So much of what I’ve read about him focuses on design and in-store experience as the critical drivers of turnaround success. It was refreshing to get a peek into what he fundamentally believes about conducting business.

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