Building a Career as a Systems Leader — Julie Bornstein, CEO

Systems Leadership — May 2, 2019

As we finished our second year of Systems Leadership, our last session looked closely at the career and skills of a leader who has spent time in traditional retail organizations and has migrated increasingly to the side of new disruptors. Julie Bornstein’s first role in retail began at Starbucks, progressed when she moved to Nordstrom to build, continued when she became the head of e-commerce at Urban Outfitter, grew as she was made the Chief Marketing and Chief Digital Officer at Sephora, and expanded when she rose to become the COO and a Member of the Board of Directors at Stitch Fix. She is now running her own startup in the e-commerce space, and in our last session this academic year, Bornstein talked both about her career evolution as well as what she believes are the required competencies for Systems Leaders in a world that increasingly combines physical and digital solutions.

Skate Towards the Disruption

It’s axiomatic that business leaders frequently quote the famous hockey player, Wayne Gretzky, that people and companies need to “skate to where the puck is going to be” in order to be effective. The trajectory of Bornstein’s career shows that she has followed that strategy for over two decades. When she joined Nordstrom she went to the company’s fledgling online business, and did the same at Urban Outfitters and Sephora — all while adding responsibilities and functional skillsets. Bornstein was able to learn the ins and outs of the various core retail businesses where she worked, while also understanding the limitations of incumbents as markets have changed.

One thing Bornstein highlighted was not only the valuable experience and knowledge she gained in her early roles, but also how she adopted a philosophy that while she has not always known the details of an impending disruption, she was always looking for the signals of their rise. In the case of retail, watching how new entrants were able to quickly build e-commerce solutions and how customer behaviors changed, while simultaneously understanding the skillsets that were missing at incumbents, provided insights that she was able to use while in the established organizations in which she worked as well as at Stitch Fix. In her current role, she is once again seeing technological changes that will shape both brands and retail experiences for the next decade — and she is moving towards the disruptions she has identified — much like Ric Fulop at Desktop Metal.

Bornstein was clear — she does not believe that retail and physical experiences are going away, but rather that the larger economic opportunities going forward will not be with companies and technical stacks that were created two decades ago.

Experience Matters

One of the more subtle points that Bornstein made was highlighting the value of experience in digital and physical transformations. As someone who has over 25 years of operating experience, Bornstein appreciates the history of what she has learned at both incumbent and digital native organizations, and she believes it is her and her team’s ability to balance both — and that provides unfair competitive advantage. If the leaders of incumbents have a history of expertise in merchandising and store operations, these competencies are necessary but not sufficient in a world that will increasingly and intensely combine physical and digital.

Conversely, a digital thinker who does not have the experience to appreciate how best to function in a physical environment will not be able to best deliver customer outcomes. In some ways, Bornstein is an “older” founder of a startup — conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley is that youth is in charge and has the ability to foresee the future. Bornstein both expressed and exemplified a different point — as long as she is able to understand how technologies and behaviors are changing, and as long as she is on the forefront of these changes, her more than two decades of operating experience will enable her and her team to outperform either the physical thinker who does not evolve or the digital thinker who is inexperienced in the world of physical retail. The ability to understand the retail context and the front-end shopping experience is what will allow future companies to create connections between people and products in the most effective ways when this is combined with the latest digital solutions.

Said differently, experience, when combined with embracing disruption, is the responsibility of every Systems Leader.

And the Story Continues…

The nine leaders who visited us this year exemplified several key attributes of Systems Leaders — the need to inspire change in others, the importance of executing at the highest level, and internally absorbing fear and managing one’s emotions when going through times of extreme uncertainty and where the future is not deterministic. Issues around combining digital and physical, transformational technological change, complex ecosystems, the increasingly important role of government, and the personal challenges of all the Systems Leaders we saw were both profound and daunting. We are looking forward to continuing to build our knowledge on this topic next year when we meet with a new set of Systems Leaders, or when we revisit previous guests and explore how their journeys have changed over time.