That was my answer to a question asked of most applicants during a typical job interview: ‘What experience do you have?’
We’re back in 1990 when, after countless calls, I had finally managed to get an interview with Bestseller’s then owner, Troels Holch Povlsen. I don’t know whether it was this cocky remark that got me hired as employee no. 22, but looking back on global developments since 1990, we see that few companies have survived by ‘doing what they usually do’. For if we do what we usually do, we generally get the usual results.
I was there for 28 years. It was an exciting journey during which I became increasingly fascinated by how people behave in groups – or communities as I like to call them – and how we perceive each other. I found the many preconceptions, traditions and leadership theories challenging, and pursuing change, seeking out new roads and refusing to be satisfied with ‘usually’ were my watchwords.
We all see daily examples of people’s reluctance to change. We may say we want change, but we don’t want change to affect us personally. We essentially struggle with the same ‘issues’ – fear of failing, being ridiculed, losing status. All this prevents communities from changing and developing. ‘Disruption’ is simply a new word for ‘game change’, which in its turn was a new term for change and so on. It’s always been like this. So the interesting question is:
We find the answer by looking at the individuals and communities bold enough to change their game. What gives a person this courage? And, equally important: who are the people who lack it and will therefore find themselves clashing with development?
In my book it’s a question of do or die.
‘As usual’ may keep us calm, but will not make anything grow. If we don’t continuously dare to try new things, take on challenges and explore, we will be overtaken – maybe not tomorrow, but in time. Starting a business from scratch takes courage, true pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit, and it is never people with these qualities that close down an enterprise, but rather the everyday administration. But what causes many businesses to end up having this administrative burden and doing what they ‘usually’ do? The inability to constantly reinvent themselves. Large, healthy businesses can be run for years ‘as usual’ and even
survive a crisis, but they will die if they do not change their game.
One system of belief I reject is the traditional organisation plan. In brief, a ‘super-’ and ‘sub-’ culture that has historically acted as a chain of command but is archaic in a modern world where people must be ready to let go of their fears and put their courage to the test. The huge forces latent in communities are sparked when everyone is invited to help change the game. And I mean everyone – regardless of formal status and position in a ‘hierarchy’. We can use our qualities far more constructively in an egalitarian environment where creativity drives development and prevents routine from turning us into robots.
From the outset Jack & Jones has been built on the courage to challenge, to do things differently, and to refuse to be daunted by preconceptions and status-driven leaders working in the name of power, money and a business card. Our constant aim was to ensure that the Jack & Jones community was willing to change and that everyone was working to create common value for consumers. We focused on the experience we wanted to give them. It was a shared goal and no shabby one at that. Because when we as a group can do or be something for someone, we can also be something for ourselves.
I listened to, read about and was exposed to the plethora of leadership theories that constantly turned up for short or long runs, while I personally was developing and practising my own leadership philosophy at Jack & Jones. This started when I launched Jack & Jones, managing everything singlehandedly, and continued until the business became a global concern, one of the biggest of its kind anywhere. I have seen developments take off. I have seen them stall – and then recover. And while Jack & Jones was growing, I developed a new leadership mindset that I call ‘Straction’ and is the subject of this book. This leadership philosophy evolved from the creation of a Jack & Jones campus, an elitist environment where employees from all over the world to this day can exchange experience and thus coach each other. A way of taking your profession and surroundings seriously, and probably the achievement in which I take most pride today. Not the thousands of stores and seven-figure turnover, but the people I have tried to be there for and vice-versa. I’ve been incredibly privileged in the teams I’ve had around me, right from the very first recruitment and training sessions to the large, global community I helped to build up and that showed me unparalleled loyalty. I have often been told that I can be outspoken and have occasionally gone to extremes. However, many have also said they probably wouldn’t be where they are today if I hadn’t pushed them to give their all. I have always believed the best of everyone I’ve met. I have brought my friends on board at every stage. Everyone has been given a chance, and their success is my greatest pride. Their appreciation has inspired me to take the step of putting all this down in this book, so others can benefit from our experience. Helping people grow before growing your business is what it’s all about. Thank you, one and all!
I hope we can give the next generation even greater freedom to create game change, and that leaders can summon the self-confidence to show young people the way forward by stepping back and letting young people take the reins.
I believe that most businesses can greatly improve the way they work together and that a holistic leadership form exists that can produce even better results than the clichéd leadership profiles we usually adopt. I have practised and experienced Straction in real life, seen young people work in synch towards a common feeling that comes from making our core consumers proud. I have seen honesty and direct communication make people feel valuable and, not least, sure of themselves and their surroundings. Emotions that many will be able to use. Once we understand our common purpose and have the consumer solidly at the centre, everyone can be invited on board Straction. We can act intuitively relative to the common feeling we need to create, and that can be a game-changer. Time and again, I have been positively surprised at the extent of the potential inherent in being invited to join in. I have seen the most ingenious ideas spring from all corners of a community. It’s so easy to light up another person’s eyes simply by wanting to engage with them, and this will is the way to unleash a potential that will always put the budget to shame.
When it comes to our relationships with sports, schools, businesses, governments and family, we generally invest only a tiny fraction of the human resources available to us. The internal battle to gain the status-driven leader’s acknowledgement and the battle for personal bureaucratic status often end up destroying the common front essential for creating something together. Personal career plans weaken the common fighting spirit, and the potential of the collective contribution flies out of the window. This rarely happens to the entrepreneur starting out in a garage, but the instant a business begins to grow, status suddenly assumes a dangerous role. We destroy dynamic interaction and synchronisation by no longer daring to step out from behind the shield of our business card.
I am grateful to have been shown immense trust during my years with Bestseller and been allowed to be myself, and I am glad I had the courage to seize the opportunity to share everything I had inside me with others. This is perhaps the greatest strength of communities – having the courage to show who you are, for better and for worse. Sharing what you have, however little or much. Not capitulating or waiting for the right moment, but doing what you do, wholeheartedly, and going all the way. Because, leadership is also about sacrificing yourself for others if necessary.
Accordingly, I believe wholehearted leadership creates the strongest and longest-lasting communities. Communities whose members fight for something greater than themselves – and do so together because they care about each other. Communities – in every sense of the word – are at the heart of this book. Whether the community is a business, an association or a family is irrelevant. What matters is that its members want the same thing and thus create a pure value chain where everyone contributes and shows the best version of themselves. It is no secret that I advocate leadership from the heart, rather than status-driven leadership. I have often wondered what happens to many people when they achieve status and become afraid of giving others the same freedom they personally wanted and finally gained. They frequently end up in a role that controls and curbs others rather than develops them. The simple answer is that fear of losing status triggers the control gene. Put bluntly, such people spend their time winning and defending their desired positions, thus neglecting the very purpose of leadership: to help individuals and thus the community grow. Leadership is on loan and unfolds when people around you grow.
Our quest for the definitive answer to what makes a good leader has produced categories and boxes to which we can assign the wide range of human profiles. HR departments create and use tools to understand each other so we can all land in the right box. We must challenge this way of thinking. There are as many profiles as there are people, and every individual is unique. Of course, we share some characteristics, but with our various backgrounds and DNA, it is chilling to find that we still insist on slotting each other into a hierarchy that ranks people above and below each other and where leaders potentially hire ‘pleasers’ – if necessary, playing middle managers and employees off against each other in order to keep themselves at the centre. A form of self-promotion from time immemorial.
We cannot escape it. The battle for status and acknowledgement is a major driver. However, the driving force that belonging to a community and working towards a common goal represent is even more important. Accordingly, the ultimate purpose of our collective efforts must be constructive. We should not complicate leadership.
I have met, worked with and studied many types of leaders. Watching the countless leadership theories that constantly appear has been interesting, but these theories are only instructive when put into practice. I have been inspired by the best, forgotten the irrelevant and added my own. I have found it vital to create an overview that can help people practise good leadership. The ability to visualise is a key tool for creating an overview and understanding, and this is how the Straction leader, with whom the readers of this book will soon become familiar, has developed year by year, for the benefit of everyone who wants to lead – whether as a leader of a community or oneself.
Call me naïve if you like, but see what you think. The hope that we, as employees or leaders, might sacrifice ourselves a little more for each other also embodies a dream of working smarter together. Apologising for and explaining why we do what we do – because this is easier than having to change our behaviour – does not alter the fact that we senselessly ruin things for ourselves in the long term. This is why I challenge the leadership concept and the importance of calling ourselves employees. What do we want from each other and from our leaders? And whom do we perceive as true leaders? From a holistic point of view, what does it take to be a leader of tomorrow? We are all leaders; our actions will always impact others. Because every day every one of us can help lead the world and help each other take a small step in a new direction – regardless of what our business cards say. This book is for anyone who wants to contribute to cooperation with a long-term goal.
Find your smile, don’t take yourself too seriously, accept a small kick up the backside and pass it on. Use humour to understand, but don’t expect an answer to everything. And do your bit to engage in healthy dialogue that promotes good leadership.
This is the perspective from which I have conceived this book. Straction Leadership is based on wholehearted leadership, and the best thing is – it works!