5 Lifelong Business Lessons I Learned from Nordstrom

Seattle, Washington, USA - May 27, 2012:  A sign indicates Nordstrom and its founding date.  Nordstrom is headquartered in Seattle, Washington.

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Posted: June 22, 2016 | Modern Marketing

In my previous blog about women in tech, I already established that I was a very nerdy child. What I haven’t yet expressed is that I grew up into an even nerdier adult.

Need proof? Fine. My secret talent is speed-reading. When I read, I see entire sentences at once and can power through your average novel in less than a day. In college, I spent a significant portion of my sorority rush (hey Delta Gamma!) discussing Harry Potter with the young woman who would become my “big sister” and dear friend. These days, I prefer to “read” via Audible. I enjoy re-reading my favorite books several times a year; in fact, I have #GIRLBOSS playing for the third time right now. No matter how often I read a book, I always learn something new in the context of my life in that exact moment in time. I know, I know–I lead a glamorous life.

Recently, I picked up The Nordstrom Way for the fourth or fifth time. It’s a book that has stood the test of time on my shelf and re-reading it sent me down memory lane. Fresh out of college, I spent over two years with Nordstrom, learning priceless leadership and business principles. It has been several years since I pivoted into tech and a more corporate environment, but the lessons learned on that retail floor stocked with beautiful products remain with me to this day.

Here are five things I learned from my early days at Nordstrom that are deeply woven into my beliefs and values as a professional:

1. Make Praise and Celebration the Lifeblood of Your Culture

I will never forget this story. Early in my career, I received an All-Star Award at Nordstrom in front of about 100 senior people. There were buyers, store, regional managers…and Blake Nordstrom, whose great-grandfather John started the company over a century ago.

I received my award with about five other people–we were called up one by one to receive it and then sat back down for the rest of the meeting. Then, Blake Nordstrom stood up to address the group, but before he started his talk, he asked if the All-Stars would please come up and stand by him. We walked up to the front of the room and stood in a different order than originally called up. With no notes in front of him, he proceeded to name us one by one and say something personal and kind about each person.

It meant the absolute world to me to be recognized, less than a year out of college, by the president of the company. Of all the things that he could have been doing with his time, he chose to show up and recognize the people on the ground in one of his stores. And he obviously did his homework prior to showing up to the meeting, taking the time to learn our faces and something about each of us.

If you are not praising your employees and colleagues publicly and often, you are missing out on a valuable way to make people feel purposeful, connected, and loyal to your company and team. Case in point: here I am years later, praising Nordstrom to the skies.

2. Focus on the Customer and The Money Will Follow

Stop worrying about making sales and focus on the customer experience. In The Nordstrom Way, this was a piece of advice one salesperson received in the very beginning of his career, after he was nearly terminated for being difficult, confrontational, and not a team player. He decided to turn his attitude around and learn from one of the top performing salesmen in the company, who gave him the advice above as the secret to his success. Sure enough, the difficult employee developed into a top performer.

If you are in sales or marketing, it is paramount that you focus on the customer in front of you, as a human being with needs and wants. If you can solve their problems and not sell them features and benefits, you will succeed. If they don’t buy from you, then perhaps it wasn’t a good fit or something broke in the process and you never had the deal in the first place.

3. You Need 2 Ingredients for a Magic Team: Excellent People & Excellent Products

This is a gem passed down to me by Christine, my first boss and mentor at Nordstrom, who trained me into a management position. She watched our product mix like a hawk and had a close relationship with our regional manager, who would then directly influence our buyer to make sure that we were constantly stocked with the goods that people wanted.

Christine kept our brains sharp by constantly listening to our sales pitches and providing real-time feedback and mock scenarios. Because she did such an excellent job balancing products and people, we had consistent strong numbers and also won numerous sales contests staged by our buyers–even against bigger, better-stocked stores.

Products and people translate into any industry. At Marketo, I place a high premium on shadowing sales calls and debriefing immediately after the call concludes: what went well and what could have gone better. I actively give and receive feedback with my team and also remain self-critical in an effort to constantly improve my craft.

As a Solutions Consulting team, we also partner cross-functionally with Product Management and engage in spirited conversations about the product roadmap and new releases. As a company, many of our product enhancements and features come directly from our incredible community of marketers who vocally tell us how they want to see Marketo iterate. As our CMO Sanjay says, the biggest room is the one for improvement.

4. Act Like Your Name Is on the Door

This one goes hand in hand with the previous point, but takes it one step further. You are the CEO of your personal brand, and your name is on the door no matter where you go and what company you’re a part of. There is a reason Nordstrom is world-famous for legendary customer service: each employee, whether they’ve worked there for one day or twenty years, is encouraged to act like it’s their own business.

So how do you act like your name is on the door? At any company, it’s a lot of little actions that add up to a much larger message:

  • A smile or a kind word for every person in the building, no matter their status (and not just when your boss is looking, that doesn’t count)
  • Thinking about ways to help the business–both within your organization and across functions
  • Actually doing those things, which involves strategy, patience, and discipline
  • Conducting yourself professionally and guarding your reputation fiercely
  • Addressing conflict and issues tactfully, instead of letting them bubble and become much bigger than necessary

In technical sales specifically, acting like your name is on the door translates to being the CEO of your territory. As any seasoned and successful Account Executive knows, being the CEO of your territory requires consistency, self-confidence, and an A-player mindset.

5. Lead by Example

At the forefront of my leadership philosophy is creating and fostering an environment where people feel safe (here is a powerful Ted Talk on the subject). When I was a management trainee and then a manager, I knew that my team was always watching me and would feed off my energy. With any type of establishment that you walk into, you can sense its vibe immediately–if it’s a happy place or an absolute mess.

There are a lot of intangibles: Are people laughing and chatting openly around the office, or are they walking around with their heads down with worried looks on their faces? How does your team interact with one another when they think no one is looking? Do they have each other’s backs? If you’re a manager or executive, your team is watching you and will rise to the standard that you set. If you trust implicitly, coach fairly and clearly, and hold no grudges, your (well-hired) team will rise to the occasion. They will be happy and purposeful and connected in their work. They will feel safe.

I believe that leadership, good business acumen, and professionalism transcend industries and environments. Careers are no longer a linear path, but more of a climbing wall. I would love to hear about the lessons you’ve learned and how you apply them to your world today! Leave a note in the comments below.

Alexandra Nation is a Solutions Consultant at Marketo. She's driven by a love of storytelling and helping marketers own their careers. When she's not working, you can find her at the gym or spamming people on Snapchat with pictures of her golden retriever.

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5 brand lessons from Nordstrom that put the people and the customers first:

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