CEO 2.0: Leadership lessons from Backcountry.com CEO Jill Layfield

Last year’s lack of winter weather was a big challenge right off the bat as Jill Layfield started her tenure as Backcountry.com CEO in 2011. She tells us how she's tackling those challenges and why now is the time for companies to take account of diversity in the workplace.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 23-26. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

It doesn’t matter if you are a specialty outdoor retail shop on Main Street or a large outdoor e-commerce site: Warm temperatures and little snow are rough for business during this season.

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Last year’s lack of winter weather was a big challenge right off the bat as Jill Layfield started her tenure as Backcountry.com CEO in 2011. The 38-year-old had worked her way to the top of the outdoor e-tailer, after joining the company in 2004 as director of customer marketing. She understood the business and the customer inside-out, but no one can predict how much snow will fall over an entire season.

You can, however, learn a lot about leadership when times are tough, Layfield said the day before her talk at the OIWC Leadership Awards Breakfast, Jan. 25. Along with gracing the Day 2 O.R. Daily cover, Layfield gave us a preview of her talk, including why now is the time for companies to take account of diversity in the workplace and what’s ahead for e-commerce.

Tell us what you’ll be talking about at the OIWC breakfast event at Outdoor Retailer.

2012 was a tough year for the outdoor industry as a result of the “never winter” of 2011/12 and the warm start to December ’12. CEOs learn a lot about leadership when business is difficult, so I’ll share my lessons learned during my most challenging year as CEO and how those lessons led to a commitment to increasing diversity in the workplace.

What do you think are some key initiatives brands should take to diversify the workplace with more women?
Begin by measuring the number of women in the organization. For example: how many women are in the company, how many are in leadership roles, percent of promotions that are given to women — break all those stats down by department and location.

>>Survey the women working at your company to understand what is or isn’t working in terms of employee satisfaction.

>>Create a checklist of basic programs tailored to women: maternity/paternity leave, childcare subsidies, lactation rooms, flex schedules, classes and training geared to women.

>>Truly and deeply understand your female consumer and commit to serving that consumer uniquely. Acknowledge and communicate broadly the importance of your female customer. Make a concerted effort to share the importance of having staff that can help understand a key customer segment. Empower the women in your organization to serve that important customer segment.

>>Create a women’s initiative internally. Ensure that the initiative has executive support and is funded. Nominate women in the company to lead the initiative — they should create a mission and vision for the group and a roadmap of investments aimed at improving life for women in the company and promote female leadership.

Should some of those initiatives also apply to overall diversity in the workplace (race, age, sexual orientation, etc.), or perhaps a more diverse group of male employees (e.g. a single- or two-dad household)?
Absolutely. Just as we should deeply understand our customers, we should aim to understand our employees. Naturally there will be different segments of employees: by age, race, sexual orientation, etc. We should understand the different segments of employees (who are they, how many do we have, what is the distribution of leadership across segments), we should know what they need to thrive within the company and then we should tailor communication and programs to each segment as we would different customer segments.

Jump ahead five to 10 years to a more diverse outdoor industry workforce. How do you think that will affect/change the industry, its products and customers?
If we can cultivate a more diverse outdoor industry workforce, then we will have a meaningful expansion in the reach of the industry. Diversity will allow us to more authentically resonate to new subsets of customers. With this comes the sort of industry growth that fuels innovation. And innovation, in turn, drives participation and growth for the outdoor economy.

Switching gears, Backcountry.com is one of the standard bearers for online outdoor specialty retailers, but the space seems to be undergoing an evolution. Do you think the ultimate winners will be those that balance and coordinate their outdoor specialty business between an online and physical presence?
We don’t think of it in terms of balancing an online and physical presence, but instead being the best at understanding holistically what the customer wants — from product to the user experience, shipping, device and location.

We believe the way to win the customer isn’t as simple as opening up an e-commerce shop, setting up physical locations or just recreating a web experience on the phone.

Backcountry’s job is to best serve our customers by reimagining how commerce is done. This will result in an evolution of our model — however, it won’t be by creating a traditional physical presence.

The rate of change in the commerce world is unprecedented. Nearly 15 percent of our sales came from mobile devices in Q4 2012. That’s up from only 3 percent of sales in Q4 2010. As consumer preference changes, both in terms of how and where the customer shops, Backcountry will evolve to meet that demand.

--David Clucas

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