Get Better At: Diversifying your workforce to broaden your company and customer base

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Former Backcountry.com chief executive Jill Layfield says companies need to hire a wide range of candidates, specifically, women, to succeed in building a customer base and successful business.

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Shaking the single-gender demographics that often befall outdoor sports companies was among the changes Jill Layfield says boosted Backcountry.com’s recent growth.

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“We used to joke that we had a ‘men only’ sign up on the website. Not surprisingly, the bulk of our customers were men, and that was also true of the population of employees of Backcountry.com,” Layfield said. “Over time, we evolved and our workforce got more diverse, and we started to think about the female consumer in a better way and market to her better.”

Layfield joined the company in 2004 as a marketing manager, and worked her way up to become vice president for product management in 2009, then chief operating officer and finally chief executive. In that time, the online retailer grew from a $30 million company to a $500 million company. The experience left her with a few pieces of wisdom for those looking to reach that other half of the customer base.

1. To sell to women, you have to hire women

Demonstrating that your company understands the needs of the female consumer requires hiring women. Female voices within your company, speaking up on their behalf, builds an understanding the other half of your customer base. As Backcountry.com grew and added more women to its staff, its breakdown of male and female customers evened out.

“If all your employees look the same, you’re just going to miss something. It’s kind of like when you don’t know what you don’t know,” Layfield said. Building a workforce varied in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, she added, is as important to success as great communication and aligning to a set strategy.

“It’s fundamental to the goal of any company to have the best product, get to the right answer, and solve customer problems,” she said. “One tool is to ensure that you have different perspectives at the table and people are looking at the same problems from different vantage points.”

2.To hire women, consider candidates from outside the industry

The tightly-knit outdoor industry community has its benefits, but it also presents a limited field of candidates and a bit of a bottleneck when it comes to gender diversity. Relatively few women in the industry means few women to hire in any capacity, much less move up the corporate ladder toward leadership roles.

“Those individuals that come in from outside of the industry … bring innovation, and different perspectives, but then it also solves a pipeline problem of there not being enough women in outdoor business that you might try to attract,” said Layfield, who herself came from Shutterfly, the photo-sharing website.

Leadership roles particularly tend to swap people from one outdoor brand or one outdoor retailer to another. But female candidates for marketing and merchandising jobs will likely have to come from outside the industry as well.

“I think business leaders and CEOs really need to embrace that and ensure there are no sacred cows in the business at least for where they find talent,” she said.

3. Speak often and loudly about your commitment to diversity 

Stating a goal of diversity in the job recruiting boards can encourage women from other fields to consider jobs in the outdoors industry.

“The priority to have more women in your company and in leadership has to be a very vocal priority from the CEO and it’s something that they have to be a champion of and speak about regularly as a priority for their business,” Layfield said. She suggested signing the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition CEO Pledge to increase opportunities for women to lead in the industry as one way to commit to that goal.

“From there, I think ensuring that it’s a part of your strategic priorities and visible culture is pretty paramount,” she said.

That “visible culture” piece to attract and retain women likely starts with research similar to that conducted with customers to understand their wants and needs. For women, the cultural and workplace perks they’re seeking perhaps aren’t the video game rooms and beer on tap, but could mean onsite childcare or standup desks.

“I don’t think companies actually think about their employee base that way or do enough listening and building specific things for their female employee,” Layfield said.

The employee’s end of the deal

Layfield advises women to work hard to get ahead.

“Out-work people, because you can definitely get out-smarted,” she said. “Early on in your career, it’s about how hard you work.”

Make sure your work is above and beyond expectations, she said, and that you’re working for a boss who will reward that kind of effort—which is what happened for her at Backcountry.com.

“I had great sponsors and two amazing founders that made my career for me, but I guess my end of the bargain was helping them build the company, making their lives easier and doing good work for them,” she said.

An open line of communication about your responsibilities to your boss and your boss’s responsibilities to you is also key. That exchange likely entails employees doing what they can to make their bosses look good, while bosses work to take care of their employees’ careers, seeing to it that they’re paid fairly, given additional responsibilities and opportunities, and promoted.

Layfield left Backcountry.com late last year.

“After 11 amazing years, I decided it was time to do something new,” she said. She’s taking roughly six months to explore new opportunities, and expecting to make a choice about her next role soon.

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