Fast Company

What I Know Now

What lessons has Len Schlesinger learned since he went from professor at Harvard B-school to COO of Limited Brands?

Len Schlesinger

Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer of Limited Brands, Schlesinger, 52, runs the day-to-day business of the $9 billion (sales) retailer that owns Express, Limited stores, Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works, Henri Bendel, and the White Barn Candle Co. Before joining Limited in 1999, Schlesinger was a longtime professor at Harvard Business School, where he earned his PhD.

The biggest surprise moving from the academic to the "real world" has been the strength of organizational forces that reinforce silos. We all know silos are bad, but it is just so hard to eliminate them. It's more than a full-time job. People are so busy doing "their job," that there's often not enough time for our job, which is to energize the behavior of the entire organization. Getting people to do that is much more complex than I ever expected.

Everything takes longer than you'd like it to.

But I also can't believe how much fun this is. There's so much variety, there's so much opportunity, there are so many people to work with and touch. There's not been one shred of boredom.

At some point you have to be willing to trust your instincts without the benefit of a detailed plan. You can go through life aggregating numbers, getting analyses, and getting more data, but by the time you know the right answer, it's irrelevant. Sometimes you have to make decisions faster than arriving data. I've always trusted my instincts. It turns out that in this environment that is a great skill to have.

In interviewing potential hires, I look for passion first. Second, interpersonal sensitivity. Do they listen? Do they display a care and respect for other people and their points of view? Third, a willingness to articulate a point of view. I don't care whether it's right or wrong, but they do need to have one. Skills come after that. Always. You can always teach people the skills they need, but if they are a schmuck, they're a schmuck.

The best way to develop people is to give them assignments that really make them stretch. That way you can see what they're made of. I am available to coach and counsel, but I want to see what they can do. I am looking to see how they deal with being stretched and how they overcome their own personal shortcomings.

The most overrated part of the job is the status-oriented perks. I really don't have any. Well, I've got a parking spot. But it's not even a real parking spot.

I can't believe how much of your day can be taken up by legal. Everything has legal implications. The governance issues all have legal implications. When you have 4,000 outlets, something happens in the stores every day that has legal implications. We're in almost every state, so there are those regulatory authorities. Something's always happening.

And of course, I waste the most time on paperwork.

I've learned so much, with so much more to go. What is exciting for me, as one who fancies himself a lapsed academic, is the opportunity to learn. The learning curve here is steeper than any I have ever experienced, because it is in real time and the upside is limitless.

The skill I'd most like to have is the ability to operate in multiple time frames simultaneously. My job has a large strategic component to it and a large tactical component to it. And what I've discovered is that it is extraordinarily difficult to operate in a tactical and strategic mode simultaneously. I'd love to be able to do that.

Five years out, I'll be doing something very interesting, and I have no need to know what it is. I know it will happen, because it always does.

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