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Diane von Furstenberg’s Strategies On How To Lead And When To Get Out Of The Way

The fashion icon has risen, fallen, and risen again. As she turns over her empire to a new CEO, here are her strategies for leadership.

Diane von Furstenberg’s Strategies On How To Lead And When To Get Out Of The Way
[Photo: Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images]

Leaders from every industry often claim there’s no “I” in team in an effort to rally their troops. But to hear Diane von Furstenberg talk about the decades she’s spent at the helm of her eponymous brand, it’s not hard to see how she would argue that “I” should be added to the word leader in order to be most effective.

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In a recent interview with The New York Times, von Furstenberg said she learned early on that “the most important relationship is the one you have with yourself. If you figure that out, every other relationship is a plus and not a must.”

This focus on self would serve her well through the years when her entrepreneurial journey read like something out of a novel. Von Furstenberg’s experience of coming to the U.S. as a young woman and becoming a fast-rising star of the fashion world with her iconic wrap dress is the stuff of the American dream.

Photo: Flickr user Bruce Monroe

But in a fickle industry, when demand flagged, the entrepreneur’s budding empire took a tumble. Selling many of her licenses to avoid bankruptcy, von Furstenberg never completely sold out on her vision. She made a comeback in the 90s–after surviving tongue cancer–first by selling a colorful collection on QVC that generated $40 million in sales, then with the official relaunch of the company that Forbes reports has annual sales of in excess of $200 million. Even as a member of the fashion establishment, von Furstenberg has never shied away from disrupting the status quo, from sending models down her runway accessorized with Google Glass to setting up measures to protect emerging designers’ intellectual property.

Now at the age of 68, von Furstenberg, who confessed that she isn’t a good CEO, (“I have the passion and the force of a founder, and therefore I can make things happen,” she told The New York Times) is appointing a successor to take the helm. Veteran fashion executive Paolo Riva will assume the newly created position of CEO of Diane von Furstenburg Studio, to steer the brand into the future. He starts on May 18.

But von Furstenberg isn’t stepping aside completely. She’ll continue to be a driving force behind the brand. With that in mind, here are some of her strategies on how to lead and when to get out of the way.

On The Most Important Leadership Strategy

“The earlier you learn to count on yourself, the better off you are.”

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On The Key To Starting A Business

“I try to be authentic. You know, people do different things. There are some people who start a business saying, ‘I am going to start a business,’ and then they write a business plan. I didn’t, and I’m sure you didn’t,” von Furstenberg told Jack Dorsey at Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored conference. “You just have an idea and you create it and you believe in it. But with the authenticity, there is a bad side, too: There is so much human in the way you created it that it attracts all the human faults, right?”

On Not Getting Sidelined By Success

“I’ve come to realize that when you have your first success, it is often the essence of who you are and what you do. Trust that,” she told Liz Welch at Inc. “I’ve learned to rely on my instinct, impulse, and passion. This is what entrepreneurs do best. It’s what makes your company unique–the heart of your business, the engine. You also need a solid business plan and a great team–but the important thing is to not lose yourself.”

On Staying Confident

“I cannot ever minimize the power of confidence, confidence is everything,” she told attendees of the OPEN for Women conference. “The problem is you can’t fake confidence. Some days I feel like a loser. There are no successful people who don’t feel like losers.”

On Inspiring Teamwork

“I think the most important thing is to believe in what you do. And identifying a goal, to have clarity, is very important. You cannot fake clarity. When you don’t have clarity, you don’t. And then all of a sudden, the fog lifts and you’re clear,” she told the Times.

On Finding a Successor

“This is a most important decision for me,” von Furstenberg told WWD to describe how she chose her next CEO. “I want somebody who really loves product. We don’t sell numbers. We sell dresses, we sell shoes, we sell accessories, bags. Numbers are extremely important, but I have a very special relationship with the consumer over the decades, and I’ve dressed generations of women, I’m talking to the millennials. It’s a love brand, it’s very unique and people have to understand that.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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