In the Innovative Leadership (iLead) Series by MIT Sloan and the MIT Leadership Center, top thought leaders share their views on business challenges and achievements. As part of this series, Ruth Sommers, COO of Blue Nile, recently shared some leadership lessons learned during her 25-year career as an executive in the retail industry.
Over two decades ago, Ruth Sommers was interviewing for two positions—one in accounting and one in retail. She chose the one with the shinier objects. Today, Sommers is the successful COO of online specialty jewelry retailer Blue Nile, a goal she reached by applying lessons learned along the way.
Sommers learned the first of many lessons at the start of her career when, as an executive at Victoria’s Secret of L Brands, she was relocated from its Andover, MA, location to its Hong Kong offices on a short-term assignment that morphed into five years. Lesson #1: Keep an open mind.
“Agreeing to go to Hong Kong changed my whole view of life. Being open to things you might not have put in your roadmap ... is a key to a successful career, and a successful life. This openness can trigger curiosity about people and experiences you otherwise would know nothing about.”
When Sommers returned stateside, the retail executive pursued an MIT Sloan Fellowship and applied the knowledge learned in higher education at a new position in which she headed up Victoria’s Secret Direct—a losing venture that soon became profitable under her leadership. Sommers recalls the success of that venture and says, “That was the best cross-functional team I ever worked on. We all understood what it took. It was one of those great case studies where the product, the supply chain, marketing, and execution all played a huge role. The amount of time and energy and expertise hired was mind-boggling.” Lesson #2: Determine people’s strengths and align them with complementary roles.
Her next career move took Sommers back to Asia where she was in charge of the overseas offices of Ann Taylor (another L Brand company). A mere 14 months later, Sommers switched L Brands again to take over as Chief Sourcing and Production Officer at American Eagle Outfitters.
While her professional life was extremely successful, Sommer’s personal life took an unfortunate and unexpected turn when her husband became suddenly ill and passed away. As a single mom of two daughters, Sommers learned to deal with adversity. Lesson #3: Cultivate resilience.
“Cultivate resilience in your life, for your own family, yourself, and everyone around you. The single biggest thing is to focus on yourself and prioritize things that matter to you. When you identify what self-care means for you … you can realize that you’re in a moment in time, that this shall pass.”
Her ensuing professional position meant leaving the L Brands organization to cofound NOI Solutions, a firm that helped specialty retailers develop production in Asia. However, Sommers discovered the fit was less than best, partly because she and her business partner were not aligned on how to grow the company, but also because Sommers realized she didn’t like start-ups. Lesson #4: If you don’t like what you’re doing, move on.
Which is exactly what Sommers did when she became COO of the iconic jewelry retailer David Yurman. Although she thought her next move would be as a CEO, Sommers discovered the COO role was a better fit because it encompassed a variety of roles. Sommers found she liked that variability. Lesson #5: The top job isn’t always the right job.
To learn more leadership lessons that you can apply to your career, consider one of the many MIT Sloan Executive Education programs we offer, including Transforming Your Leadership Strategy and the Advanced Management Program.
Photo Credit: Caitlin Cunningham Photography