After 20 Years Hiring at American Eagle - The Current Retail Landscape
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Max: All right. Hello everybody. Welcome back to the recruitment hackers podcast. I'm your host Max Armbruster and today. On the show. I've got Jen Thornton, CEO of Three O Four coaching. Welcome to the show, Jen. 
Jen: Hi and thanks for having me.
Max: Pleasure to have you. So Jen is someone who comes from the high volume recruitment world of retail. And worked at American Eagle for over 20 years if your bio is correct. 
Jen:  Yes, yes, I did. 
Max: Which must've been quite the journey. So, well, we'd love to hear a little bit about that, where you come from. And then of course if you could introduce us to three or four coaching, your current business.
Jen:  So sure. So my early career was in retail and I've always loved the retail industry, you know, even as a young girl fashion and trend, like all of that was just exciting and fun. I always thought it was interesting. And I come from a long lineage of shoppers, so I wanted to be in retail. And so that's what I did.
And I spent the first half of my career in the operations side of it. And the second half in HR. And so my approach to HR was always very different because I had the operations mindset, you know, waking up to your KPIs every morning, you know, making quick decisions, prioritizing 100 number one priorities, you know, all that stuff you do on the operation side of retail.
So when I went into HR I actually started in talent acquisition, and that was my first HR gig and it was a ton of fun. And we did the store recruitment for American Eagle and then things progressed. And when I left A. E. I was the head of international HR. And then, you know, I came to that point in my career where I was ready for something new and something different.
And I didn't really see myself ever working for another retailer. I mean, I'd worked for one of the best in the world and I, you know, worked for them when they had 160 stores. And then, you know, when they were in 27 countries, I needed to do something fresh and new. And so I started 3 or 4 coaching.
And what the team does today is we help organizations think about their talent strategy. And how does that match up to their business strategy? Because we all have business plans, but not everyone has a talent plan that matches it. And so we work with organizations to look at their hiring practices, their onboarding practices, how do we educate and grow our teams? And we do executive coaching. So it's all about delivering on the talent. Max: Wonderful, great. I'm sure the people at American Eagle appreciate the fact that you didn't go to the competition or something like that. And that you came to that stage of your life where it was about giving back to as many people as possible, you know, as a coach, rather than as a soldier. And thinking about this journey  from operations to HR and through talent acquisition it sounds like you were focused on getting the stores the right talent. And I imagine the key person you want to get rights is the store manager, and everything else kind of follows from that, right? Is that the way you organize your TA strategy on the retail side? 
Jen: Yeah, we did look at the key positions and, you know, those positions that we're making the bulk of the decisions. In a store environment that store manager or general manager is making the bulk of the decisions.
And so, you know, I think that it's all about getting the right store manager, but we also thought a lot about the right store manager for the right time. And, you know, oftentimes a store may be in high growth, or it may be in a leverage mine, you know, they are in a solid market, but we want to leverage what we have.
You know, there may be a time where there's a big remodel, you know, there's just always different things going on. And so we not only focused on the right store manager, but really the right store manager for that time, for that generation of that store, to ensure that they could deliver on the expectations.
Max: So you were looking at the right generation for that specific location? Not at the brand level, we're hiring the same store manager, regardless, you know, you don't have like one global model. I mean, I'm sure you have a little bit of both, but I wouldn't have thought that a big brand would be able to localize it's hiring for the maturity level of a single location. 
Jen: Yeah. We worked really closely with the leadership for those markets. And we were involved in the succession planning. We were involved in, you know, where that business was going. And you can look at talent acquisition in two ways. You can look at it the way where you just produce candidates and you just push them out, or you can become a trusted advisor. And that's what our goal was, to be a trusted advisor. 
And to really understand the unique business of every market and to help those leaders make great hiring decisions so that we could leverage the talent. And, you know, my team back then every single recruiter on that team had been a district manager or a store manager. So they really understood the business. And I think that was one of our biggest success markers was that we had been there. We did that. We understood the business. You know, we could look at a report and know where there were opportunities from a KPI standpoint and help people make really great decisions.
Max: So for example, to illustrate that and you'd have one, one candidate, that'd be a little bit more experienced on the management side. One that would have a sensibility around. Maybe design and you know, merchandise. I don't know. I have zero experience. Yeah. Could you illustrate that with maybe some profiles or personas? 
Jen: Yeah, absolutely. So if, you know, if we were looking at, say a flagship store in New York city, and it's a new store, it hasn't even opened yet. So then we would be looking for general managers with experience in flagship but also experience in opening large volume stores. Because, you know, there's a lot, you learn when you open a store you know, an iconic New York city flagship store. And so we would look for people that had that experience.
And then we would blend that maybe with internal candidates, maybe an internal candidate that didn't necessarily have that experience in a flagship New York store, but maybe they really understood our brand. And so not only would we want to say, okay, here's what the GM needs. So look like here's maybe what the system needs to look like. And we would take a really hard look at how to blend experience to make sure that all of our decisions came together and could execute, you know, the plan.
Max:  Makes sense. And how big of a team for how many stores? Give us an idea of what the ratio is because  I do a bit of work in retail and for many retailers, the whole concept of having a centralized recruitment team is still new, foreign and political.  Especially with organizations that have a franchisee model. They haven't necessarily figured out how to do it. And then they're basically let every location owner run the show. And so I'm always curious to ask about the business models that worked. 
Jen: So, you know, when we looked at brands, the brand that we owned and operated, so there's American Eagle, Aerie, other brands over the years. And so if we owned and operated it, we were highly involved and we as TA, we worked strategically with the leaders of those markets. And so typically, there were five people on the team and we supported all of US in Canada. Those were owned and operated. And so gosh, at any given time around a thousand stores.
So you know, American Eagle was fantastic. We had a very low turnover for retail. And so people may be thinking, how did five people support a thousand stores? But the type of decisions that we help people make, you know, when you make good hiring decisions on the front end, it improves your turnover. It helps everything on the backend. And so I really believe that a lot of the work we did on the front end of making really good hiring decisions helped us with the retention. It was a key factor in keeping those numbers.
Max:  A thousand stores, typically a store would have between 20 head count-ish or more. So it would have been impossible for a team of five to manage all these openings. And that's why the focus was on the store managers and their assistants. And from there, I guess there is a manual, we give her the manual to the store manager and say, you know, please apply that to your local hiring.
Jen:  Yeah. And as a TA team, we were also responsible for education. And so we produced, you know, education material and did workshops to help individuals understand good interviewing practices and how to make great hiring decisions. And so, you know, I think sometimes, recruiters think, Oh, well, my job is just to give candidates out, but you're really also the face of the brand or the person that candidate meets the first time.
And so, yeah. If you aren't representing the brand, in a way that shows, this is how we treat our customers. This is how we treat our peers. Like all of that's really important. And so we were educating people from the minute we got on the phone with them. This is our customer service model.
We care about you, we care about your future. And I mean, we did LinkedIn courses. We did all kinds of things to help educate the teams on making really great decisions and for them to, you know, be able to find their own candidates too. Cause we couldn't do a hundred percent of that. It had to definitely be a team sport when it came to recruitment for that many stores.
Max: The education of hiring managers is never ending pursuit because when you're first point in a position of power where you can decide who to hire. That power can easily get to your head. I think that, you know, too many managers who immediately default to, I'm going to grill this person and forget that most of the employer branding happens during the first interview. I don't think it happens on a website, on a Facebook page.
Jen:  No, I think you are so right on that. 
Max: Yep. So like what would be some tips for driving employer branding for hiring managers? Personally, I'm rewriting our manual right now, so that we explicitly say these are the people we don't want to hire. That would be like a hard message to deliver for managers, but because it's hard, it's worthwhile.
Jen: Yeah, absolutely. You know, when you think about employer branding, there's some, I mean, you could go a million different ways. And there's, you know, all of the social media and all the videos and all this stuff you're supposed to do, but at the end of the day, it's really about the relationship you create with the candidates that you're going to hire and the candidates you're not going to hire.
And. You have to be organized. You have to communicate, you have to be respectful to these individuals. If they're not going to go to the next phase, you have to tell them. And I think what we often heard from candidates back then was you're one of the few teams who told me where I was in the process, or thank you for letting me know I didn't get the job and not just ghosting me. And. You know right now I know a lot of retailers that are looking for jobs and a lot of incredibly talented people and time and time again, when I talk to them, they're frustrated because of the lack of communication from a recruiter and, you know, that speaks of the brand. It's how you're treating your external customer because every candidate really is a customer in retail. They could be in your store shopping at any moment. And so, you know how we treat our candidates, says everything about the organization. 
Max: Yeah. And if you scare a few candidates away, by describing an idyllic version of who you want to hire that does not represent who they are, even better. Like it wasn't for me. I mean, you just have, you need that brutal honesty. And I think that's that's hard for most people to do, you know, it's not a natural behavior. Cause we all want to, we all want to be as attractive as possible, we forget that a true brand is differentiated. 
Jen: Yeah. And honesty is a gift. And though sometimes it may not feel like a gift, you know, always put yourself in that person's shoes. Would you want to know the truth about a job if you're a match or not? Would you want to know the truth about, Hey here's, you know, feedback. Or, you know, here's a job that I know of that I think you're going to be a good fit for.
And I would love to introduce you to the recruiter, you know, be a good citizen and, you know, go out there and treat candidates with ultimate respect and honesty, just like you would want to be treated. And you never know where those relationships are going to go. One of my closest friends that I've known for 15 years, I met through a cold call recruitment call.
She was a recruiter for a competitor. She called and said, Hey, do you want to interview? And I'm like, Nope, I'm super happy here. And she stayed in contact with me. She sent me a Christmas card every year. And then when I became a recruiter, I was like, I'd never done the job. And I was like, well, I'm going to call the best recruiter I know. And so I called her and we've been friends for gosh, 13, 15 years since then. And it's nuts. I mean, we are super close and it was from a recruitment call and she treated me with respect and I treated her with respect and now we have a great friendship. 
Max: Did you ever do business with her? 
Jen: I actually started a retail networking group with her and retail networking solutions. And we hold events through the US and Canada. And we've gosh, we've been doing events for gosh, 10 years and we have a huge LinkedIn group with over 16,000 people in it. And we started that with a logo and, you know, that's it. And it's just a group that we manage and we have a good time doing, cause we just, we love the industry, but yeah, we did that together.
Max:  What's the group called on LinkedIn? 
Jen: Retail Networking Solutions. 
Max:  Okay, we'll go check it out. 
Jen: Awesome. 
Max: Well, the events business probably took a small hit in 2020. How was 2020 for you as a trainer, coach, events organizer? Were you able to come out of it without  too much hurt?
Jen:  We were so fortunate and we have so many great clients and every one of our clients were impacted in a different way. Some got busier, some got slower. I mean, everyone had their own unique impact based on their business. And we were actually pretty busy this year. And I think that with the business challenges, people saw the opportunity to provide additional education and training.
You know, it was a tough year to be a leader. And great organizations recognize that and brought support in through coaching or through workshops. And we've always had a virtual, a primary lead virtual model at three O four. All of our leadership academies were all developed to be taught virtually. So we really didn't have to adapt much because it had always been. And we were very grateful that we were primarily a virtual business, for sure. I would say that definitely helped. 
Max: And the difference between doing something in person and virtually when you're in a training environment, could you tell us how you have to adapt the content or the audience when moving from the real world to the virtual? 
Jen: So I think one of the key things you have to recognize is the adult learner mind and take advantage of how the adult mind works. And it actually, in some ways works really well virtually. Because if you put an adult in a training room for three days straight, they're going to remember very little of what you taught them.
But if you give them short one hour and two hour increments, and then you allow them to go use that information and then come back and learn more, use that information, come back and learn more. You're actually going to create more retention in the education. So all of our training programs are overall, you know, seven, six months, but it's strip content. And so you're learning stuff consistently, but then applying it. And so the learning actually sticks. And so if you're training virtually never do it more than, you know, 60 minutes is a good place, but never more than two hours at a time. And then allow that adult learner to go and do something with the material.
Don't just train them for something and go, okay, well, I taught you something today. Talk to them about how they can apply it immediately because that's when retention of that information starts to stick. And that's where you start to see real behavior changes. 
Max:  Okay, that's a good lesson for us. We just launched our own Academy in my company to teach recruiters how to use social media advertising to build their talent pool. We try to keep it very practical as the best part of the training, for sure. To give some hands-on training. 
And you said that your customers were reaching out for help for their managers, for their executives, in a year that's been transformative. Where you're dealing with transformation on the talent acquisition front in particular?
Jen: So one of the pieces of the business that we have, one of our arms is a pre employment assessment. OAD, organization analysis and design. And so we saw heightened interest in that tool. You know, when you think about making hiring decisions, you can interview people for experience, you know, you can give them some situations, see how they would, handle it or say they'll handle it. But what you can't always interview for are the traits for a job. 
You know, whether that be the level of assertiveness, or level of detail, or decision style. And so. You know, the way jobs were being managed were different this year. And we had to evaluate what traits matched a job and, you know, along with skills and experience.
And so I definitely saw a heightened interest in making really good hiring decisions. And then really understanding these employees once you hire them. How do you know how they work and how do you coach them based on who they are? And so our OAD business definitely saw some tickup because people really wanted to make great decisions and then do great things with the team. Once they hired them. 
Max: We also saw an increase in the use of automated assessment solutions and. That came alongside with an increase in volumes. Now that wasn't the case necessarily. I've spoken to a number of people who said actually volumes were flat or down in some industries in the US, but internationally with the increase in unemployment, there was an increase in the talent pool, and it just became impossible to screen everybody. So assessment platforms gained popularity this year. 
Jen: Yeah. I've worked with one of my clients and they're a large retailer and of course their call center and distribution center, you know, everyone was doing everything online. So they had to really ramp up those areas of their business and they had to find  speed. They had to cut down on the time in which it took to touch a candidate. And so we did studies on success markers, you know, what are your top? What consistent traits do your top performers have and then looking at candidates and saying, okay, these candidates in that pre employment assessment have those markers. So let's start with those candidates. Let's start with candidates that we can predict have a higher probability of being successful so that they're happier employees. And so we use that to help reduce time with candidates and reduce how many candidates we were touching.
Max: Yeah, works and makes sense. And then for the changes that occurred last year, do you believe there's a new normal? Are people going to come back to the office? Or do you think people are going to come back to the office? For most of the customers that you've dealt with? Do you think that some of the change for 2020 is permanent? 
Jen: I think there's going to be a blended approach and a more flexible approach. And I think that organizations who weren't flexible with work at home realize that people can work from home. And if you hire the right people, they can be trusted to do their job.
But I think that, you know, people are valuing their time in a different way. And I think the smart companies are going to be very nimble and take the time to think about how to have a flexible work schedule or half the time in office, half the time from home or any of those types of models. But I think that the good companies are going to learn how to be much more flexible. 
Max: The younger the talents, the more you think they need coaching and mentoring and the more you need them to be there. And so that's all fun. The main metrics were, which people decide who needs to be in the office or not. Because the younger you are the less data points we have to work with. So we don't know exactly what you're going to be good at. You know, when you start out, is there a way to determine who's going to be a good remote worker from a young age?
Jen: So I'm going to flip it on its head a little bit, and I'm going to say the determination is the leader. And, you know, a great leader who understands how to lead virtual teams. You know, it's not going to change anything for them. If they are great communicators and understand how to motivate, excite and lead virtual teams. Then your entire team, no matter where they are in their careers, is more likely going to be successful. And so I think it really depends on the leader's ability to be successful as a virtual leader. And it's interesting, you know, I have never had, I've never worked in office in my entire career.
I've never had my entire team. I mean, I've led virtual teams since I was gosh, in my twenties. And so as a district manager, you know, in retail your stores are all over the place. And so it's interesting watching people talk about virtual, cause I'm like, is there another way to manage? That's all I've ever done.
Max: Now that you mentioned it. I mean, most of everybody I've worked with in the last 20 years I've been doing the same. Same as you. 
Jen: Yeah. So it can be done. And it's really about the leader. Cause I've led people that are straight out of college and I've led people that have 30 years of experience virtually and it always boiled down to how good is your leader?
Max: All right. But I mean, I did enjoy managing a sales team where everybody was in the same room as me and we had that comradery and all the drinks after work and all that.
Well, I'm talking about the leadership hiring. 
Jen: Yes. 
Max: I want you to go to a dark place. A bad memory.  A hire that you made where you invested love and trust. And was rewarded with a bitter lesson in life. Can you revisit that moment for the audience and tell us what lesson they should draw from it? 
Jen: You know, I've got a long list of those. I've been hiring people for a long time, but there's two that I'm thinking of, and now that I think of both of those people, there was a common thread and I think the common thread was, I put blinders on because I saw experience that I was impressed by, and I saw a lot of stories, or I assumed because of, you know, something that was on their resume, you know, automatically made them great if they work for this type of company, and my two toughest hires that I've ever been a part of, that was that's the common denominator.
I let kind of that experience and that little rockstar status influence, you know, the substance of who that person really was. And you got to get into the substance of who those people truly are. And now those are my two worst hiring decisions, both come down to that. 
Max: Okay. And to go dig a little bit deeper into that, they had a deep industry expertise or deep functional expertise that blinded you to some psychometric or personality flaws. 
Jen: Yeah. They both had experience with really high retailers like really popular, like really nice. And, you know, they were the fancy, shiny toys out there. Right? And I thought, well, gosh, if they work there, surely they're fantastic. And you know, that doesn't always work. And so so yeah, so I've made that mistake. And one was kind of earlier in my career and one was later in my career. So it can happen at any time. 
Max: Yeah. And of course, when you make it later in your career, you're going to ask all those questions. Like you understand this is different than you have to adapt, but nonetheless, I mean, branding works. And just goes to show how powerful a strong employer brand is because it reflects positively on all the employees becoming much more attractive to hire. But of course, you know, the onus is on the employer as well to exercise that kind of judgment.
So, you know, it's definitely a shared mistake. Yeah. 
Jen: Yeah, absolutely. 
Max: So who should contact you at a three O four coaching? When should they reach out to three O four coaching? And how did they get a hold of you? 
Jen: So we love to work with organizations who are passionate about creating environments, where individuals can grow their career and, you know, organization to bring in managers and see them as vice-presidents down the road.
And that's the kind of companies we'd love to work with. We love to jump in early on the runway and help employers. You know, take this talent and grow it with them long term. And we love working with fast-growing companies. They have unique challenges and those unique challenges are our favorite.
And, you know, we do that through, you know, all the talent strategy. You have to think about the strategy of how to get these teams up and going. And so, yeah, so you can reach out to us@threeofourcoaching.com or you can connect with me directly on LinkedIn at Jen Thorton. 
Max: Great. If you want to make vice-presidents out of your managers, please contact Jen. She's got, she's got the key to their success. 
Jen: Absolutely. 
Max: Thanks for joining on the show, Jen, and wish you a brilliant 2021. 
Jen:  Thank you so much for having me. It was a lot of fun
Max:  That was Jen Thorton from three O four coaching. She reminded us that when you're in talent acquisition, nothing beats, actual operational experience, and really projecting yourself in the shoes of the operator when recommending a solution. In the case of Jen, that meant thinking about what each individual store would need and what combination of people would work best. I hope you enjoyed the interview. And if you want to hear more, remember to follow the recruitment hackers podcast. And to share it with your friends. Thank you.
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