Chris McDonough, L.L.Bean’s Chief Sales & Brand Officer
Chris McDonough is the Chief Sales and Brand Officer for L.L.Bean where he leads a team of over 2,000 people. He’s led commercial, marketing, eCommerce, and international divisions across a range of industry sectors. Chris is a seasoned global leader who prioritizes authenticity in his management style. He drives change and performance by bringing out the best in his team and maximizing their individual capabilities.
Highlight from our conversation include:
- What influenced Chris’s leadership and hiring philosophies (3:40)
- How his approach to hiring has developed (4:33)
- How he drives change and growth at L.L.Bean (6:09)
- His methods for assessing team capabilities vs. hiring from the outside (7:36)
- The importance of preserving culture while growing a well-established business (9:02)
- How Chris ensures that new hires are aligned with his vision (9:56)
- Why role-clarity is so important in the fast-changing world of retail (11:24)
- Why diversity needs to be more than a check-box for brands (13:12)
- How Chris recognizes and cultivates leadership potential (14:05)
- When to promote from within and when to bring in new talent (15:19)
- The factors that contribute most to hiring mistakes (17:07)
- Why face-to-face meetings are so valuable (18:20)
- How Chris involves his team in the hiring process (19:17)
- Two of the important traits he looks for in candidates (21:26)
- What the future of hiring in retail and direct to consumer looks like (24:11)
Show Transcript – How I Hire Podcast with Chris McDonough
Roy Notowitz: [00:00:00] Thanks for tuning in to How I Hire. I’m your host, Roy Notowitz, Founder and President of Noto Group Executive Search.
Because this episode was recorded prior to the COVID 19 pandemic, some of the statements you hear may not reflect the profound impact that the crisis has had on the world. However, I want to go ahead and share Chris’s advice since I think it’ll be helpful in any hiring context.
In the months ahead, I will use the podcast as a platform to create an exchange of ideas between hiring leaders who are both adapting to the current situation as well as looking towards the future.
My thoughts are with all of you as you navigate through the personal and professional challenges presented by this new reality. Thanks again for taking the time to listen to How I Hire. Let’s hear from Chris.
His global career spans multiple consumer categories and industry sectors, having worked for companies such as Mars, Bacardi, Molson Coors, and Asda. Chris has deep leadership expertise in brand innovation in the direct to consumer, eCommerce and retail channels. Chris will share his perspective as a seasoned global leader in the ever evolving world of consumer goods and retail.
Chris and I met at the Outdoor Retailer show in Denver earlier this year. Naturally, the topic of hiring came up and I knew he’d be an insightful guest for the podcast. He’s joining us remotely from Maine.
Chris, thank you for being on the podcast. Can you tell us a little bit about your career journey and how that’s unfolded to get you to where you are today?
Chris McDonough: [00:01:39] Well, thank you Roy, for having me. Delighted to chat to you. So, I’d say my career path has definitely been really fun, really energizing, and I feel really, really blessed. I started my career at Mars. I worked on their accelerated graduate program across different functions. I then specialized into marketing at Mars, and then I headed up a commercial business unit across Europe, and then I worked in a commercial sales and marketing capacity for the German market.
So, really enjoy the time at Mars, a wonderfully kind of paternalistic, forward-thinking, pioneering, brand-building company, whilst at the same time really driving accountability and responsibility. From there, I then went on to work for a significant dairy company in Europe where I was a marketing director, a general manager for, for a country.
And again, it just really allowed me to build my brand-building competency, broader team leadership, and then moving into more meaningful kind of commercial roles there. I then went to be a MD at Molson Coors looking after the UK business. That stretched from my marketing kind of DNA into broader sales and commercial P & L accountability.
And then more laterally, I kind of skipped into the wonderful world of grocery retail. So having really invested time in CPG up to that point, I worked for Asda in the UK as a UK marketing director, and I learned a lot about fast-paced, fast-moving, quick decision making, and the importance of really generating alignment and commonality across teams that were working at a ridiculous pace of operation.
And then more laterally at L.L.Bean looking after their brands, sales and marketing divisions. So my career path has taken me to many different sectors, to different countries, different cultures, different levels of responsibility, from marketing through to full GM, P & L accountability. And I’ve, I’ve not regretted a day.
Roy Notowitz: [00:03:35] Who are the people who have influenced your leadership and hiring philosophy the most?
Chris McDonough: [00:03:40] Certainly the most inspirational leader I’ve had the pleasure of working with was during my time at Molson Coors. I worked for a chap called Mark Hunter who at the time looked after the kind of European operation for Molson Coors, and then subsequently became the global president over Molson Coors.
And he was just the most inspirational, down to earth, human, authentic leader I have ever had the pleasure of working with, and he really taught me the true importance of teams, the true importance of working together, the true importance of trying for clarity and accountability of those teams, and then really recruiting talent in line with where the overall direction of the business was going.
Roy Notowitz: [00:04:28] When did you first start managing people and how did you develop your knowledge of how to hire?
Chris McDonough: [00:04:33] I think developing and managing people really did happen at Mars pretty young into my career, probably five, six years really. Now I look after a team of over 2,000, but in the early days. You know, as you’re young and ambitious in your career, you, you always believe that leading a team is always about being clear on your point of view and giving them a clarity of direction and purpose and empowering them with your wisdom and your clarity.
And I think I learned very, very quickly when you work in a organization as capable as Mars, and then definitely more into my career, that winning with a team is really about leveraging the full capability potential views of that team, and if you’re going to be successful as a leader, it is really all about maximizing the true potential capability and competency of every single member of the team and involving and engaging them.
Roy Notowitz: [00:05:32] Did Mars or any of your other companies train leaders on hiring methods or practices, or did you develop this knowledge through trial and error?
Chris McDonough: [00:05:41] Mars, yeah, definitely had leadership competencies and many of the organizations I’ve worked in had leadership competencies, but I guess as I grew in my career, rather than it just being a kind of tick-box exercise, I learned really the importance of: know where you’re going, why you’re trying to get there and how you want to get there and then try and build a team that enables you to do that.
Roy Notowitz: [00:06:03] What were you brought in to accomplish at L.L.Bean? Can you give us an idea of your current scope of responsibility?
Chris McDonough: [00:06:09] So I’ve been at L.L.Bean now for just over three and a half years, based in Maine, USA. So I came across from the UK to join L.L.Bean and I came in as the Chief Sales and Brand Officer with real responsibility for revitalizing the growth of a wonderful legacy iconic brand in the US. So how could we stimulate both revenue and customer growth back into such a well established brand? And I really came in with responsibility for all marketing channels, all selling channels, and how we made sure that we built a future-proof brand positioning and channel strategy to drive growth of the brand.
And the other important element around the remit was how do we connect all the different functional areas to be aligned behind one common plan with a common sense of purpose and a common sense of direction? And I’m delighted to have been doing that for three and a half years with, you know, a really good degree of success and momentum in the business.
I’m really proud of the significant change agenda that, you know, as a collective team we’ve achieved at L.L.Bean. Not easy to do in such a well established , well-versed family business, but there was an appreciation for the need for that change to drive real customer revenue growth.
Roy Notowitz: [00:07:24] Once you had clarity on your mission and goal at L.L.Bean, how did you assess the capabilities of the existing team and how did you determine what competencies or capabilities you needed to hire from the outside?
Chris McDonough: [00:07:36] It really started with understanding what was going to be the future brand positioning and channel strategy for the business.
So that required a lot of deep-dive analysis working across cross-functional teams to really map out a future customer, a future brand-positioning, a required assortment strategy behind that, and then ultimately, a channel strategy and a go-to-market strategy to underpin that. And as you worked through all those dilemmas to really map out a roadmap for the future, working across many cross-functional teams.
First of all, you get to appreciate within those cross-functional team environments, the real capabilities and competency of individuals across the business. And then as you get to the end of that process, you’re mapping out a clarity of what you require for the future, i.e., the future skill sets that may or may not be within the business.
I will say as we embarked on that whole journey and the end to end process and road mapping the future, that L.L.Bean is very, very blessed. It’s a, it’s a wonderful organization with so many incredibly talented people and many of those people really stayed on within the organization. Some of their roles may have been repurposed against a future direction as we got clarity on where we needed to be, but many within the organization had the stretch and elasticity to really move into different roles.
Roy Notowitz: [00:08:59] Did that shape or change the culture at all?
Chris McDonough: [00:09:02] Culture is interesting in a 107 year-old business, and ultimately the business is incredibly well established and, you know, it’s a fifth-generation family business. So I think it, it nudges culture. I think ultimately the culture, though, in a business such as L.L.Bean is defined from within the family and the senior leadership.
But certainly in terms of nudging more of a kind of challenger dynamic, driving more agility of action into the business and shaping new capabilities to allow growth of the business. I would certainly say it’s kind of nudged the culture. Didn’t necessarily dramatically evolve the culture.
And overall I think that’s a good thing. You know, being respectful of the culture of an organization and seeking ways to evolve it in a meaningful yet respectable way is, is crucial.
Roy Notowitz: [00:09:52] How did you ensure that the people you were hiring were aligned with your vision?
Chris McDonough: [00:09:56] In assessing candidates there is definitely being very clear on the nature of the role you are recruiting for. So, and that has to fit in with the overall strategic framework. And then out of that strategic framework comes the kind of organizational roadmap. But in doing so, it’s important to have an appreciation of the experience and technical skills that are required for that role. Because often they are prerequisites of finding the right individual in terms of overall experience and technical capability.
But the third element, which is really important is cultural fit. And in assessing cultural fit, it’s not necessarily about that person needs to conform to the existing culture in the organization because there may be cases where you need more of a challenger mindset to change the dynamic and trajectories of the business or the team, but certainly holding those three in balance, experience, technical skillset, and cultural fit are very important.
Ultimately, there is a fourth, I think that comes through a disciplined interview process, which is just personal chemistry. I think in any team you build, it’s really important to have a personal chemistry just to make sure that the team dynamic is productive. It’s energizing, it’s fun, and it’s a driven team culture. That doesn’t mean to say you’re recruiting people who are the same as you, but I do think there has to be a degree of personal chemistry.
Roy Notowitz: [00:11:21] Tell me a little bit more about how you get clarity on that.
Chris McDonough: [00:11:24] If you think about the world of retail now, it has changed very dramatically and dynamically, probably more so over the last 10 years than you know, in the previous 30. And with that changing dynamic, there is a rapidly changing landscape of the skill sets required and the individuals required to drive the future performance and growth of a business.
And that is a good example of where you really need to have clarity on the understanding of the role required to continue to drive performance in an ever changing consumer and retail world. A really good example of that is if you think about, you know, the significant growth across e-com, across mobile platforms, is increasingly you need a team, if you’re thinking about a marketing team, that is really orientated towards understanding and being very conversant across performance marketing, being really conversant across SEO, really understanding the power of digital marketing, really understanding the power of the UX experience.
And then that has to be supported with an analytics and insight team that can stitch together one view of the customer in a meaningful way, such that you can drive future customer strategies. All of that is a really fast-evolved skillset in the marketplace nowadays. So understanding where you want to go as a business within that overall changing macro retail environment really helps you define the clarity of roles required and that then helps you map the key individuals that are required to accelerate growth in the business.
Roy Notowitz: [00:13:08] How do you take into consideration diversity within your hiring?
Chris McDonough: [00:13:12] I’m a big believer in diversity because I think the more you bring in people that think, act, come from different backgrounds, the richer your organization will be and the more relevant your organization will be to broader consumer groups and demographics. But I almost think that diversity can, again, become too much of a tick-box versus just a genuine, in the DNA of the organization, in the DNA of how you hire. I think if you are the right organization, there’s an element that diversity should come naturally and it shouldn’t be a forced agenda topic.
Roy Notowitz: [00:13:49] One of the things I picked up on in our initial dialogue is that you said that potential can emerge irrespective of age and years of experience. Is it possible to evaluate leadership potential of a candidate that doesn’t have a lot of experience and if so, how do you do that?
Chris McDonough: [00:14:05] I don’t think that’s easy, Roy, I’ll be honest. You know, we do live in a society, in a world where experience and technical capability is, is built up over time, by definition and quite rightly that is respected and appreciated. But sometimes within the organization, there are real gems of talent and leaders and part of the challenge as a senior leader within the organization is how do you reward performance and capability clearly based on that experience and technical skillset, but at the same time provide opportunities for true potential that may be young into the organization and young into you as business to grow.
And I think the way you do that is having the willingness to set up small project teams where you find cross-functional working teams and you give permission for talent wherever it sits in the organization to work on real meaty, substantive projects. And then you really get to understand an individual’s leadership capability.
Roy Notowitz: [00:15:13] How do you decide whether to promote and develop somebody internally versus hiring somebody from the outside?
Chris McDonough: [00:15:19] Well, first of all, as you look to whether promoting from within or going outside, you need to understand the scope of that role and that role is in service of what component would be a strategy that refers to what we said earlier.
And then based on that role, you need to understand, do I have the skillset internally, both based on performance of people internally against the scope of that role, but also, do we have internally the individuals that might have the agility and the capacity to stretch into that role? So they may not have necessarily worked in that domain, but they’ve got enough strategic and intellectual agility, to stretch into a role.
That would be a primary consideration. And if it came to the point where actually we just do not have that skillset, you know, a good example might be in the realm of data science or a specialist in SEO or a specialist in propensity modeling. Those are specific skillsets that you may say, actually, we just don’t have that capability, so we have to go outside.
Roy Notowitz: [00:16:18] How do you make sure you don’t promote somebody beyond their level of capability?
Chris McDonough: [00:16:22] Sometimes you have to have a willingness to over-promote, to give people a chance, to reward people for their potential. And in doing so, there might be some wrinkles initially around their leadership stretch and capability, but I think invariably if that individual is as strong as you believe and all the kind of indicators have shown, that it will ultimately prove to be the right decision.
So I’m always a big believer in having a willingness to take risks and invest behind potential because invariably it will not only reward the business, but it will ultimately reward the team and that business leader.
Roy Notowitz: [00:17:03] What factors do you believe contribute the most to hiring mistakes?
Chris McDonough: [00:17:07] There’s probably an element of not being really clear on the role, defining the role, the scope of the role and the nature of the individuals and the skills required. And then there are elements, as you shape up the role and you think about the future direction, you know, in some capacity we’re all chasing growth and change, particularly in a retail environment.
And you may bring in a challenger mindset to achieve that because you don’t necessarily achieve growth by pursuing the same actions, you need different actions, a different approach, and sometimes maybe the organizational team isn’t right and you haven’t created the permission for that challenger mindset to flourish.
So I’d certainly say up front, it’s being clear on scope and definition of role, and then it’s also being clear on the cultural difference you want to bring in through that individual. And if you don’t do that right, you know, you definitely end up with inadvertent hiring mistakes.
Roy Notowitz: [00:18:12] You’ve been exposed to a lot of different hiring processes in different companies. What are the things that you’ve taken with you and applied to your current process?
Chris McDonough: [00:18:20] There are all the standard practices of evaluating experience and evaluating technical capabilities, but to me, in the hiring process, there is absolutely no substitute for face-to-face meetings and making sure that you invest time in getting to know, getting to understand that candidate, both at the level of their declared experience and the level of their declared skillset.
So explore that, deep dive it, make sure you’re comfortable with, you know, what is declared is, is an actual capability. But the more important element of the face-to-face process in hiring is just getting to know somebody, getting to understand the personal chemistry, getting to understand the cultural fit, and making sure actually the cultural fit works both ways.
It works for the individual you’re hiring for as well as the business.
Roy Notowitz: [00:19:13] How do you involve your team in that process from start to finish?
Chris McDonough: [00:19:17] I’m always a big believer in, you know, as you think about the interview process, definitely involve A, some of my peers on the executive leadership team, depending on the nature of the role, but ideally a peer or two of mine at the executive level.
And then if it’s not at that level. And it’s deeper into the team then definitely involve two or three team members really to get to know the individual during the course of that process, but also to allow, to be fair, the individual, to get to know the business and the business culture and the business expectations.
So there is absolutely no substitute, I do not believe, in the hiring process for allowing for enough true face-to-face and get-to-know-each-other time at different levels of the organization.
Roy Notowitz: [00:20:06] You want to give the candidate a really clear picture of what the expectations are and what the culture is like. How does that translate into the candidate experience that you want to create?
Chris McDonough: [00:20:16] As you said, Roy, I mean, really allowing the interview process to allow the candidate to understand expectations and culture as much as for you to understand where the candidate is, is absolutely crucial. As you think about the processes, there’s definitely the personal one-on-one interviews. There’s definitely the panel interviews that allow you to assess a candidate, but I think also creating time for the candidates potentially to get to know them over a dinner or a meal.
And just to get to know them beyond the experience in their resume and their interview experience, but also depending on the role, if it’s an eCommerce role, I’d love them to pull up the site and just comment on the site and comment on what they’re seeing and comment on the user experience and comment on where they’d make changes.
Or if it’s a retail job, I’d walk the floor with them within a retail environment and say, you know, “Just love to get your thoughts and views on this particular retail store.” So trying to, throughout the process, depending on the seniority of role, create real-life examples where you can get to know the candidate through almost like a work experience exercise, I think can be invaluable.
Roy Notowitz: [00:21:22] Are there standard questions that you ask or things that you’re looking for in every candidate?
Chris McDonough: [00:21:26] Not really. I’m not necessarily programmed in terms of what I’m looking for. Again, a lot is predicated on the nature of the role, the scope of requirements of that role. Yes, you want ambition, you want drive, you want somebody that can be accountable. You want somebody that can certainly lead and shape teams.
But more and more, I do look for humility in a leader. And the ability to understand that leading is not through just the power of yourself, but it’s through the power of the team and having the humility to understand that the power of the team is greater than the power of the individual.
But also I often am intrigued by people expressing where they’ve learned from their mistakes. And when you ask people to, you just say, you know, “What have you learned from your mistakes?” In a non-judgemental way, you just want to understand trueness of learnings. You often find that people struggle to wrestle down their mistakes and often in an interview process they avoid declaring really big mistakes and they often just declare small ones where actually it’s the big ones you really learn from.
So humility and willingness and curiosity to learn from mistakes, I would definitely say are areas of interest for me.
Roy Notowitz: [00:22:39] So what you’re saying is that you’re looking for people to lose the veneer and keep it real.
Chris McDonough: [00:22:43] I think that’s, yeah, a really good way of looking at it, Roy. More and more, you’re looking for true authenticity in a person, realness in a person.
You want someone who’s just genuine and sincere. Clearly, you want the capability but I think there is something really powerful about honesty, candor, transparency, and authenticity that as true human values give us a greater indicator of how good and great a leader that individual will be.
Roy Notowitz: [00:23:13] So in summary, spending time with them in different settings, for example, having a meal, walking the floor, things like that, give you additional insights beyond the typical interview questions.
Chris McDonough: [00:23:23] I think so. I’d not thought about it until you kind of asked the question really, Roy, but there is something about almost experiential interviews and making sure that that, at certain levels, becomes more of a norm.
So, creating situations where you’re not just getting people to respond face-to-face, to, you know, a resume and literally documenting their resume, but you’re actually getting them to comment on real life situations in situ. I think you learn a lot more about individuals through that experiential concept.
Roy Notowitz: [00:23:59] In your role, you’re thinking about store of the future, supply chain, innovation, evolving customer behaviors. How do you think all of this will influence the future of hiring in retail and direct to consumer?
Chris McDonough: [00:24:11] As you just expressed there, we are in an ever-changing, really dynamic world. I think when you’re looking to recruit now, more and more, you’re looking for people who are really open-minded, great agile thinkers, conceptual thinkers, people who are really comfortable with change and ambiguity.
So there’s an element of, yes, there are skill sets, and yes, there’s experience. But, increasingly, you want thinkers who can bring clarity to change and clarity to ambiguity and are comfortable with it. You know, it’s in this, in this ever changing world, leaders need to accept that change is the new norm, and therefore be comfortable with change, but also being comfortable with leading the change into their teams and making sure that that becomes something that’s really acceptable and respected and appreciated.
Roy Notowitz: [00:25:10] So you’re in Maine and you’ve been at L.L.Bean for about three and a half years. Have you accomplished everything that you set out when you first arrived?
Chris McDonough: [00:25:18] I’m not sure in retail you ever really accomplish what we’d set out to accomplish unfortunately, you’ve just got to keep moving. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved as a business. I’m really proud of all the teams and the cross-functional partners I’ve had the pleasure of working with at L.L.Bean. It’s been a wonderfully open and welcoming culture and one that has really embraced some of those challenges of future change.
Roy Notowitz: [00:25:43] Are you working on any cool projects that you can share?
Chris McDonough: [00:25:46] Needless to say that a lot of the challenging dynamics in the fast-evolving world of retail, we are working really, really hard on, you know, whether that’s our customer strategy, our assortment strategy, our channel strategy through to future technology platforms. They all kind of keep us, keep us awake at night, but at the end of the day, keep us really interested in what we’re doing. That’s the important thing is you will never get bored in retail.
Personally, I’m really motivated by challenge and the dynamic nature of change. My endeavor through leading, you know, at L.L.Bean and leading the teams and working with my peers is how do we bring clarity and common purpose and common alignment to what is always going to be a change agenda, and that’s what motivates me and that’s what kind of keeps me ticking really.
Roy Notowitz: [00:26:34] Chris, thank you so much for sharing how you hire. It’s been a pleasure to get to know you and to have you as a guest on the podcast.
Chris McDonough: [00:26:41] Thanks Roy. It’s been an absolute delight to chat to you and hopefully we’ll keep connected.
Roy Notowitz: [00:26:47] Thanks for tuning in to How I Hire.
The pandemic has inevitably shifted hiring priorities for many companies. In the months ahead, I will interview guests with different expertise that will be helpful as you develop your talent strategy with the future in mind.
How I Hire is created by Noto Group Executive Search. We work with notable consumer brands in the athletic, outdoor, fashion, food/beverage, and natural product sectors. To learn more about Noto Group, visit NotoGroup.com or follow us on LinkedIn.
This podcast was produced by Anna McClain.
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