All Saints CEO William Kim on Creating a Culture of Humility

William Kim joined global fashion label All Saints at a pivotal moment in the label’s twenty-year history. The High Street brand had just been bailed out of financial trouble by investment firm Lion Capital. In the months that followed All Saints lost most of its executive team, including founder and chairman Kevin Stanford. Enter fashion veteran William Kim. Fresh from his post as Burberry’s senior vice president of retail and digital commerce, Kim is now at the helm of All Saints’ push to be a global, truly digital brand.

MISC: You’ve held leadership roles at Burberry and Gucci and now All Saints, where do you find your day-to-day inspiration to lead?

WK: As a leader, finding inspiration is never ending, as long as your vision is clear and you are constantly moving in the right direction. I don’t think any leader out there could ever be satisfied, but you need to have a desire to make inspiration a part of the daily routine, to figure it out and to make it better. There is a saying, sons learn to become men by watching the back of their father’s head. And the people that you work for and surround yourself with, they do the same thing. So in your twenties when you are working for various people, you don’t know that you are learning but there comes a point in time in your thirties when you reflect back and go,“Wow, I just mimicked some of the behaviors of the great leaders that I worked for,” and I think that’s the influence that great leadership has on people – it transforms them without them even knowing.

You’re not striving for that day where you’ll finally get to that perfect place, your work is an ongoing process.

Correct. I think in any culture, we are simply the custodians. I hope that 365 days a year for the next number of years I can leave the culture in a much better state than I inherited it. And at that point that culture becomes your legacy. The best thing you can do as a leader and a custodian of culture is to improve upon it. Change is inevitable, you can’t protect it.

You have a diverse team at All Saints – designers, administration, sales – how do you inspire a group of people with such different skill sets? 

You have to inspire yourself before you can inspire others. You can talk about inspiring others but unless you yourself are devoted to it, it doesn’t seem genuine. In terms of leading people, there is no book. I think this is where humanism has to reign; the flexibility and agility to read people and what is important to them is paramount. It’s not a switch you turn on, it’s a perpetual paradigm. You have to constantly and consistently think and talk about what good culture, good leadership and being a good human is. One of the most important things we ask everyone at All Saints to do is approach their careers with humility. If you’re humble, you are self-critical and if you are self-critical that means instead of waiting for your boss on an annual basis to tell you what and where you lack in ability, that onus is on you. We are trying to build a culture of humility even back to myself. I am not a perfect leader or a perfect human being, there are things that I am working on, and when you have a group of people who all believe in that system, the spirit of the culture changes dramatically.

What do you do to bring that message across?

In our industry, as in a lot of industries, we became report obsessive. You would be amazed at how different brands, different companies and different functions have so much of a focus on reporting. They forget that the whole name of the game is not to come to work to create a report but actually add value. We go out of our way to mitigate reports; we are also trying to do away with email distribution lists. Between creating PowerPoint presentations and working through all of the email distribution lists we believe there is a lot of non-value added work being done. Our goal is to create something that is a little bit different and be self critical, be very forward with bad news. We want to hear about it as soon as possible and when you need to present it, it can be in the form of a text, it could be a call, it doesn’t need to be a PowerPoint. It is easy to say you are trying to create a culture of empowerment, but I do think that the term empowerment is very analogous to the concept ‘value added,’ and we are trying to transition into a culture where people are held accountable, where we trust each other.

You have a background in both finance and digital, do these elements find their way into your work at All Saints?

Yes, of course, to not have digital be a part of your daily life would be a massive concern. Financial reality is something that, day in and day out, is a real part of decision making. We have to be very cognizant of financial commitments and very cognizant of not falling behind on the digital realm. That said, our goal is always to jump ahead and play in the future that is 2015, but those are real and practical factors that we evaluate as we do that.

Digital can be tricky, a constant struggle to stay up to date but also be pushing toward the future given that the technology is moving so quickly.

Absolutely. At All Saints the word ‘digital’ means we don’t want to be a fashion brand or even a great British brand that has an amazing digital strategy. The worlds which this company transcends are digital. The way we work, the organizational structure, the cross-functional dynamism we are trying to embed, the innovation in terms of reports, the innovation in terms of customer brand experience in store, we are really trying to be a digital brand that happens to have some stores rather than an analogue fashion brand that has a brilliant digital strategy.

This article appears in MISC Fall 2103, The Inspiration Issue 

the author

Andrea Hirsch

Andrea Hirsch is an innovation strategist with Idea Couture. Specializing in social media and digital strategy projects, Andrea is continuously striving to understand human interaction both online and in the ‘real’ world. She is based in Toronto, Canada.