Women in Leadership: Angela Ahrendts

Angela Ahrendts knows something that many of today’s business leaders don’t know, and that some don’t even really care about. It’s something she knows about herself. And, given her undeniable success as CEO at Burberry and the sheer expectation over what she is quietly doing as SVP of Retail at Apple, it’s something that has shaped her ideas, her visions, her actions, her teams, and her personal growth into not just a business leader, but a great business leader.

“I’m in the human business,” she says quite matter-of-factly. “I’m in the people business.”

It might be as simple as that. Rather than reading about the big new idea in the next business bestseller, this could be the Ultimate CEO’s Secret to Success: humans, people.

It would align with what seems to be this new age of consumer-, user-, patient-, and human-centricity, a principle Ahrendts has been practicing for years. it would align with the business world’s ongoing interest in design thinking, an approach that Ahrendts’ 50% left, 50% right brain has always gravitated towards. And it would align with calls for brands to engage in storytelling that connects and inspires people, a standard Ahrendts and Christopher Bailey set for the entire business world with Burberry’s domination of social media, the Burberry Acoustic program, and the company’s approach to using beautifully produced short films to communicate its meaning and message to both its customers and its employees.

These days, this alignment is all the rage in Harvard Business Review and on Linkedin. As they incessantly debate the merits of culture vs. strategy, C-suites around the world and their consultants are struggling to align or, perhaps more accurately, redesign some of the biggest and most complex corporations into becoming human-centric, design thinking storytelling organizations. Meanwhile, one of the few executives of the last decade that actually illustrated how a business of people for people could be so successful continues to pursue and participate in the one thing that so few brands, businesses, and business leaders subscribe to wholeheartedly: a bigger purpose.

“All I want to do is what I think I’ve been put on this planet to do: lead. I think my calling in life is to lead and to touch people. I didn’t know that until i turned 50 and certain things started falling into place.”

Burberry was the place where those things started falling into place. As the first American to lead the iconic luxury brand, Ahrendts joined Burberry at the age of 46, knowing full well the mess she was getting into thanks, in part, to an hours-long lunch with Bailey, where the two clearly articulated their vision of the brand’s challenges and its future. Over the years, reputation had waned, product had stagnated, operations was in trouble, licensing had run amok, and the 140 year old brand was showing its age, fatigue, and lack of relevance. To begin reviving and revising the brand, Ahrendts went in formulating a much-needed hard strategy and drawing on all of the knowledge of the rag trade she had amassed over the years at Liz Claiborne and Donna Karan. But the real secret to success, she knew, would be inspiring and leading her people.

At Burberry, we used what we had,” says Ahrendts, who left the company in 2014 to join Apple. “We had each other, we had high energy, and we had to use that to attract people to a company that wasn’t that cool. That energy was an instinct. And we used that instinct to drive the success of the company.

For Ahrendts, energy is emotional. in her TEDx talk, “The Power of Human Energy,” she talks about it as a kind of charge between people that inspires them towards great action and ultimately has the power to unite and transform companies. But it’s not enough on its own. Like she is giving away another Ultimate CEO’s Secret to Success for free, Ahrendts talks about intuition almost as much as she does about energy.

“I prefer to follow the signs of life,” she says, noting how she was well schooled in such signs by her spiritual mother and philosopher father while growing up in Indiana. “If I stay in that zone and follow the yellow brick road, I see the signs. They are so clear. When they are that clear and you follow them and there are more and more of them along the way, they lead you where you want and need to go. That’s the instinct. We are given the most amazing instincts – animal instincts – but I think they are taken away from us over our whole life and locked up.”

As a leader, one of Ahrendts’ goals is to unlock this energy in the people she works with. Whether at Burberry or Apple, where she assembles her teams based on a candidate’s balance between IQ and EQ, it’s how she taps into what really inspires her executives and employees: confidence, empowerment, and the deep trust that is cultivated between people when they know that their ideas and initiatives are highly valued and, if necessary to learn and move on, can fail. To do that, Ahrendts has had to not only know her employees but also know herself.

I know who I am and I know what kind of a leader I am. I am in my comfort zone with my team and I let it all out, because the more open, present, and transparent I am, the more they feed off of my energy.

In seeking to unlock the energy within and to establish a human connection with her teams, Ahrendts isn’t your typical corporate mogul. She is friendly. She is supportive. She is accessible. She is truly inspiring. And her ego is low, very low. She rarely talks at business events and, when asked to join hundreds of company boards during her time at Burberry and beyond, she refused them all for one simple reason.

“As a leader, my filter became: can you touch people? Will they feel you? And will it help make them better if they do? if I can’t touch people, I’m not interested.”

Obviously, Ahrendts thinks way beyond the bottom line. Or, perhaps, she has discovered the true bottom line of business. It’s an approach that more executives could use to align and improve the performance of their organizations. It’s an approach that could similarly align and improve the performance of executives across those organizations. Without Ahrendts’ requisite balance between EQ and IQ, the spiritual mother, the philosopher father, and those childhood memories of flipping through copies of Women’s Wear Daily in Indiana, few business leaders will ever understand the secret to her human, people business. And even fewer of them will be able to answer the one question that keeps Angela Ahrendts going: “How does a great leader gather a lot of great followers to do great things?”

the author

Dr. Morgan Gerard

Dr. Morgan Gerard is the former chief resident storyteller at Idea Couture.