Anyone who has faced job loss will tell you it can be scary, demoralizing, and confusing, raising questions like, “What do I do now?”... “How do I bounce back?”... and even, “Will I bounce back?” Unfortunately, this is what many people are experiencing now as a result of COVID-19.
On this episode, we bring you a story of resilience... and success. Leah Swan has had her job eliminated as her employer shut down. She’s had new jobs that weren’t what she expected. She’s had roles that she loved suddenly change because of changes in company direction.
Each time, she bounced back, not by accident but by design. By learning from her experiences and making strategic moves, she grew her career and moved into senior level positions, including her most recent role as Chief Administrative Officer of The Children’s Place.
Leah’s story is filled with insights, advice and tangible actions that can inspire anyone that needs to – or wants to – make a career move.
Leah Swan is the Chief Administrative Officer for The Children’s Place, which is the largest pure-play specialty retailer of children’s apparel and accessories in North America. She joined The Children’s Place in 2016 and has continuously expanded her role in the company, currently leading the Human Resources, Information Technology, Legal, Enterprise Transformation and Enterprise Risk functions.
Leah has worked in the retail industry for over 25 years, holding senior roles at Ross Stores and Gap Inc., and earlier in her career working for Williams Sonoma and The Walt Disney Company.
Leah is originally from Australia where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Canberra. She has resided in the US for the past 20 years and has travelled extensively, managing global teams throughout her career.
Beth Davies, host: Welcome to Career Curves where we talk to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got where they are. I'm your host Beth Davies.
I just Googled "most stressful life events" and "job loss" made the top 10 of every list I looked at and even held a top 5 spot on some of these lists. Today, while we're in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a new reality for many people. Anyone who has faced job loss will tell you it can be scary, demoralizing, and confusing raising questions like, "What do I do now?," "How do I bounce back?," and even, "Will I bounce back?"
On this episode of Career Curves, we bring you a story of resilience and success. Leah Swan has had her job eliminated as her employer shut down. She's had new jobs that weren't what she expected. She's had roles that she loved suddenly change because of changes in company direction.
Each time she bounced back, not by accident, but by design. By learning from her experiences and making strategic moves, she grew her career and moved into senior level positions, including her most recent role as Chief Administrative Officer of The Children's Place.
Leah's story is filled with insights, advice, and tangible actions that can inspire anyone that needs to or wants to make a career move.
Before we start the episode, I want to give a bit of context. Leah has spent her career in retail, which has been especially hard hit by shutdown orders across the world. Because the interview was done just before the pandemic began, I didn't ask any questions about how the crisis has affected the industry, her company, her team, or her personally.
And now here's my interview with Leah.
Leah, it's wonderful to have you.
Leah Swan, guest: Thanks for having me, Beth. I appreciate it.
Beth: To get us started, I'd actually like to better understand what it is that you're doing today. We're pretty familiar with titles like CEO or COO, chief operating officer, chief financial officer. But, what does it mean to be a Chief Administrative Officer.
Leah: Sure. So, I think there's three key pillars to the CAO role, as I would call it. So, the first really is driving business transformation through technology and talent. The second core area of work is managing and mitigating enterprise risk. And then the last pillar really is enterprise governance, including board and committee operations here for the company.
Beth: So if I were following you around for a couple of days, what would be some of the main things that I would see in terms of how you spend your time?
Leah: I have multiple teams that roll up to me – I have the HR function, I have the IT team, I have the Legal team – so, I have lots of different teams. If you followed me around, I think what you'd really see is me spending a lot of time in meetings, working cross-functionally with teams. My role really is to both organize the work for success as well as to then identify, in the moment, as we're doing work, if there are any roadblocks, if there are any risks, to connect the dots across teams, and then to determine the path for resolution and get decisions made as swiftly as possible.
Beth: I'd love to understand how you got here and even going all the way back. I'd love to meet Leah as a young girl in Australia, o tell me about your childhood and your family. Take me there.
Leah: I grew up in a pretty traditional household where women were meant to have families – to get married and have families – and not really pursue careers. In many ways, me pursuing a career, I guess, is my form of rebellion in my family.
Beth: How did you get that message that you weren't supposed to follow a career?
Leah: Pretty directly. I am the first woman in my family to go to university. I have an older brother, he's the eldest of this generation of children, and I had two cousins who were boys before me. So there were three boys before me who absolutely were expected to go to university and pursue careers, but that just wasn't a message I got, so I was constantly trying to prove everybody wrong.
Beth: How did you get your family's support for going to college?
Leah: I think that I didn't really give them an option, honestly, because I had had an older brother before me who had already gone off. He's almost six years older than me, and he had gone to university and had already pursued a career. He'd already done these things. I kept looking at him thinking, "Well, of course, I would do that. If he's done that, I would of course do those things." So, even though it wasn't necessarily something that was in my parent's head that I would do, I already had a role model for that and it was obvious to me that that is what I would do as well.
Beth: As you were planning to go to college, did you have in mind a major from the get go?
Leah: I did. So I wanted to be a lawyer, but by this stage, as I'm planning to go to university and it's becoming quite real for my family, their input was that that wasn't a particularly lady-like professional or great for a woman to pursue. And so as we made the decision, I ended up selecting to do a Bachelor of Arts in tourism.
Beth: Was that because tourism has a hospitality side and, therefore, feels more suited to your gender?
Leah: I think partly that was the case. I also think at the time that – this is the early nineties – tourism was really taking off in Australia and if you have to get a job, what's an industry that you could get a job in? That was part of the thinking as well.
Beth: So that practical piece. While you were in college, did you have any jobs? Were you working during that time?
Leah: I was working during that time. To put myself through school, I had to get a job. That was just a requirement of paying my bills and being able to actually live and study. So, I got a job in retail to put myself through school and I worked for a company called Brashs, and I applied as a "Christmas casual". Back in the day, that was my first job.
And after Christmas, they asked me to stay on as an "ongoing casual" and I would work four days a week. So I would work the Thursday night shift, Friday nine til nine, Saturday and Sunday, and I would go to school Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during the day before I went for my night shift.
Beth: So here it is now... What is it 30 years later?
Leah: Well, thanks for counting.
Beth: I'm sorry about that.
You're still in retail. Did you have any idea back then that you would still be in retail?
Leah: I am surprised to still be in retail in some ways. My parents owned a supermarket, a small grocery store, when I was growing up. So I started working in a shop with the age of like 13, but I had always seen that, as I said, as a means to then finding my career.
When I then looked for a job and ended up starting my HR career in retail, it was kind of a happy accident because when I look at HR, I think that it really is a balance between driving business results, and employee advocacy, and managing legal risk and compliance. But you can't know how to balance that if you don't know how to drive business results and you can't drive business results if you don't understand the business.
So when I was starting my career, I didn't have practical experience in HR. I had theoretical experience because I had studied HR as part of my Bachelor of Arts degree, but I didn't have that practical experience. But I already had some practical business experience. So I knew the customer, I knew what it was like to be an employee, I understood the product, I understood the operations of a store. It's something I have taken all the way through my career: maintaining that understanding of the business even as I've gotten more skilled in my actual HR profession.
Beth: How did you make the jump from being in the stores to moving to the corporate offices, because I think a lot of people join retail organizations wondering if they can ultimately get into corporate. How did you do it?
Leah: I found the job advertised in the newspaper.
Beth: So even though you were working at the company, that didn't give you an inside track?
Leah: It did not in terms of identifying the job. The good news was once I did locate the job in the newspaper, I went and had a discussion with my store manager because I was looking about whether I should pursue a marketing career or human resources career.
I'd looked at different opportunities and I had a few jobs picked out that I wanted to apply for and I was like, "Oh look, here's this HR job at a company that I already know and I've already worked with." In some ways, being young and brash, I didn't think that was very sexy. I'm like, "Oh, it's this retail company, and I already know them, and I've already worked with them and it would be sexier to go for a bigger, more corporate company or go do something else."
But I had a great store manager and she was really fantastic about reminding me that everybody has to start somewhere in their career, and that, in fact, it would be a great foundation to have the experience that I had had in retail. So she made sure that my resume got looked at. She picked up the phone, called headquarters and told them that I existed and that I was applying for the job. That at least got their eyes on my resume, which was a really great gift.
Beth: That's phenomenal, just to have that sort of advocate. A lot gets talked about with mentors, but to have somebody like that who really is going to be an advocate for us is oftentimes also really quite important.
So you get into the HR role at corporate and what did you then discover in that role that had you say, "All right, I think I'm comfortable with this one and I'm not looking at marketing or other types of roles"?
Leah: I was very lucky. I feel like I was one of the very few people who start their career out of college and find what they love right off the bat, because I knew really quickly once I started my HR career, that is what I wanted to do. Even though my first role was very much an administrative role, people would send their resumes in in the mail, then you'd have to open it, read it, screen it, and then respond. I was responsible for sending back letters saying, "Thanks for your application and you'll get an interview" or "Thanks for your application. We'll keep your resume on file."
So it was a very manual administrative role, but what really attracted me was I got exposure as I was supporting the entire HR team to different aspects. So looking at learning and development. Looking at employee relations. Looking at recruiting. Working with the compensation and payroll teams. And so I could see all of these different aspects of HR that all required slightly different skills. You could find people who were very well rounded, but there were also very unique aspects. So it felt to me like there was a lot to learn and a lot of different ways you could influence the business.
Beth: As you're learning about these different aspects of HR, here did you decide you wanted to pursue and how did you make that happen?
Leah: I probably started off a little more on the recruiting side, but part of the joy of starting my career in Australia is that businesses in Australia are a lot smaller than they are here in the U.S. and so by necessity you end up having to do a bit of everything. It isn't quite as specialized there where you start in a specific category like learning and development or recruiting. I think in the U.S. sometimes it's harder to make the leap into other aspects of HR if you haven't had that experience yet, but the first five years of my career I really did do a bit of everything. I would design training programs and do stand up delivery, go out and do recruiting campaigns, became responsible for employee relations, worked on compensation practices.
It was actually quite hard for me when I came to the U.S. to go into a model where there were so many different people doing things because I was used to doing it all myself. So, in some ways it was a great foundation of building my career, although a challenge later on down the track when I moved to the U.S.
Beth: So you're at Brashs, you're getting a range of HR type experiences, setting a great foundation for yourself. And yet, after a couple of years, you ended up leaving. Why did you decide to leave Brashs?
Leah: This was a really interesting experience in my career. About a year before I left the company, the company was acquired by a Japanese firm and they installed a Japanese management team, which was really interesting, but very challenging, because the Japanese management team didn't speak a word of English and had never operated a business in Australia, and the existing team didn't speak a word of Japanese. We literally started running the company through meetings run by interpreters.
That was the beginning of the end for the company. The company had been acquired because it was already in financial trouble, but the acquisition only accelerated its demise and the company did go bankrupt.
I had left the company just before it went bankrupt. I joined a small consulting firm and the head of HR left the company to move on to another opportunity. KPMG were appointed the administrators and they then asked me to come back and work with them for a period of about seven months to really wind up all the operations. That involved selling off parts of the company and then shutting down parts of the company and really taking the company all the way through the administration process.
Beth: What was this period like for you emotionally? Here's this company that you grew up in, cut your teeth in, and now you're watching it go to dust essentially and to shut down. How was that for you?
Leah: I have to say it was emotionally tough because these were all people I knew and, as I said, a company that I had really grown up in. At the same time, I realized very quickly that I was there as a consultant. There are a lot of people who had worked there for a long time and they were losing their jobs and hadn't thought yet about what the next thing would be for them. My role was to support them. I really had to to be stoic and strong and have a lot of empathy for what they were going through and then also be very efficient. Again, the company was in administration and that meant we had to wind things up quickly. So it was a real balancing act between really getting that work done with empathy.
I was very young at the time. So while it was a tough experience, I was looking around thinking, "Wow, I'm in charge of all of this work and I'm like 23 years old." It was one of those unique opportunities, as hard as it was, to get experience that most people only get later on in their careers. So I was grateful for the career experience.
Beth: As the winding down of that business is coming to an end, what plans were you then making for yourself?
Leah: So, I knew I didn't want to stay in a consulting role.
Beth: Why was that?
Leah: The consulting role had worked for me, partly because I'd gone back in house to consult with a company I already knew and worked for. But before I'd taken on that assignment, I had done a couple of other small assignments just before that. And quite frankly, I'll just be candid: I'm a control freak. Consulting didn't work well for me because no matter how well I set up the work or how hard I worked to deliver an outcome, I didn't see it all the way through. It was something that you had to hand off to somebody else and then it was up to them, to some degree, whether they did or didn't take your recommendation. And I didn't like that. I just didn't like that. That really wasn't for me.
So I knew I wanted to go back in-house, where I could both craft a strategy but then be responsible for actually operationalizing and delivering the strategy.
Beth: Again, a great opportunity with that job, just to even learn that about yourself at that age.
And so where did you go?
Leah: I ended up going to work for the Disney Stores in Australia at the time. They were just entering into Australia. They had a consumer products division and theatrical events, but they were just opening stores.
I was attracted to Disney because one, it was growth. I had just come off laying everybody off and shutting down a business. Having done both in my career – shutting down businesses and growing businesses – growing businesses were a lot more fun. So I was really attracted by that element of growing a business.
And then also to join a global company. I really felt like I'd worked for a very local Australian company. I'd gotten a little bit of exposure by working with that Japanese management team, but I was really curious to work for a company that had global operations and operated on a global scale. So, that's what led me to join the Disney stores in Australia.
Beth: And then, how did that experience help you grow in your career?
Leah: Wow. Joining Disney really changed my life, I have to say.
I started off in Australia. I had a very small team. I was supporting the Disney Stores initially and then I ended up picking up responsibility for the consumer products division and providing HR support there.
But, about a year into my tenure with Disney, I got invited to attend a leadership development program in the United States. That was my first ever trip to the U.S. I had said to my managing director, "Look, if I'm going to go all of that way, I really should just stay a few extra days, and try to network with as many HR people as I can, and figure out what they're doing and if there are any best practices with tools that we could adopt here in Australia, because I only have three people and there seems to be a whole army of HR people in the U.S. So why don't I figure out what they're doing and then maybe that could accelerate things for us."
Leah: So I did that. Stayed on after that program and plopped myself on a bunch of people's calendars. That's really what led me to meet a bunch of different people. One person in particular who then offered me an opportunity to move to the U.S. down the track. So very life changing experience.
Beth: Tell me about that change. So you've got a boss who says, "Yes, you can do some networking," and now you're basically able to say to that boss, "Oh, by the way, that networking led me to get plucked out of your team." They may not have been too favorable about that message. I'm curious how you managed that with your manager and then also with your family.
Leah: It took a little bit of time. When I came back from that trip, one of the people I did meet – I said I met a bunch of people – but one of the people I met was the director of HR who supported HR. So HR for HR. She was really instrumental. She said to me after meeting, "You seem really interesting. Would you ever move to the U.S?" And I was like, "Sure," thinking she was just being polite. But then she did keep in touch. So, after I went back to Australia, every six weeks or so, she'd pick up the phone and say, "Hey, how you doing?" "What are you working on? Are you still interested in a job?"
Beth: Oh, so, it wasn't right away?
Leah: Nope. It was really five months after that trip that she picked up the phone and said, "Hey, how you doing? Are you still interested in a job?" And I said, "Sure," and she said, "Great, we've got an opening on the team. Can you fly across next week to interview?"
So it took a little bit of time. While it was a concept, it didn't materialize for a while. And then when it did come up, I think from a workplace perspective, my managing director and the team around me loved the idea of me going to the U.S. because like, "Great! What else can you find out over there and what can you share with us to help our business succeed?" Having somebody on the inside, as they would call it, in the headquarters operation, seemed like a great thing from their perspective. So I think they were super supportive when I went to interview for the role.
But I did have to interview for the role. I got on a plane, I flew across, and I went through two full days of back-to-back interviews. Then, at the end of day two, they handed me a job offer.
Beth: What about your parents, your family. How did you message this to them?
Leah: Yeah, that was a little more challenging.
When I got the job offer at the end of day two, it was a one way ticket. So it wasn't an expat assignment or anything. It was a local hire. But, I was young and naive, which is, I think, the best state to be in when you move to another country. Sometimes it's better not to know everything that you're going to have to deal with.
I went home and I said to my family, "This will be invaluable experience. This company is willing to move me around the world. It'll give me great experience that I'll be able to leverage for the rest of my life and I'll be gone for a couple of years." So, apparently, I got away with it by lying because we're now 20 years later and I haven't gone home yet.
Beth: That's right. You're still across the table from me. So you're still here.
Leah: I know. Sorry Mum!
Beth: Were they still putting any pressure on you to be valuing something other than career?
Leah: Yes, for a long time in my life, but I've always kind of marched to my own drum, is the way I would would say it. I just never listened. I would just forge my own path. It's like, "Here's a great opportunity. I'm going to go do this," and they'd be like, "Oh, okay. There she goes again."
Beth: So you come to the U.S. with Disney. Tell me about where that now took your HR career.
Leah: In Australia, I had worked with the Disney Stores and we were growing the business, opening stores.
Beth: Very much a startup.
Leah: Very much startup. And then, I came to the U.S. and I think I was so focused on moving to the U.S. that I didn't ask enough questions about the business. When I got to the U.S. and I started working, I realized very quickly that the U.S. business was in trouble and very quickly got into restructuring and doing rounds of layoffs and really trying to re-look at the business operations.
It was a tough time in terms of having just moved to the U.S. Really hard to find my feet in Los Angeles and find my way around things and to set up my life, while being in a company that wasn't in a stable and winning position at that point in time.
Now, it was part of a much bigger, global company and it wasn't like Disney – the entire Disney company – was going to go bankrupt, but...
Beth: Right. That was really about the stores part.
Leah: It was really about the stores part.
Beth: You mentioned that you wish you had asked a few more questions. Do you think that there are a couple of power questions you could have asked that would have uncovered that information that you didn't get?
Leah: I think I asked more questions about the type of work I would be doing and the people I would be working with, but not enough questions about what the transformation initiatives were for the company. What were the key priorities and goals that the company was focused on?
I certainly didn't ask any questions around what was the financial goals that were just achieved? What's the balance sheet looking like? Did the company just pay bonuses or not for the last fiscal year? Things that I would know now to ask, but at the time I didn't want to. I was like, "Oh yeah, they're moving me to the U.S." I don't think I wanted to upset the apple cart and I was probably too young and naive to actually think to ask some of those questions.
Beth: Should we be giving a permission slip to anybody who's listening who are anywhere in their career, including in their twenties, to be asking questions like that?
Leah: Absolutely. I think it's just smart. I interview a lot of people from college grads all the way through to senior executives, but part of what I'm looking for is people who have done their homework. I usually do interviews for an hour and a half. I like to really thoroughly get to know somebody, but partly as much as I want to ask them questions, I leave space for them to ask questions of me. I always tell them, "There's nothing that you can't ask. So whether it's about the company, the financials, the environment, the priorities." It's always really telling to me when somebody can't think of anything to ask versus when people come and they're like, "Yep, here's my list. So I was listening to an earnings call and I heard this. Can you explain more to me about that?" Those are things that I always look for and I absolutely encourage people to ask as many questions as they can.
Beth: So now, here you are at Disney and again, that business is not as strong as it should be. So what career moves did you decide to make at that time and why?
Leah: At that time, I had been in the U.S. about 18 months and I hated Los Angeles at the time. It was just really hard for me. I didn't know anybody there. Navigating, getting around on the freeways. Everything was so foreign to me and so difficult that I just wasn't happy there.
So, at 18 months I was thinking, "Well, I'd said a couple of years. Maybe it's time to go home." But at that time, the person who had been the EVP of merchandising for Disney became the president of Pottery Barn in San Francisco and she referred me. She was one of my clients who I had really respected. They called me and I thought, 'You know, maybe I haven't given this whole America thing a good go yet." So that was what led me to take a chance on moving to a different city and saying, "Well, before I just move back home to Australia, maybe I'll try something different and to join Pottery Barn Kids and move to San Francisco."
Beth: Tell me about your experience there. How did you learn and grow from that experience?
Leah: So again, in the funny cycle of life, I'd come off Disney where I'd been restructuring and then Pottery Barn Kids was brand new and was growing at the time. Opening lots of stores. Had catalog operations. Was really growing the online business. So that was really fun, really growing a business.
Beth: And had you asked the business questions?
Leah: I had. Funnily enough, I'd asked the business questions this time around, but I probably hadn't asked enough environmental questions.
Beth: What do you mean by that?
Leah: I was hired at the time when the company said they wanted to do an HR transformation, so they were growing Pottery Barn Kids as a business, but they were also saying, "Look, our HR function has really been run like a more traditional Personnel function," and they had hired me and a number of other people in from global companies and said, "You know what? We're ready. We're absolutely ready to transform the function and for it to become a more strategic function here at the company."
But that just turned out not to be true. They just weren't ready for that level of change.
Beth: Do you think they were not being truthful or do you think they just didn't know what they were asking for?
Leah: I think they just didn't know what they were asking for. I think sometimes you get into it, and... I've learned that several times in my career now, where companies think they know what they're looking for in terms of change and then you start to get into the change and they're like, "Oh, no. That's not what I thought it would be. Well that doesn't feel like I want it to feel like," and that's okay. Again, companies get to really choose what's right for them at any given point in time.
But, I had very specifically come on board bringing a skillset that was really about HR transformation, so I then had to make a decision pretty quickly of, "I'm not going to get to use that skillset that I brought here," but the business is growing and I had great leaders that I worked with. Can I do that and then park this other side of myself knowing that I'd have an opportunity to use it some way down the track?
Beth: And so that is what you decided to do? Park that side?
Leah: It is what I decided to do, partly strategically and partly through necessity. Like I had to work in retail through college out of necessity to earn money, when I joined Pottery Barn, I was on a visa. I was on an H1B visa and when you're on an H1B visa, you have to decide, "Do I make it work where I'm at? Do I find somebody else to sponsor me or do I go home?" There are your three options.
Having just moved to San Francisco at that time, it really didn't seem feasible to just go and find another job somewhere in San Francisco. It really felt like I had to get some experience behind me and then figure that out down the track.
Beth: So you parked that other side of you for three years. What allowed you to finally unpack that and make a next move?
Leah: So the Gap knocked on the door and it was at a time where the Gap had gone through a ton of change. They'd gone through a CEO change and the new CEO who had come in, had come from Disney. That person had brought other leaders in from their Disney network, and one of the people that they brought in joined Gap as the head of HR. It was somebody who I knew and somebody I had a lot of time and respect for. So, when the call came through, "Would I be interested in a role?", and again the company talked about wanting to transform at many levels.
Beth: What were the indications that you were getting that this time you could believe this idea that they were looking to transform HR?
Leah: I went through a ton of interviews to join the Gap, like lots and lots and lots, and I took my own advice at that time and I made pages and pages and pages of notes of questions. There was a set of questions that I had. I had different questions to ask different leaders that I met, but I had a core set of questions that I asked every single leader the same set of questions, because I wanted to see if everyone was on the same page. If they had consistent answers. If they had a core way of thinking about things.
Leah: That was a really good check and balance for me of what I heard from different people. Everyone was gracious enough to let me ask all my questions. We'd get to the end of the interview and then they'd be like, "Do you have any questions?", and I'd whip out my little book and I'd be like, "Yep, how long have you got?"
So everyone was great in giving me the time and I asked a ton of questions and surfaced a lot of consistency and anywhere where I saw that there were concerns or challenges, I would go back and say, "Hey, I heard this in this interview. Is that something I should be concerned about or is that an anomaly?" People were very honest in giving me their answers about what was going on, so that was super helpful.
Beth: You mentioned as well that both the Pottery Barn job and then this one came from some people that you had worked with before. Tell me what you take away from that about relationships.
Leah: Yeah, they're super important. I don't think I ever cultivated relationships with the belief or understanding that they would propel my career forward or create opportunities.
Beth: So you weren't being calculated about it?
Leah: No. You know, there are leaders that you gravitate to, and there's work that you do, and people that you work with in your career that as they move forward in their career, sometimes they'll think, "Wow, who do I want on this journey with me?" Or, "Who can help me on this journey?", because they've seen what you're capable of and seeing what you've done. Often then, they'll reach out and see if it's the right time in your life or your career to make a move and go with them.
I was just lucky enough at multiple points in my career that when those calls came and when people reached out, it was the right time for me to make a move.
Beth: So you make the move into the Gap and you did a long stint at the Gap. I think it was about...
Leah: 10 years.
Beth: About 10 years. How did you move within the company? I have a sneaky feeling you weren't in the same job the whole time, so I'd love to know more about now that you're inside one company, how did you navigate and build your career from inside one company?
Leah: I often joke that I took all the jobs that nobody else wanted to do. That's the way I think I built my career in the Gap. Many of the roles I took involved doing laps of the globe and living out of a suitcase for long periods of time. And there was a long period in my career as well where I was HR for HR. It's not something I would recommend that people do for a long period of time. I think doing HR for HR is a great development role, but it's like being a doctor for doctors. It's quite difficult to give advice to or challenge and manage a client group who thinks they're every bit as skilled at what's going on as you are.
Beth: But, luckily it was a large enough company then that after you were getting perhaps tired of it, you were able to make changes within the company. Is that true?
Leah: Yes, so I always looked for roles in the company that I thought gave me unique experience compared to my colleagues. I always look to build on things that I had done in the past or experiences that I had, but then also to take on new opportunities knowing that it would put me in a unique position in terms of the skills that I brought to the table.
So, I was always putting my hand up whenever I saw something in the company that I thought was really interesting and unique and had unique challenges associated with it. I was the first to put my hand up. Usually those roles required me to get in and fix some things and that's kind of my core skillset. It's really what I do. So, I would know it would be time to think about a new role to put my hand up when everything was running smoothly.
Beth: Interesting. Your core competency is when things are messy and broken.
Sometimes when you're raising your hand for those pieces that other people may not want to do, how did you convince people that you were right for those roles and that they should consider you?
Leah: I think often, as sad as it is, when I look back, these were great experiences. I rarely had competition for the roles. As I said, many of them involved doing a lot of travel and I found most of my colleagues at the time had family circumstances or other priorities or just weren't interested. They just didn't want to have to make the sacrifices involved in working across multiple time zones, and, as I said, getting on a plane every six or eight weeks and traveling to three or four countries and doing laps of the world. I was always prepared to do that.
Beth: You mentioned before that coming to the U.S., that first international assignment, part of what made it work was that you had the naiveté to make the international move. Now you're further along in your career and yet you're still making the international moves. What advice would you have for anybody who's considering international moves?
Leah: I think you have to be somebody who is curious and truly interested in other environments. You have to want to experience a lot of what's there. It saddens me sometimes when I see people take assignments and what they want to do is replicate the life they have here just in a different environment. And it's like, "Wow, you really missing out." Part of that growth and development is learning to adapt and learning to do new things and giving up things that you used to do a certain way. Now learning to do them in a different way.
So being adaptable and being curious, I think, are really foundational to taking an international assignment and being resilient because when you do make a move overseas, there are lots of little challenges. There can be big ones too, but there's lots of little, niggly things that come with making a move overseas.
Beth: Also, while you were at the Gap, in addition to the international moves, I believe you also were progressing in levels. How did you get seen and appreciated so that you could be moving up in levels?
Leah: I think that I always tried to do the job that I had, but I always put up my hand for any other projects or anything that was going on across the company that would give me visibility, would give me more experience, would position me to be able to do more. Luckily for me, one of the skillsets I have that's really propelled my career is I have this ability to look forward into the future, but then plan all the action steps and things that need to happen to get to an outcome. So, I think that was partly what helped. It let me get involved in lots of different things and as I would get involved in more things that would then naturally give me more experience that made me ready for the next level.
Beth: You've mentioned a number of times that you would raise your hand. That you'd raise your hand for the assignments. That you'd raise your hand for promotions.
Sometimes people are afraid to do that because they're worried they're going to alienate their peers. Was that ever on your mind and how did you manage through that and, as a result, what advice would you have for somebody who has that concern?
Leah: To be honest, that never really occurred for me. I think part of that's a cultural pace. Aussie's are really direct. We communicate a lot and it's one of those things where I'm not conflict adverse at all. Like if you want to have a conversation with me and it's good, bad, or indifferent, I'll be like, "Great. I'd rather just talk about it." So, I just assume that of everybody.
It took me a long time in America to realize that there were lots of people having conversations that I wasn't privy to that didn't like what I was doing, but I kind of just expected if somebody didn't like what I was doing, they would tell me about it and that would give me a chance to change or adapt to it. So it never really entered my thought process, honestly, to put those boundaries around myself or to be worried about what someone else was thinking. I just assumed that if they had a problem they'd come tell me about it.
It didn't always turn out to be true and there were some hard lessons along the way in my career, but I'm not sorry to have never lost that orientation.
Beth: I would say I'm probably somebody who has a bit of envy for not having that orientation, so I, too, am happy you didn't lose it.
So, you're moving up at the Gap and at some point it does come time to ultimately leave the Gap. Why did you leave and where did you go?
Leah: In my last year with the company, I moved to London. Was planning to be there for a two to three year assignment. I had worked with several leaders in the company before making that move on a plan to move the company from a regional architecture to a global brands model. It was really a wholesale change in the setup of the company.
I had moved to London on the premise of getting international ready to be able to put back together with the U.S. So, it had operated as separate countries. We put international back together looking to centralize and harmonize things, and get things into a place where you could move to that global brands model and put the U.S. and international back together.
We had told the Board it was going to take a couple of years to get ready to do that, but then we had a leadership change in the company and that all got accelerated really fast. I had only been in London for about three months when I got the call to say, "Hey, we're going to do this work now and you're going to be on the working team. You still have to do your day job, but be on the working team too." I spent the next five months doing the work of pulling apart the company structure and putting it back together.
I knew as soon as I started the work that I would eliminate my own job, but I trusted the company and I was really busy and I had a lot to do and I was traveling a ton. So I didn't really give myself a lot of thought, quite frankly, at the time. But once we got into the change and we got into the global brands model, while I appreciated very much that the company offered me an opportunity to stay with the company, it was going to be a move to New York and I had just moved so much and I had traveled so much at that point in time, I was honestly really tired. I just had a chance to step back and think, "You know what? I've had a great run here. It's been a great 10 years. I've really grown my career. I started as a director..."
I was a senior vice president at that point in time, but I felt like it was the right time to leave. I didn't know what I was going to do next, but I just felt like the right next challenge was somewhere out there for me and leaving the Gap was the right thing to do.
Beth: So you left without a next job lined up?
Leah: I did.
Beth: That's quite the leap of faith. How did you then manage that next transition? How much time did you give yourself and where did you find the clarity to make your next round of decisions?
Leah: I gave myself a lot of time. I think this is again the Aussie in me versus the American. (I'm now an American citizen, so I can say I'm an American, too.) I think what I see in American society is much more anxiety around what is that next job opportunity going to be. Even when you have a job. I see people reluctant to take a vacation or to take too much time off with the concern that someone will figure out if I'm gone, that they don't need me. I think that's quite sad quite frankly, but I see it a lot here in American businesses. When I left the Gap, I decided to take as much time as I needed to find the next opportunity.
I really planned and set out to take a year off, and I did. I took a year off. So when I finished with the Gap, the best thing I ever did was I got on a plane. Literally the day that I finished with the company, that night, I got on a plane and I went home to Australia and I spent some time with my family. After 10 years, there was a certain way of doing things. There were connections that I had. It was a big deal to leave and I had a lot of emotions tied up with it and I just had to clear my head.
Beth: You needed to re-ground yourself almost.
Beth: Get to a re-centering, which I'm not surprised included a stint going back home and visiting family and being with them.
Leah: It enabled me to clear my head and just really get reconnected with my life and refocus on my health and re-prioritize a whole lot of things. And then to take the time to think about what was next. And then, while I was there, is when I got the call for the opportunity at Ross and got into conversations with them.
Beth: What was it about that opportunity? Here you are after a year off and you were like, "Yes, this is the one that I've been waiting for?"
Leah: I had a very specific checklist about what I was looking for. The first was I was looking for a business that had opportunity. So growth opportunity. Retail's really tough these days. That narrows the field pretty significantly right off the bat.
The second thing I was looking for was a really results-driven culture. And then I was looking for an HR function that needed transformation. It's really what I do. I really get in and fix stuff. It checked all of those boxes.
The last box was the personal box, which was I wanted to stay in California. I had a home in San Francisco. It's where I really enjoyed being and all the opportunities I had looked at were in San Francisco. This role required me to relocate to New York. But eventually, as I got through all the conversations with leadership and management and really looked at the opportunity, I thought, "It really does check all the other boxes and you know, I've moved like 14 times. What's one more move."
Beth: And so that's what brought you to New York.
And so, you're at Ross and in what ways did that position help you grow? Where did that take you in your career?
Leah: At Gap, I had always been a divisional head of HR, running a part of the business, but not in charge of the entire business. The opportunity at Ross was the opportunity to work directly with the CEO, and that was one of the big attractions of the role and why I joined the company.
Beth: You were at Ross for just a few years and then went from Ross to where you are now at, at The Children's Place. What drew you to The Children's Place?
Leah: When I joined Ross, a little bit of a similar story to Pottery Barn Kids, I would say. Really went to lead an HR transformation from a more tactical function to a more strategic function, but during my tenure there, we went through a leadership change and the HR transformation just became de-prioritized.
That happens. Happens in businesses. As I said, that was important at the time they hired me and then somewhere along the way became less important and they eliminated my role.
So when I found myself in New York the week before Christmas when it was starting to snow here (and I hate snow; I really hate snow) I thought, "Well, you know, that move to New York, didn't quite work out the way that I had planned or had wanted," but I got on the plane and I went home to Australia because it was the middle of summer in Australia.
I thought, "It worked really well last time. I'll take a break, clear my head, and I don't have to hurry at this point in time. I'll figure out what I want to do next."
Beth: And how soon into this break did this opportunity at The Children's Place come up?
Leah: Really quickly. It was an interesting time of my life because one of the things I did when I became a VP for the first time, which is a long time ago now, I immediately got a financial planner and I worked with a financial planner on mapping out what my goals were and figuring out how I wanted to achieve them. I very quickly, at that point in time, realized that what I wanted to do was have the financial freedom to choose to work or to choose not to work as soon as I possibly could.
And so, when I left Ross, I found myself in the place for the first time in my life, where I had done all of the hard work and all of the saving over the years where I really could have made the choice not to work. I didn't have to go back to work if I didn't want to. So when I went home to Australia, it was like, "Okay, let me think about whether I want to work or not."
I turned my phone off because recruiters find you really fast. But when I turned my phone on to call the person who was looking after my apartment here in Hoboken, the phone rang and it turned out to be a recruiter calling for this job at The Children's Place. Initially I said, "Thanks for the call," very politely, "Not really interested. Going to take some time off."
But the recruiter was really smart enough to send me some information and to connect the dots. There was some leaders here who came from the Gap who knew me and I knew them, to keep me in dialogue, and to take little baby steps, one step after the other, and then to do a Skype interview. All of this while I was in Australia in a kind of non-threatening way that made it seem to me that I wasn't really interviewing for a job, when I really was.
Beth: "I'm just having conversations. I'm just learning more."
Leah: That's right. "I'm just learning more." But, one thing led to another and eventually I got on a plane and flew back here to interview with the leadership team at The Children's Place.
The Children's Place was attractive to me because that checklist that I had when I first moved to New York to join Ross was the same things I found here at The Children's Place. This company had really good growth potential, incredibly results-driven culture, had an HR function that needed transformation. And then at this point in time, I already lived here. I lived in Hoboken and the office is here in Secaucus, New Jersey, so it was 4.7 miles down the road. It was just fortuitous timing.
Beth: I love that you have this checklist and it's clearly a checklist born of experience and also personal reflection. I don't even know that there's a question in there. I just think it's a comment. I just really respect that you've been able to do that kind of reflection to even identify the types of opportunities that are right for you.
When you came in here at The Children's Place, was there talk already about this potentially growing to where it is today, with you also being the Chief Administrative Officer?
Leah: No, that wasn't on the cards. When I joined, as I said, it was just to really lead an HR transformation, but I really found very quickly that I had great sponsorship from our CEO here. She had really done a lot of work with the leadership team and sat down with them before hiring me and had made sure everybody was up for the journey. She'd said, "Look, if we hire this person, they're pretty serious about this. This is no joke and you have to be ready. There will be a lot of things that she does that you like and there'll be other things that she does that you don't like. So, are you signing up for it?"
She told me that story after I joined, but I really appreciated it.
Beth: What a wonderful message that she sent before you got here. Unbelievable.
Leah: Exactly. So, they signed up and it meant that everything went really fast here. I was able to restructure the HR function, go through an RFP process to introduce new technology here in the company. And within the first year and a half, we had reorganized everything essentially.
By the end of 2017, our CEO looked at me and said, "You know, this HR transformation seems to have gone really smoothly and really well. I know you haven't quite finished it yet, but you look like you're ready to do more. So, would you pick up enterprise transformation for the company?"
And so I said, "Sure."
Beth: Which is perfect because, you already said, once the transformation is done any way, your work is done. This was really perfect. "Before that can happen, let's get you onto the next curve."
Beth: Now as you move into the CAO role – the Chief Administrative Officer role – you picked up some areas of responsibility of the company that you hadn't led before. How did you get up to speed in these areas that you hadn't run before? Like you mentioned before, you're running now the IT function, Risk Management, these types of areas. How did you learn what you needed to know to run these functions?
Leah: I would clarify that I don't feel like I'm running the function. I have an amazing Chief Technology Officer here at the company who I work with and he really runs the IT function. What I do is help support him and his team. Not in technology; I don't ever pretend to be something I'm not. It's not like I'm some great technologist who can figure out what the latest and greatest software is. That's what he does and that's what that team does.
What I do offer the leaders who work with me is not only a lifetime of experience behind me in org design and change management, which is really a fundamental skill that can be applied to a lot of different functions, and a core skillset in organizing and prioritizing. So if you take that – org design, change management and the core skillset in organizing and prioritizing – I find I can add value to a lot of different things even if it's not my core area of content knowledge or capability. I'm just there to help people.
I think everybody knows when they work with me, I don't have any skin in the game other than to be helpful at this point in my career. It really is what drives me and so my goal is to help them be the most successful leaders they can be.
Beth: Fabulous. Any thoughts about what might be next for you and in your future?
Leah: I'm at a point in my career, as I said to you before, I'm lucky enough to have worked... I'm not lucky enough. I've really worked hard to position myself to be in a place where I choose to work and I choose to work here at The Children's Place because I still feel that I can make a difference in driving business results.
I'm at that wonderful point in my career where I'm helping nurture the next generation of talent and I'm helping other leaders fulfill their career aspirations. So as long as I can do that and I'm helpful to people, I will keep doing what I'm doing, and when no one needs me anymore, I will happily go sit on a beach somewhere and sip a nice cocktail.
Beth: Sounds lovely. Lovely.
I have just a few more questions for you. What would you say is the smartest career move you made, whether intentionally or accidentally?
Leah: I would say that moving to the U.S. really opened up a much bigger universe of businesses, opportunities and experiences, which really set up my career. So while to this day, it's still a hard trade off, being so far away from my family, I always promised myself that I would move home the moment that the cons outweighed the pros, but we're 20 years later and that moment hasn't quite happened yet. There's still pros and cons, but the pros have always outweigh those cons.
Beth: And what about the flip side? If you could have one do-over, what would it be and why?
Leah: Everything that I've experienced, both good and bad (and there has been both), has really led me to this place that I'm at right now. And I have to say I am incredibly happy and settled and fulfilled in both my personal life and professional life. So no do-overs. I wouldn't do any. Everything's led me to this moment.
Beth: What a nice place to be in, right? If you could go back in time and give one piece of career advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Leah: Oh, I would tell myself to be more thoughtful about what is my work to do and what is my problems to solve versus others. Particularly in HR, but even just as you take on greater leadership roles in your career, you really have to be thoughtful. Even though things might be assigned to you, they may not be yours to do. Or, you may identify a problem and you may want to help, but it may not be your problem to solve.
I had a tendency to take everything on and think that I had to solve everything and do it all, and I'm a little bit smarter about that now.
Beth: And how do you define success?
Leah: At this point in my life really it's about helping others fulfill their career aspirations. So as I said, for those that I work with directly, it's really by providing air cover and really helping them take on their roles as successfully as possible.
And then, on occasion, not particularly often, but on occasion, also I try and share obviously by doing things like this podcast and share my experience and thoughts as well.
Beth: I am so grateful to you for doing this podcast. I think it is a really important way for us to be able to help a lot of people in their careers to share these stories. So thank you so much for sharing yours. I really enjoyed hearing it.
Leah: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.