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The Velveteen Vendor – The Long View and Becoming Real

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About the Author:

Vicki Cantrell is a retail strategist, community builder, former COO and CIO in the retail industry, and is recognized for relationship building and accelerated growth. 

I recently had the great pleasure of meeting Indra Nooyi, the former Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. I listened to her answer questions in a fireside chat and in her recent interview at Fortune’s MPW International Summit. As I listened to her (which I could do all day), I understood why she has had such success, and why she is a rare breed of leader. Among many profound things she said, the one that resonated the most is, “All CEOs should run the company for the duration of the company, not the duration of the CEO. My success should be judged on how well my successor does, not just how well I did.”

In an era of instant gratification, where investors, boards of directors and customers are demanding meaningful short-term results, it is important to understand the long-term impact of your company and the opportunity for real growth.

Indra understands the long view and has tailored her results to deliver a controlled (and potentially lesser) short-term shareholder return, while continuing to invest in the hard work of effecting a long-term positive impact not just for her company but, even more, for society and the environment.

As a leader, if you are running the company for the duration of the company instead of your tenure, you need patience and the fortitude to think deeply about context, the root of any problem, and unintended consequences. It is human nature to react as quickly as possible, but reactions are based on insufficient information and, without careful consideration, often miss the most important aspects.

One of my favorite children’s books is The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams.  The story is a beautiful metaphor for the value of authenticity and vulnerability. While it is sad to see the rabbit discarded after being so open to the love of the boy, it is a poignant example of how our flaws and imperfections are transformed when integrated and fully accepted. When we allow ourselves to understand, and our challenges to be understood, we become “real” through our openness. “Does it happen all at once… or bit by bit?” As in any relationship, becoming real takes a long time and often “doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.”

How can we as an industry build and strengthen long-term relationships – become more “real” – with truth, transparency and trust at the core? 

Short-term thinking is rampant in the retail industry, and hard to avoid because the customer expectations are changing so rapidly, but there are many examples of the long view paying off for business and customer relationships. Mutual respect, and shared vision and values are the foundation, and then strengthened through empathy. 

Two kinds of empathy are key to building real relationships and creating change. The first, “cognitive empathy,” is “empathy by thought,” rather than by feeling, and is developed through understanding the challenges on both sides. From the heritage of relationships that are rooted in “buyer/seller” (sometimes with an air of master/slave), change isn’t easy because it requires vulnerability and trust, of the person, and how the shared information will be used. 

The second is “compassionate empathy.” Everyone’s a stakeholder in this change. Solution providers and retailers each have a responsibility to be good partners, transparent, forthcoming about their needs, and to demonstrate a willingness to change. When the relationships are rooted in trust, “compassionate empathy” can happen, which is “feeling someone’s pain,” and acting accordingly.

So, Velveteen Vendors, are you ready to look in the mirror? It starts with who you are as a person. Your products and services are important but relationships are not formed on what you have, they are based on who you are.

Transformation is the top issue in our industry, and long-term foundational thinking will help navigate the continuing change. We are stronger together and every day see new pairings and partnerships in service to a more holistic experience for the end consumer, and all boats rise.

I have worked in every part of this industry and am not naïve to the difficulty of altering how business gets done. The adoption of new business models to build long-term empathetic relationships, may negatively influence the transactional bottom line in the short term.

One of my favorite prayers says, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. While it may seem that we must accept the business relationships the way they are, I prefer having the courage to make it better for this great industry, and so should you. 

The Vendors in Partnership (VIP) Awards are an industry celebration for the solution providers that are powering the retail ecosystem. In addition to celebrating great solutions, the companies that are recognized are those that are willing to make changes that are meaningful in creating a better partnership with the retailers, increasing the success of all. 

Join me, and be recognized for being brave, innovative, supportive. “Real” lasts a lifetime.

For more information and to enter, go to https://vendorawards.com/.

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