Bill Colombo, Dick’s Sporting Goods Vice Chairman of the Board, Former President & COO
Lisa: Throughout all your years at Dick’s, and with all the incredible growth the company experienced, what did you personally need to do to scale to meet the increasing demands of your role as a leader?
Bill: In the beginning, with just a few stores, leaders did everything. Everyone at every level did whatever was necessary for the customer and for the business. When we opened a store, we all contributed by opening boxes and stocking shelves. This bonded us in a way that was special. But as we grew, it was necessary to scale, stop doing, start training, and begin leading. As leaders, we needed to step up our game and develop the skills to lead larger and larger teams across a broader footprint.
There was a time when we could not get appointments with vendors because we were too small. But we were patient and thought “someday you’ll want to meet with us”. We worked hard and got there.
The transition to a public company required even more scaling, new skills, and better communication to keep our shareholders informed and happy. This added a whole new level of demand on leadership and it was necessary to balance the needs of the customers, employees, and shareholders.
Lisa: What do you consider your greatest accomplishments and what legacy do you hope to leave based on your time, contribution, and dedication to the growth and success of Dick’s Sporting Goods?
Bill: I just had the opportunity to go back to my college, St. John Fisher in Rochester, NY. The president of the college invited me to speak with some students. I told them, as you are getting ready to go out into the world and work, you are capable of so much more than you think you are. You just need to believe in yourself and try. Don’t be afraid of failing, because failing is really just learning. So, go out there and do it and you’ll succeed.
As far as a legacy, I hope that I helped other people see what they are capable of and truly believe in themselves. Then, maybe they will take that forward and do that for other people as well. I hope the associates that I had the opportunity to work with, can reflect on those experiences and feel proud of what they accomplished. I hope they say “Wow, I didn’t think I could do that”
Lisa: Was the culture a factor for your success, and if so, how?
Bill: Definitely. I’ve always felt the team environment works best. When we only had a few stores, we didn’t mind being the underdogs. In fact, we all loved it. The way we all worked hard and competed as a team was energizing. We had a lot of people to prove wrong, and we did.
In a team environment, you have the opportunity to develop people to work hard toward common goals. It’s important to understand that everybody on the team is different. They bring different skills and each role is important. If you really listen to your people to truly understand what motivates them, and then you do it, then you can really create something special.
Lisa: In your opinion, what matters most in leadership? When did you find that you had the greatest success with those around you?
Bill: I developed my leadership style from my leaders and mentors. I never thought that I could do as much as I did. When I started my career at JC Penney, then also in my career at Dick’s, I had mentors that pulled me along. They helped me believe that I could do things I didn’t think I could. They were encouraging along the way. It felt great! I thought, that’s how I want to be as I lead more and more people.
When I did become a leader, I modeled the principles I learned. I realized that I could give some people rope and let them run. Others had to be managed more closely until they gained the necessary skills. Then, there were some that were very talented, who didn’t know it, and my job as their leader was to convince them they had the talent and the smarts. Confidence is what we needed to develop. I think the biggest opportunity as a leader is to get your team comfortable with stretching, failing, and learning. If leaders can do that, then anything is possible.
I believe these are timeless principles, even today with the ever-changing retail landscape. The importance of team building and motivating your people hasn’t’ changed. I think leadership styles need to flex. It used to be “carrot or stick”. I found “carrot” worked best for me and my style and I think that is still effective today. I think open-mindedness is also critically important. I think people need to be willing to take a risk, and when they fail, they need to learn from it, get back up and keep going. Some people get paralyzed by failure. They meltdown if they make a mistake, I’d say “Hallelujah, how do we fix it and what did you learn?”