Throughout the 80s and 90s, pop-star Madonna was the undisputed master of continually reinventing herself. To the passive observer, her ability to adapt and change just ahead of her popularity waning likely seemed lucky and unchoreographed. However, if analyzed, it's amazing to observe how just as one trend was hitting the downside of the bell curve, there was Madonna out front with a new persona, a new look and garnering another dose of media attention. And remember, this was all pre-internet. Eventually, her ability to set trends became unrivaled. Is it possible this was all by chance? Of course not. Whether she had many people looking out across the landscape, gauging trend barometers and anticipating when the bright light of her current persona might start fading, or if her own keen insight kept her on top so long, it's undeniable Madonna mastered the ability to seemingly change overnight to stay ahead of the curve.
I’d like to suggest you consider adopting Madonna’s approach to extend a long life to your own retail career. How can you do this? Let’s compare Madonna’s pop-star career to your retail career and take a few notes from her.
Be Open to Change
Madonna’s early persona was derived from the Like a Virgin single and tour, which earned her millions. Within a span of a few years, Madonna morphed into looks based on Material Girl and Papa Don’t Preach. Amassing a collection of numerous gold records quickly, she was a transformational phenomenon. Wasn’t that enough? It surely must have been comfortable and easy to perform these highly identifiable routines over and over. However, Madonna knew it would have been a sure ticket to extinction as the many copy-cats began prowling. So what can we learn from this? You must develop the wisdom and instinct to take notice of societal cues and act upon them. Be adaptable and embrace change. Of course it's uncomfortable, and it even takes extra effort, but your value to the organization will remain relevant and needed.
Learn the New Language
Madonna was famous for causing a stir by redrawing conventional boundaries with her music lyrics. Not only did she embrace it, often she was the one pushing the limits of both music and fashion. Just like her musical artist competitor peers, if you don't self-teach yourself the meaning of words and context that a younger generation is already comfortable with, you risk becoming labeled a dinosaur, and soon you'll find you're excluded from the relevant conversations for lack of comprehension. The good news is you have powerful tools such as Google right at your fingertips. When you hear a word, phrase or acronym that's unfamiliar, look it up and thoroughly comprehend the context.
Be Ready to Re-Earn Respect and Authority
Each time Madonna redefined her image to fit the times and evolve along her personal journey, she had to be prepared for the critics and naysayers. While she had already earned millions of dollars and respect for her previous work, her continual reinvention often placed her back at the beginning, inviting scrutiny and judgment. Over the course of your 15-year to 20-year career, you may have molded yourself into an expert and authority in traditionally valued disciplines such as product sourcing or buying, fulfillment or forecasting. Unfortunately, current best practices for many of these functions have benefitted from technology and platform development that renders the old way of doing things mostly obsolete. You must seek ways to engage in the new technologies and learn them alongside those you lead so that you retain their confidence in your knowledge base. In the first five years to 10 years when email became popular in business, did you ever have a boss or senior leader who was resistant to learning it, still having an admin print every correspondence? If so, recall how you really felt about this individual’s behavior and the message that it sent.
Continually Assess the Competition
During the many years Madonna dominated the pop culture music scene, she often was the trendsetter. Even still, there was always competition, and those who copied her posed a threat to her top position. Since they were all competing for the same fans and revenue, it was in Madonna's best interest to remain vigilant and acutely aware of her competition. While you may currently garner the most favor in the boardroom, there will always be newcomers on the scene with fresh ideas and high energy. Rather than ignoring this fact, it's far better to continually be aware, ensure your skill set continues to evolve and always invest in personal development.
Think Young, Hang Out With the Young
In the busyness of work, we may begin fading into the background without even realizing it. If you've chosen to do the above suggestions, you'll be well on your way to remaining relevant in your field. If your goal is to have a long career and retire in the timing of your life plan, you're the one who must take control and manage the outcome. It's critical to not isolate yourself with only those who think and act like you do. Far more value will come from exposing yourself to diverse ideas and young thinkers. Your goal should be to challenge your thinking and perspective, developing an awareness of how others think and work.
Linda Mihalick is the senior director of the Global Digital Retailing Research Center at the University of North Texas.