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Antonia Hock: “Acceleration of real estate change”

Omni Channel is connecting physical and digital: Consumers are consolidating the number of retailers that they visit, and as we enter the next stage of transformation with COVID, physical and digital elements of the shopping experience are converging more than ever before. Many large (and small) retailers have historically viewed omni-channel in a narrow digital […]

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Omni Channel is connecting physical and digital: Consumers are consolidating the number of retailers that they visit, and as we enter the next stage of transformation with COVID, physical and digital elements of the shopping experience are converging more than ever before. Many large (and small) retailers have historically viewed omni-channel in a narrow digital platform way, and most are working hard to fully integrate the digital experience with the physical experience to deliver on new age experiences that consumers demand.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Antonia Hock. She is the Global Head of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center where she leads a dynamic advisory business focused on innovating the Customer Experience (CX) and Talent Experience (TX) for clients worldwide.

Antonia is a sought-after, author, thought leader and frequent global keynote featured speaker. She is considered a global expert on organizational transformation and building experience-based brands, creating a culture of customer-centricity, empowering employees and issues around diversity in the workforce, and innovating experiences for the future.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I came to terms early in my career that I was by nature driven towards chaos, turn-arounds, new ideas, start-ups — anything that was a “build” vs. a stable, run-rate business that needed only incremental improvement to thrive. When I came out of college, I joined an early stage dot com and that fed my desire to build and create. It also allowed me to tap into my entrepreneurial spirit while simultaneously allowing me to experience the heavy lifting and long hours required to build a business.

I also love working with big brands that have resources and an appetite for being market-makers through innovation and calculated risk. This led me to work for fast-moving progressive companies like Microsoft, HP, and Siemens where I earned a reputation as a maverick: the one you call when you have a big challenge with high stakes attached. I also learned some important lessons about the value of culture, wellness, and genuine care in the workplace. Those are underserved areas that can break a business apart and destroy even the best financial performances.

After years of building successful business units centered on transformative technology, I was presented with the opportunity to work for The-Ritz-Carlton — but with the new twist of taking that legendary service, culture, and wellness focus to market as a methodology that can be implemented in Fortune 500 companies to drive business results. Much of what we do focuses on changing the lives of employees and customers with a strong focus on care, empowerment, and a personalized approach to connection.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

A poignant career moment for me came in the form of a performance review conversation. This was very early in my career, and I was determined to keep my personal and professional lives firewalled and separate because I thought that was the safest approach. I was young and naïve about the outcomes of such a strategy. I wanted work to be something that I “did”, and my time outside of work to be my “life”. My work results placed me at the top of my business unit, but feedback on my approach was about to open my eyes and challenge me to transform. I sat down for my performance review and had a great leader tell me that while the results placed me as the top HiPo in the business, the feedback on my work style was cold, unfeeling, and detached. I was leaving “bodies in my wake”, and there was a sense that no one could get close enough to me to relate to me or my work. As a result, I was turning into a fierce, slightly intimidating lone wolf.

And this leader, who was a great people ‘read”, said “you should integrate your personal and professional lives. It is a continuum, and if you are doing what you love, then why have these artificial barriers? You will never be great if no one can relate to you. It will challenge you, but be authentic, even when it feels hard, and your work will be even better, and your potential will be limitless.” I walked away from that conversation, with a lot of work to do, but I was determined to transform. We all do our best work when we are fully authentic, and our work and personal lives are in congruence. You don’t have to share it all, but finding balance and authenticity is a powerful path to your best performance. I truly believe that!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

This is not a funny story, but it is a poignant story of self-discovery. I joined a dot com right out of university, and I had the thrill of building a business, wearing all kinds of hats, collaborating with super smart and driven people, solving complex problems, and breaking through barriers using innovation as a platform. When the dot com bubble burst, I moved to a steady large business where I was asked to focus on “incremental” growth and nurture an existing business. Both were great opportunities with unique models of success. I loved that the big business gave me security and comfort in scale and longevity, and I had a great work/life balance. But I was miserable. I had to come to terms with the fact that I fundamentally loved the thrill of the unknown, building new models to drive performance, and solving complex, scary problems that might have a huge pay-off… or might crash hard. It took me a while to fully accept that I was not going to enjoy that comfortable, safer, stable career. I wanted to be that person. But the lessons about what makes you truly happy are important to embrace, and so I had to acknowledge my nature knowing that my best work would follow if I put myself into environment that inspired and engaged me.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Right now, I am spending a lot of time thinking about the future of work — which is essentially the present time. This is such an important topic because it touches millions of lives across the globe. We are in such a critical time to reimagine how work will happen across so many industries, and the acceleration of change is causing us all to really innovate the employee experience. My top themes in this space are:

  1. The rise of organizational culture as mission critical vs. tangential or nice-to-have: Black Lives Matter and culture issues at companies like Pinterest, Uber, Away have brought this into focus. Then you layer in the pandemic and the remote work experience. Culture is now a mission critical imperative.
  2. Acceleration of real estate change: Companies are rethinking funding here, reconfiguring space, divesting of real estate, and moving to new concepts like pods. Maybe the concept of a physical headquarters is dead.
  3. End-to-end employee experience vs. discreet services: This is a big change to how companies think about the life and work of an employee. Historically companies would offer “dining services” or “AV or conference room services”, “mail services”, “computing services”, but now we are seeing a rapid transformation to a fully integrated experience. We do “customer journey” mapping all the time in CX, but now it is time for “employee journey” mapping in TX/EX as well as a full reimagining of the services offered and how they are delivered and consumed.

All these efforts can radically improve and transform the work life quality and engagement of so many people world-wide. It’s an exciting time to a part of this change!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

How I thrive inside and outside of the office are fundamentally the same because I believe that this a continuum of work and life — not two separate things. The first is that I surround myself with people who inspire me, build me up, and engage me in a deep way. The second is that I make choices that allow me to be authentic, and when I am authentic, I thrive. The last is that I prioritize my physical and mental wellbeing. This means I nurture my body with what I eat and how I work out, and I focus on making time to engage my mind to think about big ideas, and profound concepts. I try to stay out of the mundane; it will pull me down and suck the life out of me. I encourage others to think about the same set of topics and be honest about what really works for you.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I was so fortunate to cross paths with a visionary young leader when I was ready to make my leap to be a first-time people leader. He was a superstar and considered to be one of the strongest upwardly mobile in the company. He was hiring a sales leader to turn-around a train-wreck of a business. I was a young lone contributor with no formal people leadership credentials, but I competed the heck out of that interview cycle, and he decided to endorse me for the role. The other leaders in the interview process, for good reason, thought I was a high risk candidate especially with the work required to overhaul the human capital, transform the customer experience, rebalance the P&L, and deliver operational excellence with 10 months to go in the fiscal year. But he put his superstar reputation on the line to hire me, and I got the job. As I first time leader, this was a daunting task, and it was bumpy. The learning curve was steep, and this was not a hand-holding culture, so I had to figure it out on my own. I had a C-level leader tell him that I would never make it, that I was a poor hire, and he should know better. But he hung in there with me, and I found my sea legs. At the end of the 10 months, I moved a 200M dollars P&L from last place in the US to #2 in the US, and I overhauled everything that was asked of me. It was a rough 10 months for us both, but he changed my life in so many ways, and those are the leaders that will renew your faith in the human spirit and remind you to take those risks — and believe in yourself especially when others don’t!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

The Ritz-Carlton has always been focused on values and culture that put the wellness of our employees and our guests front and center in all that we do. We have been living by values of empowerment, genuine care, personalized attention, and creating indelible memories for over 30 years. Whether we are caring for each other or caring for a guest, these values allow us to create an environment that is focused on wellbeing — emotional, physical, and mental — and that is life-changing for all. This is at the center of why we are sought after experts in designing and implementing culture that supports happy employees who in turn create very special experiences for customers and guests. In a world where wellness is not a corporate focus for most, we stand out as a business model that drives exceptional financial performance by investing in a culture of wellness and empowerment.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

Large retailers have really coalesced around five key strategies that are driving results right now. These are category agnostic, and over the last six months these areas have definitely defined success in large retail.

  1. Same-day curb-side pick-up is a winner: This has been an exceptional marriage of digital capability and human interaction, even though its contactless. Customers save on shipping and get the instant gratification of immediate purchase pick-up. Retailers are seeing some of the highest satisfaction scores with this offering. Curb-side pick-up also has much higher retailer margins than using something like Shipt for fulfillment. As an example, home depot offered this service pre-pandemic, but it wasn’t widely used. Today 60% of customers order online and pick up in-store.
  2. Enhanced digital that extends ecommerce: Big retailers are moving beyond ecommerce capabilities to embrace the full digital customer experience, and consumers love this enhanced experience. Features like online delivery scheduling, detailed online order tracking, a dynamic customized homepage, personalized recommendations, simplified search and navigation and an expanded online product offering are all big hits with online consumers.
  3. Supply Chain Improvements: The pandemic has required large retailers to substantially evaluate their supply chain agility. Many are reconfiguring their delivery terminals, distribution centers, and fulfillment centers to ensure that they can pivot with the speed required in the new pandemic economy. While these changes require configuration over months, every major profitable retailer is quickly moving to address ways to maximize and improve their supply chain.
  4. Omni Channel is connecting physical and digital: Consumers are consolidating the number of retailers that they visit, and as we enter the next stage of transformation with COVID, physical and digital elements of the shopping experience are converging more than ever before. Many large (and small) retailers have historically viewed omni-channel in a narrow digital platform way, and most are working hard to fully integrate the digital experience with the physical experience to deliver on new age experiences that consumers demand.
  5. Buyer Persona Engagement: Large retailers are homing in on their critical buyer personas and working on strategies to engage these loyal consumers. Many large retailers have focused on understanding the buyer persona for their products and by deeply committing to this model, they have been able to deliver strong profit throughout the pandemic. Whether the retailer focuses on yoga products, beauty, home furnishings, or home improvement, disciplined buyer persona modelling has never been more important.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

Malls and retail stores will clearly need to deliver a value and experience that cannot be achieved through any other channel. If they can reimagine the shopping experience — blending safety with extraordinary care and specialized experiences — then they will have a value proposition that can compete with Amazon or Instacart. Both are powerful platforms, but neither have been able to bridge the gap to human connectivity and experience. Are they convenient? Yes. Fast? Yes. Personal, socially connected, and experiential? No. So that continues to be the critical area where in-person can win. But in order to capitalize on this opportunity, malls and retailers will need to carefully curate experiences that really surprise and delight.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

Two big trends underscore the successful profitable retailers right now, and these are continuing to be studied and implemented by more retailers of all sizes:

  1. Small format stores or localization of product offerings: The concepts of “shopping small”, staying local, and purchasing community-centric products has never been more powerful. Whether retailers are implementing this product assortment online or creating in-store pop-ups, local is important to consumers. We are also seeing a strong focus on small format stores where large retailer are investing in smaller, more personal stores in underserved neighborhoods. Target plans to open 25 of these small format stores in 2020.
  2. Client-centric focus: Lululemon has enjoyed a profitable ride through the pandemic fueled by their longstanding relentless focus on being client-centric. Their commitment to target personas, active social media presence supporting these personas, collaboration with influencers who understand these personas, and the client-oriented approach is driving their successful strategies. This important concept is utilized by most of the profitable pandemic retailers.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Pressure from China will continue to be an important feature of the retail landscape, so US-based companies will need to compete on speed of delivery, quality of product offering, safety, and community-centric offerings. These areas are important to US consumers, and any time you cannot compete on price, you must compete on differentiation. Right now, retailers should be fortifying their branding and offerings to capitalize on these areas of differentiation. Above all, it will continue to be critical for retailers to be clear, specific, and effective around marketing unique value to consumers. Chinese offerings have clear weaknesses, and those should be acknowledged and built into corporate retail strategic planning.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Investing in young adults has the potential to create such change and momentum for all of us and the world we live in. I see so many teenagers and young adults struggling with tough circumstances, difficult home challenges, and social and economic adversity. The infrastructure to help make change is so limited for this group of young people. I would like to see more programs like YearUp that are exclusively focused on opportunities and support for young adults. Giving this group real life skills, career support, mentors, and hope that the future can and will be different makes a real difference to an entire generation. I would love to see more major corporations come out in support of this program, and I would love to see more people give their time, skills, and leadership in the service of our young adults. https://www.yearup.org/

How can our readers further follow your work?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/antonia-hock/
https://www.instagram.com/antoniahock/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


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