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Women Of The C-Suite: “Find opportunities for informal leadership roles” With Lisa Malat

Look for opportunities where you can encourage team members to step into informal leadership roles. What are the large projects that need…


Look for opportunities where you can encourage team members to step into informal leadership roles. What are the large projects that need to get done? Who can help organize and deliver a key objective? Encouraging your team to work outside their job description and grow their skills drives powerful and rewarding results for both your business and your employees.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Malat, Chief Operating Officer of Barnes & Noble College, a Barnes & Noble Education, Inc. company. Lisa provides strategic direction and executive oversight to Barnes & Noble College’s more than 750 campus stores, collaborating across the Company to leverage synergies between Barnes & Noble Education’s business segments. Lisa oversees consumer and corporate marketing, talent management and in-store and eCommerce strategy and operational efficiencies.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was in college, I wanted to become a Broadway theatre producer. I produced and directed all throughout college and I loved the energy, the creative process, and collaborating with people with different skills and talents to create a memorable experience for the audience.

I thought I had it made when I landed an entry level job working for a team of theatre legends, but I eventually grew impatient. Ultimately, my big break happened but not in front of or behind the curtain as I expected — my break happened when a friend suggested I check out the executive training program at Macy’s. I did, and I was hooked. Six months later, at the age of 22, I was on the selling floor at Macy’s Herald Square, directing a team of 30-plus people and managing a multi-million-dollar business. I quickly discovered that in retail every day was opening night, and there was a huge adrenaline rush when those doors swung open on W34th Street. My path eventually lead me to Barnes & Noble College, a Barnes & Noble Education, Inc. company, where I have been able to build on the fundamental lessons I learned at Macy’s — listen to your customers, take care of your people and strive for excellence in everything you do.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

While there is always something interesting happening, my most memorable moment was when I was giving a presentation at the Texas A&M Center for Retailing Studies. I was there to speak about the most recent research we had completed on Millennials and the workforce, and my message was about the direct alignment of skills learned working in retail with the goals and values of millennial employees. Afterward, I was approached by a senior level administrator from the university, who shared that his daughter had worked at one of our college bookstores and that her experience there had a lasting, positive impact on her. I asked if his daughter was still employed by Barnes & Noble College and he told me that even though she had moved on to a successful position at Morgan Stanley, it was the breadth of her training she received while working in our stores that allowed her to land the job she wanted. While working for Barnes & Noble College, she learned how to effectively communicate, think analytically and work successfully on a team. I was touched and humbled to hear that story and so proud of the work we do to support and encourage students in every aspect of their college journey and beyond.

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

Every year we host an annual meeting in Orlando, Florida for our store managers. It’s an opportunity to wrap up the fiscal year, celebrating the successes of that year and then shifting our focus to the strategy and objectives of the upcoming year. We finish the week-long meeting with a party completely dedicated to celebrating our store managers — they are our guests of honor all week, but especially at the wrap up party.

One year early on in my time with Barnes & Noble College, we decided to truly treat them like “rock stars,” arranging a red carpet celebrity send-off to get them from their hotel to the party venue. Instead of the usual bus transportation, we planned to take the managers to the party in small groups via limos. We literally rolled out the red carpets, had music playing, set up lights and cameras, and staged paparazzi to snap photos of our “celebrity” managers. As the managers lined up for the departure, we learned that we had a bit of a situation. We had scheduled an armada of limos for this stylish transportation, but the agency we had used had not factored in that in Florida, limo and livery drivers are limited on where they can pick up passengers based on their licenses. Many of the “fleet” we had hired we not able to pick up passengers at the hotel property we were staying at. It’s late afternoon, it’s sweltering hot, we have more than a 1,000 excited managers eager to get to a party thrown specifically for them, and we have absolutely no way of transporting them from point A to point B. The behind-the-scenes team was in pure panic mode.

We pulled out all the stops to keep the group happy, grabbing cold drinks and snacks, turning on dance music, and even finding a karaoke machine. While our managers danced and sang, out teams worked diligently to round up every available limo driver licensed to pick up passengers in Kissimmee County, Florida. We exhausted every resource, most likely wiped out transportation at the Orlando airport and had drivers doing multiple trips. Eventually, we got all our “rock stars” to the official party, but for them, the real party had started back at the hotel. Lesson learned, always have a backup plan, and double and triple check all of the logistics in contracts and agreements. And an even more important lesson learned: with the right team and a positive, unshakable attitude, you can really have a party anywhere!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our proprietary research platform, Barnes & Noble College Insights℠, is a true differentiator for our company. We tap into a panel of approximately 10,000 students, faculty and parents on an ongoing basis to learn about their wants and needs, likes and dislikes, the support they need to be successful in school and so on. This platform has given us incredible insight into the minds of college consumers. This benefits Barnes & Noble College in helping us to understand how we can better serve our customers; it benefits our parent company Barnes & Noble Education in helping it to discover where there are gaps in the student experience that we can fill through new products and services; and the research also benefits outside brands in helping them get into the mind of the coveted college demographic.

A great example is our latest research report, Conversations with Gen Z. We sat down with students on select U.S. college campuses and conducted online quantitative research with students nationwide to better understand the values and priorities of this generation. The results were powerful and insightful, and informative for any company looking to connect with a generation that accounts for 26% of the U.S. population and wields $143 billion in purchasing power.

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

The mission of Barnes & Noble Education is to serve all who seek to elevate their lives through education. That is what we live and breathe every day, and we always strive to find new ways to best support our students, faculty and campus partners. What makes this particularly exciting is that as the official college bookstore, we serve as the social and academic hub on campus, which gives us a front row seat to the college experience. Since our target consumer, students, are constantly moving and evolving, we must do the same — and with an extreme sense of urgency.

Currently, we are accelerating our efforts to create new retail experiences and learning solutions that fill a void in the market and support student success. For instance, we’ve launched the initial phase of our online student success hub on bartleby.com, which houses digital products and services that provide students with writing and study help when they need it most: outside traditional classroom hours. Today’s students are increasingly considered “nontraditional,” meaning they’re over the age of 24, work more than 30 hours a week, or support a family. Our digital tools allow us to meet them where they are, whether that’s on their lunch break or before their kids wake up in the morning, providing the tools they need to succeed in the classroom and beyond.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Share the Big Picture. The more your team knows and understands the bigger picture and how their role fits into it, the more they and the business will thrive. Everyone wants to feel like they are contributing to a larger purpose, so make sure they know what the purpose is and alignment will fall into place.

The people and the relationships ARE the work. Early in my career I had a lightbulb moment when I received some difficult feedback from my team. I learned that you can’t underestimate the influence or impact you have on those around you. Make sure to take the time to listen, appreciate and nurture those around you.

Honest, well-delivered feedback is a gift. This will have the biggest impact on performance. Take time to affirm that someone is doing well and, even more importantly, redirect efforts that are not yielding the right results. It can truly become a turning point for people and an opportunity to help them develop their skills and abilities. Every leader receives challenging feedback at some point in their career, but it’s what you do with it that matters. You can let it shut you down, or you can use it to grow to your personal best.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Look for opportunities where you can encourage team members to step into informal leadership roles. What are the large projects that need to get done? Who can help organize and deliver a key objective? Encouraging your team to work outside their job description and grow their skills drives powerful and rewarding results for both your business and your employees.

Seeking inclusion in everything you do is also important. There must be a diversity of perspectives to get to the best solutions. The best meetings, conversations, and teams I have been a part of were ones where all voices were respected and heard. Ensure your team members understand the importance of their voice, and that you always provide them with the opportunity to use it. I think that women in particular need to own their power and to recognize that their ideas, thoughts and opinions are just as valuable and necessary as anyone else’s at the table.

It’s also important to delegate and hold people accountable. Your most important role is to develop the future leaders of your company and you must delegate in order to do so. We can all fall into the trap of thinking “it’s easier to do it myself,” but this thought process does your team a disservice. Set a plan, have consistent follow ups and ultimately hold people accountable for the results.

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

I have been extremely blessed with incredible mentors, leaders and friends throughout my career. Each of them has generously shared their unique perspective and talent and all of them have been incredibly generous with their time and commitment to my success. They have all had their own styles but the common thread was their authenticity and commitment to seeing me grow and develop. Early on in my career they helped me slow down when I wanted to run too fast, impressing upon me the importance of having foundational skills in place. Today, however, the best part of what I do is coaching and developing our future leaders. As much as I mentor those who work on my team, they mentor me right back, and that is one of the greatest joys of my job.

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

I try to “bring goodness” in small ways, everyday. At work, it centers around my team, ensuring people feel heard, valued and that they are growing in their careers. It’s the hard and important work of developing talent across the organization, helping people find their passion, what makes them tick and creating opportunities and experiences for them to grow.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned from My Experience” and why? (Please share a store of example for each.)

1. Recognize the power and influence you have and use it to raise people up. This is a mantra in our company where we employ and mentor thousands of students who work in our stores. It can be a kind word, recognition for a job well done or even sharing your own story to inspire someone to take the next step.

2. Look for the white space. That is how I built my career, by looking for the gaps and identifying what needed to be done. I coupled that with grit and courage which allowed me to deliver exceptional work.

3. Have a plan but don’t be married to it. I graduated with a double major in theatre and business and ended up having an amazing career in retail. Keep your mind and eyes open for opportunities and grab them, even when they are not exactly on your roadmap. You never know where they could take you!

4. Take charge of your own career. You cannot wait for someone to give you power. Instead, you need to see out every opportunity to build you skills, your network and your knowledge.

5. Be humble and be kind. My years on the retail floor taught me the importance of checking your ego at the door and lending a hand to those around you. This mentality is so important to embed in the culture of any organization.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 😊

If I could inspire a movement, it would be ensuring a college education is within the reach of everyone who wants it. Today, we partner with colleges and universities on new, innovative solutions to bring down the costs of education. We help create new models to deliver educational content, new learning platforms that helps students better grasp the material and offers targeted help to those that are struggling. The profile of today’s college student has changed dramatically into the nontraditional student. These students are over the age of 24, work more than 30 hours a week, support a family, and are the new normal. Within this nontraditional student demographic, many are the first generation to attend college and have different needs and expectations. Similarly, Gen Z is our first generation of true digital natives — they learn much differently than their predecessors. This has required all of us to do more to ensure our educational system is accessible to all.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My grandmother Mollie Gordon, who lived well into her 90’s, used to say, “you should live and be well” (in Yiddish, Zolst leben un zein gezunt). I try to live by that mantra every day. To me, it means staying focused on what’s most important, not sweating the small stuff, and doing what makes you happy.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on LinkedIn, and check out my work on NEXT, College Juice and Barnes & Noble College.

Originally published at medium.com

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