Career Crashers 70: Ron Thurston on Celebrating Your Accidental Career

This week on Career Crashers Joel is joined by Ron Thurston to talk about why your retail work is an incredible place to start and build a career.

This week on Career Crashers Joel is joined by Ron Thurston to talk about why your retail work is an incredible place to start and build an accidental career.

Ron is Vice President of Stores at INTERMIX a division of Gap Inc. and has been retail leadership for 25+ years. He is also the author of Retail Pride: The Guide to Celebrating Your Accidental Career.

For so many of us, retail and service jobs are our introduction to work. They help us pay the rent, but also teach us the fundamental skills of creating value for others. But too many people don’t look at their work in retail with pride. Ron is on a mission to change that.

Related: Career Crashers Podcast: From Serving to Startups

Also Related: Career Crashers Podcast: How Coffee Shop Work Sets You up for Professional Success

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Show notes – Celebrating Your Accidental Career

  • The power of retail, and how, contrary to popular belief, brick & mortal still dwarfs e-commerce.
  • Why retail is not just something you do while you’re waiting for something else to happen.
  • Why retail workers are always self-taught and why the most curious rise to the top.
  • How saying “yes” to more work early in your career helps you build skills and reputation that help grow your accidental career.
  • Displaying empathy, and why it’s key to being successful.
  • All the things you learn working in retail that can be leveraged into another accidental career.

Connect with Ron

Full Transcript: – Celebrating Your Accidental Career

Isaac
Welcome to Career Crashers, where we tell the stories of those who are not content to wait around following rules and hoping for good things to happen. Great careers are found. They’re forged.

Isaac
It’s time to crash the party.

Joel
I’m excited to be joined by Ron Thurston, who is currently leading the retail organization, Intermix, which is a division of Gap Incorporated. And Ron has a new book just released called Retail Pride, the guide to celebrating your accidental career. So we’re gonna, we’re gonna flesh out Ron’s book here and talk about some overall mindsets and principles of your professional growth. So welcome, Ron.

Ron
Thank you so much, Joel. I’m happy to be here.

Joel
Awesome. So just give us the overall message of the book about an accidental career. And what inspired you to write it?

Yeah, so thanks, I, I’ve been in retail leadership now. 25 plus years. For me, it was somewhat accidental and somewhat not. And I’d love to talk a little bit about how prominent the accidental career part is in retail. But I think as as I have continued my journey from sales roles into leadership roles into more senior roles, there’s this very common underlying thread of retail can often feel like a misunderstood industry, and can often feel accidental can often feel as though you’re just waiting for something else to happen.

And I think last year, kind of had this moment of, we need to actually celebrate retail, we need to speak more about its power in the world, we need to understand that Amazon’s actually not taking over everything that we do that brick and mortar plays an enormous part in our industry, and that the millions of people that work in retail love working in retail, and you see it every day on social media, specifically on LinkedIn.

And, and while I tried to do that, from my own companies, I actually wanted to have a bigger platform to say, it’s okay to love what you do, it’s okay to love working in retail. But here’s some kind of a framework for your accidental career, here’s some leadership roles, here’s some leadership advice. And here’s a way to really elevate your own perception of what it means to work in retail.

The response over the last month has been really positive from a lot of people that said, no one’s ever told me that it’s okay to work in retail. And these are not people two years in, these are more senior people, 10 years, 20 years. That’s given me a lot of joy. And that is the book I specifically called Retail Pride. Because I want people to be proud to work in retail.

And pride, I know is a word that, you know, for many people means a lot of different things. But for me, it was this idea of I’m really proud to do what I’m doing. I’m impacting millions of people, I’m running a multimillion dollar business, I have maybe a small team, maybe a large team. But my impact on the economy on the everyone around me is so enormous that you should be really proud of that. And that’s, I think, a message that has not been loud enough, over the last couple of decades.

I love that so much. I think taking ownership about whatever it is you’re doing and going 100% all in. And even if it’s not your perfect job, your dream job, whatever that may mean to you know that you can have a sense of pride and ownership for just something like customer service for saying I’m helping someone’s life improve just by a small bit by engaging in this economic transaction in a business. And if you can let go of any of these sort of cultural norms of Oh, well, a retail job is just something just to get some extra cash and it’s not a real job or something like that.

Just just just let go of all that and 100% own it and enjoy it and take pleasure in interacting with customers and helping the business flourish. Right?

Ron
Right and and be a sponge to learn. So I think what’s unique about our industry is that we’re very self taught. And so there’s not a specific college degree and there’s great schools like in where I went to school, it fit them in California, fit or Parsons or these great schools that have retail, retail specific degrees and and that’s all great, but the work has to be done in in your throughout your accidental career, and that you don’t just drop in somewhere and become a store manager or become a district manager, you actually have to do the work.

And so the reason I say, like be a sponge is we’re also because we’re self taught, we’re also very willing to teach others, we’d love to bring people along on our journey and say, well, that person like really shows a spark. I love what that that person’s always here 10 minutes early, that one’s really always asking a lot of questions. This one’s constantly doing a little bit more than was asked and, and be that person and be the one that wants to be invested in.

And that is powerful in business. And often, the people who really rise to the top are those that are the most curious, the most interested in the business, because maybe it’s maybe you studied something completely different. But the like, the pleasure of, of what you do every day, is really driving the conversation. And so I love that about it. I love the generosity of spirit that you often find in retail too, of helping each other.

Joel
Yeah, I’m reminded of this quote from Aristotle, it’s like, excellence is a habit, right? You are what you what you repeatedly do, therefore, excellence is a habit, something like that. And I’m just thinking about this mindset, in whatever again, whatever job you’re in. If you take that attitude of, I’m going to show up early, 10 minutes, every single time, I’m going to be constantly curious, and a sponge, like you said, and, and trying to help out my co workers, and all these soft skills that, again, if you want to go maybe you want to start your own business one day, or you want to get into a tech startup or whatever direction you want to go, don’t wait for the future to have some sort of, quote unquote, perfect job on that right now.

And then you’re gonna develop that attitude and that mindset. So I’m curious, though, to hear more your your background and how you sort of broke in your accidental career when you were younger, getting started in your professional life, getting into retail, and sort of taking that journey and working your way up.

Ron
Yeah. So I, I studied fashion design and retail management, I have a bad fit on my as I had mentioned, and, you know, the fashion design piece sounded so glamorous, and sounded so interesting. I’m like, I’m going to be a famous designer, which sounds cool when you’re young. But it’s really difficult. And it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. And that does happen. But I I, I was having some success. But then I also had friends who worked in the retail side. And my kind of personality of I love to be around other people, I love to serve customers.

I’d like I had much more of an outgoing personality than someone that was kind of sitting quietly and sketching. And I was like, so I’m going to I’m going to try this out at department store, a department store called the Broadway which is really Macy’s, you could call it Macy’s and say they’d like an executive leadership training program. So pretty late in my life, like 30 ish, I believe I made that pivot and said, I’m going to, I’m going to kind of start over here, I’m going to learn retail. And so I did that for for Macy’s. And then I joined the Gap. I was at Gap for the next 10 years.

That was a brand who like heavily invested in me, sales into assistant manager, store manager, I bought my first multi store role. I worked in corporate visual merchandising because I have a fashion background it made sense. And I kind of loved every aspect of it. I moved around between departments and they said, Hey, can you move to Texas? And I’m from California, I moved to Texas. Can you run the middle of the country? Sure. I can do that. Can now you can you run Florida? Sure. Like I just did anything that I could to grow my accidental career.

Can you work a banana republic now? Can you work at outlet now. And I did it all for 10 years. That for me was the point where I recognize is to actually have a skill set that can translate across a lot of different ideas. And I encourage everyone to do that. Like if people are asking you for stretch assignments or to do extra work or to like, assist in a big project, say yes. Because the skills that you’re learning from those things that your leadership teams is investing in, you are a really important component for your resume to to say, my main responsibility was x. But I also worked on this project and this project and grew my accidental career.

And so then I from there, I just chose brands to work for that. Were important parts in their history of retail, helping start Westtown, which was, you know, kind of a growth division of William Sonoma at the time. I’m helping launch Tory Burch early on on the west coast of the US, Iran, Apple Stores when Apple was starting to get at its peak. And then most recently, I was running standard Ron for the Americas. And then today running Intermix.

So I’ve had really been really lucky with people. But I’ve also been very intentional about what I’ve done. This is definitely not your career isn’t always an accident, that, you know, I knew I knew what the brands were doing. I knew who worked there. And I wanted to be part of it. And so that’s, that’s the I think shifts that the book is so much about is take your career from accidental to intentional, and then choose, choose the brands that you want to work for and choose the people you want to work for, and own it from there.

Joel
Yeah, that’s great advice about saying yes, often earlier in your career.

Ron
Yeah.

Joel
And maybe if you do that enough, eventually it will be sort of a shift in that over the years where your time is even more scarce. And you need to say no, but early on, say yes, to get more experienced to learn more skills, and also to build your reputation, right, as someone who says yes, and then when another project falls into supervisor’s lap, and they’re like, who might be a good fit for this?

Oh, yeah. You know, Steve over there is, is great, because he always says yes, and he, right. So you’re building that reputation early in your accidental career? So I’m curious more you mentioned, kind of, you’re getting into some sales work, and you kept getting different opportunities.

And like, what of what other growth? Can you flesh out what sort of growth you experience, especially in those early years, in learning by doing learning on the job having that curiosity, and like what Softs soft skills or hard skills Did you kind of pick up in the beginning in your accidental career?

Ron
So there’s a part of the book that really speaks to this of kind of the pillars of retail success, that regardless of your role, and so this could be, in part time sales, part time, stock, full time, stock, leadership roles, and any version of retail, that I believe there are really three pillars to success.

So the first one is empathy. Because empathy is really about listening and understanding. And that’s with your team that’s with your customer, that’s with your product is to be open to learn and be empathetic to what’s happening. I think this year, the brands that have really exhibited empathy, are the ones that are the most successful, because we all have something going on.

And if you kind of listen and learn, and express your understanding, that’s a big step. So I think, empathy, and I don’t just mean, you, as a customer, I think everyone around us, you know, we all should be expressing that that level of intensity.

The second one’s curiosity. So just as we’ve said, like, being highly curious about what’s happening in your business, what’s happening for your company, what’s happening in your store, you work in a store, what’s happening all around you what’s happening on your street, just be curious. And the then you become well informed. And then that well informed. Curiosity leads to you making smart choices. And, and those can be for like, wow, I really see these brands, this brands getting a lot of attention, it looks like people that work at this brand, really enjoy it.

I see other people going here because I was curious, and I listened and I learned, and then you can make an informed decision.

And then the last part is focus. Because in retail, there’s so there’s so many things coming at you every day. And that’s true in the service industry. But I would say for our specific business. It’s that you never know who you’re going to meet customer every day is different. The workload is different. The tasks that happen are different every day, it’s a different list of work, because you’re not sitting at a desk, you’re not trying to you can’t really predict anyone who you’re going to see that day.

So the ability to focus and say, here’s what’s important. Here’s what I need to get done. Here’s what I say yes to, here’s what I need to say no to, here’s what I can accomplish, and and be very intentional about it can can lead to greatness.

And so this kind of empathy on the very emotional side, curiosity like really elevating yourself and being focused to get it done are for me are the are the pillars of success. You know, I’d like to say, in the industry, but I speak about retail specifically. And they’re not complicated, but they’re, they’re not easy to do every day.

Joel
Sure. So I’m curious to hear you flesh that out more about what is the nature of retail? What’s the misconception? about, you know, you go you go to you go to Macy’s to buy a suit or something. And you see someone who they’re agreed to, to help you get your suit. But But what’s what’s going on behind the scenes? What’s like, what’s what’s what’s, what’s a myth or misconception about retail? And? And why why are you advocating for people to be so proud about that? You know?

Ron
It’s a great question, I said, the misconception would be that the person that standing in front of you doesn’t want to be there, that this is a temporary stop for them. And, and they may, their service may not be great, and they may actually not want to be there. And so that’s, that’s real, too, I’m not trying to say that the 40 million people that work in retail all love it as much as I do. I’m not saying that. But I am saying that that person who’s standing in front of you at Macy’s has the opportunity to be the best version of themselves. And to encourage that.

So the misconception is that the person doesn’t want to be there. And that the work that it takes to get that suit from design, through production, through distribution through buying through to the store to visual merchandising, that a went through a really long journey to get there. And that it’s really, that that salespersons responsibility, just teach you a little bit about that suit, and the fabric and the fit and the designer, and what are you going to do?

I say, I go back to empathy, like, do you really understand what he’s going to use that suit for? Are you really curious about what does he do every day, like, what does he wear and why? And that you’re focused enough to close the sale. And so those that combination of like that the work that it takes to make that business happen, the people that are in it, and then those kind of pillars is is the mix.

But I think the difficulty of this year for many people has escalated things, sometimes the perception that this is a temporary stop. And for many people it’s not. And they really just want to be better at what they do, and need great leadership around them to help them get there, which is anyone that sits in my chair or leads multiple stores, that’s our responsibility is to give everyone what they need around you, around them to be the best version of themselves.

Joel
Good stuff. So tell us more about the book. In other sections. You mentioned the three pillars. And what’s another section of the book that you’d like to flesh out and inform our listeners about in terms of in terms of your professional development?

Ron
Yeah. So there is a whole there’s the first part is really a little bit about the industry about the fact that one in four people work in retail in this country, that it’s one of the biggest employers that and that what you see on the news around ecommerce, the growth of e commerce and web shopping, which we’ve all done more this year, still does not come anywhere near eclipsing what brick and mortar generates.

So a little bit of facts that ecommerce generated about 11% of total commerce in this country. 89% of it was brick and mortar. So after this year, it’s about 15% ecommerce, 85% brick and mortar. So it’s growth, like the growth and you see like ecommerce up 30, 40%. And that’s true, but it was no smaller base. They’re estimating about an additional percentage point of growth every year, for the next several years, then e commerce, which means in about four or five years, it’s going to be closer to 80/20.

And okay, fine, the 80% of it’s still brick and mortar retail. So the news has you think that every mall is closing in this country. And that brick and mortar is dead. And that’s actually completely not true. It’s evolving, for sure. And there are businesses that are closing, but the ones that are remaining are generating a significant amount of commerce for this country and employing millions of people.

So that’s, that’s a chunk. There’s a part around just the kind of top 10 reasons we love working in retail which is really fun. But the meat of it is, here’s some leadership advice, retail leadership advice, and really around how do you build a culture. And I think culture is a word that makes people nervous, because they feel like they don’t have the ability to influence it.

I actually think everyone that joins a company or a store has the ability to influence culture. And, again, being really curious, asking a lot of questions. being engaged in your business, you can change the culture, because you’ve asked, you said, Well, why do we do that here? Like, what, what is that about, and here’s my, here’s what I would recommend we do differently are those and so that those kinds of pivots can change culture.

And so I talk a lot around like having a sense of belonging, setting big goals with as you change culture, because retail culture is often about winning, about being better about making your goals, we work really hard together to be them. To continue to recognize the greatness around you. And that is, can create a winning culture that is fair prevalent in retail. So those are the kind of three big chunks of the book.

But I really, intentionally, it’s not about one part of our industry. It’s not It’s not for one particular title. This is not an executive leadership book, this is a book for everyone that works in stores, that says the just needs like a way to be lifted up today about celebrating why they love it.

And if they don’t love it, maybe here’s some advice to make some some choices about maybe choosing a different company or building a personal board of advisors around you, to help you evolve. But this for the sometimes the tough reputation that it has, I wanted to be able to provide a resource that says it can definitely be tough, but it can also be amazing. And here’s some ways to think about it differently.

Joel
I love that about culture, like we often think of culture as something that’s, you know, out of our control, right, and we enter a new company and like, this is how things work here, okay, I’ll adapt to this. But I mean, especially for a smaller company, there’s a lot of influence you can have. And culture is simply the collection of individual actions and decisions from an individual people.

So you’re one of those people and you can empower yourself. And I mean, of course, if you’re brand new, you want to learn and be an observation mode, right? When you’re just getting to know the company rather than day one. Okay, let’s change five things.

Ron
Right, exactly.

Joel
But if you’re not in that learning mindset, and then take it upon yourself, you know, the theme here I think is is you have the choice in your attitude, your mindset, to have that sense of agency and curiosity and growth. And, and again, have have that sense of ownership and, and and love what you do, no matter where you’re at.

But so there’s an Amazon review for your book, Ron, and it, it goes like this.

“This is for anyone who has chosen an atypical path toward fulfilling their destiny by choosing to do what they love, no matter what that is, or where it takes them. So if you love retail, it’s about owning that and, and smiling through that entire experience.”

And but it’s also just about that grander, you can forge your own path. And that’s kind of like the tagline for what we do is, is, you know, forge a path and crash your accidental career and, and be in the driver’s seat.

So, if someone is, is just looking to, maybe they maybe they are taking ownership in their retail position, but they’re like, you know, what I want to get into, I want to start my own business, I want to get into startup tech company, wherever the case may be, how could I talk about how they can forge their path and, and leverage the skills that they are gaining in that retail position so that they can continue to, you know, see that play out in their accidental career in a positive direction?

Ron
So I love this topic, because this is your question earlier about a misconception. This is also a misconception to some of my role. I’m just gonna imagine myself. I am a sales. I’m a salesperson, and I’m in an average store that does a couple of million dollars a year in a mall in the country and I have bigger dreams to not work in retail, totally fine.

And I would say, recognize all what you have gained through this work as a salesperson you have you learned how to run a multimillion dollar business. So you have been part of running a multimillion dollar business, you have learned organizational skills, both on the sales floor likely. And in the stockroom, you’ve probably done some stock work, you’ve done shipping and receiving, you’ve done visual merchandising, so you’ve probably looked at a planet Graham that the corporate office sent, and said, Well, great, here’s the holiday 2020 setup, and you will probably part of that execution.

Maybe you did some windows. Maybe you did other just cashiering task. Okay, great. So you would put all that under, like, I’m operationally strong. And then you would say, I’ve also engaged with customers, I sold half a million dollars this year myself, I have some great clients. So you’ve learned how to sell and how to engage.

And then the part that I think is often missed is that you’ve learned how to work on a team. And you have then celebrated the people around you. You’ve been empathetic and curious about those people you’ve supported and grown, help them and their accidental career. And you’ve been part of a winning team.

So all of that happens, and you don’t even know that happened around you. And to be able to say, oh, yeah I worked for a year at the Gap. And random mall, you did so much more than that. You should be able to just say exactly what I just did into any interview going forward.

And anyone that’s interviewing like I do, I love people like that. I can stay Yeah, like I was a server. But here’s what I did. And I was a server. Here’s what I did part time while I was in school. And here’s what I learned from it. So just recognize what you’re learning, and then be able to talk about it. Two, don’t be ashamed of it. And don’t use those skills for future growth and building your confidence.

And for me, retail is, I think the statistic is one in six people. Their first job is in retail. And through this journey of actually speaking about the book, almost everyone I know has said yeah, I worked in retail, but they’re not in it today, almost everyone has. And some had great experiences and some didn’t.

But it’s it’s a very common bond that we have, as humans. And the kind of our early work experiences. It was for me too. And I just think I love that a little bit more than other people did. But I saw the opportunity to grow, to grow my skills and to grow my my accidental career.

Joel
There’s so much opportunity to extract if you just pause for a moment and reflect on what did I do, you know, I worked at the gap during holiday season stores, super swamped. And I’m trying to juggle all these different customers and then communicate with co workers. And like if you could write a blog post like for we do a Crash, you’re trying to build out your profile, and showcase your ability to create value, right?

So create a blog post saying six skills I’ve learned working at the Gap during holiday season or something like that. Just in flesh, tell a story right? People want to work with people who tell stories, first of all, then you’re you’re you’re showcasing your writing skills and your self reflection. And then you just just broadcast and like Yeah, I was able to multitask and juggle six different customers at once. Here’s the statistics on the number of deals, I closed transactions that I closed.

And here’s how I helped out my co worker and when she was really stressed out, like tell stories and reflect and don’t again, like no shame. I love that just whatever experience you’ve had, own that reflect on it and embrace it and no shame and you can go in any direction that you choose.

Ron
I would say don’t there’s no so no shame in that. If it’s the Dollar General or if it’s Sandleron. The work is so I’m just sharing this example because I’m on the board of directors of Goodwill. And I visited a Goodwill store this morning before I came to work. And I meet the manager I talked about who is your customer, they talk about donations. You know they have a this particular store here in New York City. They have a crazy like homeless shelter down the street and they get a lot of like not a fun customers in there.

But they’re running a multimillion dollar business based on donations. And this team in there today could not have been happier to work there. And I just love that story of like, you don’t have to be selling luxury goods to love working in retail. You know, the average sale in a goodwill is $7. And that’s usually with like three pieces.

But there and you’re taking in donated goods and selling it and using it’s a nonprofit and using that revenue, to help people get back to work, and everyone that worked in there worked and other retail, but they’re really proud to work at Goodwill.

And so I think that there’s also a misconception that you have to work in luxury for it to be good. And I firmly believe that’s not true. You can you can be great anywhere that you choose whether it’s $7 average sale, done with donated goods, or work in luxury. Both are important.

Joel
Good stuff. The book is Retail Pride. And we’ll link to that in the show notes. And Ron appreciate taking the time. Any last words of wisdom?

Ron
You know, I, I like to say pay it forward. And that term is also sometimes overused. But I close the book and say, Okay, you’ve read this book, you love this business now tell somebody else about it. Because what’s missing is our ability to pay this message forward. Because of that, that lack of retail pride.

So I say if you love it, tell somebody that you love it. Because I was always the weird guy with my friends. I’ll be like, you’re the only person I know that loves your job so much. Like Yeah, I do love my job. And here’s why I love it. And that I think is missed sometimes. So if you love it, and you read the book, pay it forward.

Joel
Awesome stuff. Thanks so much, Ron. Really, really appreciate it.

Ron
Thanks, Joel.

Isaac
Like what you hear? Go to crash.co and join the career revolution. Do you want to share your own career crash story? Send it directly to me at isaac@crash.co.

If you’ve got a story you’d like to share, don’t hesitate! Email Joel at Joel [at] Crash [dot] co.