How did you get THAT job? Alex Shaughnessy - Director of Retail, Lululemon

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

Entering the job market as a graduate or thinking about changing roles/industries as a professional can be a daunting idea – even the most confident of us can start questioning our choices and career path.

In this series of blogs, I am interviewing people of different sectors from the fashion industry to understand more about their professional journey, what path they chose for themselves, advice they might give you today and what impact education choices vs professional choices have had on their career today.

Alex Shaughnessy is the Director of Retail & Community in Australia and New Zealand. She has led dynamic teams in three countries and opened over 35 stores for Lululemon.

Hi Alex! So, tell us a little about your career history so far:

That’s a long story! I have been at Lulu for 12 years! I started working at Lululemon in Whistler, Canada as an Educator (Sales Assistant), however before that I had completed a business degree in Toronto and worked in retail throughout that time in high end retail. Before that I also worked in retail in the UK in Kingston High St – I think that’s really where I began thinking of a career in retail.

After a few years though, I then started working in a Hotel in Toronto as I thought I was over retail. But then I didn’t love the hospitality industry and the only retail company that I really wanted to work for was Lululemon. I joined as a casual with a clear goal of working my way up to the store support centre in Vancouver. I thought I would do it for 6 months and then move, but I completely fell in love with being on the shop floor again. I worked my way from casual to Assistant Manager to Store Manager all within 18 months, which was a pretty big move.

My manager mentored me, and then when she left, I took over the store as the Store Manager. Right before the Olympics in 2010 I emailed the CEO who was based in Australia – and said that I wanted to come to Australia, that I had been a couple of times and I was ready to move and be his PA!

He wrote back and said no to me being his PA but that I could come out as a Store Manager. I came out here when there were only 4 stores at the time, I managed numerous stores across Sydney and Melbourne. I went into stores and turned them around. I then applied for the “New Store Openings Manager” role and I remember submitting a phenomenal application for that – and then I opened 3 more stores across Australia.

From there I went into the Bourke St store for a year and then I visited Wanaka with my boyfriend at the time. I fell in love with New Zealand and just knew I wanted to move there. I came back and told the CEO “I am moving to New Zealand”. I put together a 50-page business plan that I spent 6 months creating about why and where we should open in NZ.

I connected with fitness instructors, gyms and created business relationships during this time. I then set up a meeting with the CEO and GM and presented the plan to them. They took it away and they really read it and gave me feedback on it – which was so cool.

Then at the end of year conference wrap party – I won the “spirit” award and the CEO made a joke saying if you can chug a beer out of your award cup, we will send you to New Zealand. So, I got the promotion – and I really felt so grateful to David (the CEO) as he put a lot of effort into our relationship and really mentored and nurtured me.

I went to NZ to start Lululemon from Queenstown – I opened 3 showrooms for pre-branding and shut them down again a year later as we opened stores. I really drove the community aspect of the brand in NZ – anything relating to culture, recruitment, community I set up for the stores. I then moved to Auckland – set up more stores and showrooms there until we hit around 7 stores.

After Auckland I was promoted to Regional Manager of NZ, VIC, TAS and ACT – which was complete constant travel. I then relocated back to Australia to take the Director of Retail and Community role which I have been doing for nearly 4 years. I oversee everything relating to retail & community for Australia and New Zealand.

I love that! So inspirational and rare to see someone staying in a business so long. When you look back at your journey - what sets you apart in terms of attributes that has made you so successful?

Intrinsic motivation – I always look to achieve, grow and tick things off.

Grit – if you don’t have grit you don’t commit fully to your growth you keep moving on to the next thing and the next thing again. You have to stick through it when times are tough – you can grow to your best level when you can do this.

Agility and adaptability – I have moved to 3 different countries to get these opportunities, or to create the opportunities I want. Being open to possibilities.

Care for developing people around you – its not about you its about others, who are you developing below you so that you can get where you want to go?

Initiative – going for it, take responsibility don’t wait for people to give it to you, and don’t feel or act entitled. It does take time to get where you want to go, you always have more learn. What is the point in anything if you think you have nothing left to learn?

How much of your success to attribute to your business degree and how much to your experience, attributes and mentored relationships?

The degree set me up with some real foundations for success. Getting things done on time, working in groups, leading groups etc – it gave me a behavioural skillset for success. It really held me accountable. I wanted to do really well, so to ensure I could get the best job I could.

Business degree specific - reading P&L’s and the finance side I feel really fast tracked my understanding in this area and allowed me to apply that knowledge faster than waiting for these situations to happen in the business which could have taken years.

I do believe that application of your learnings is 70% of success and having a great coach is amazing – from when I was an Educator - it was important to have a mentor that I could shape my learnings from. If I had just jumped straight to a Store Manager, I really feel I would have been overwhelmed and might have left. Working my way through the ranks with a store mentor was so important.

And you know experience is everything – a lot of people I know think that being in a role for one year means they are ready for the next step. You actually have to take that year to be good at something, then you go into your second year where you really get it, you are more useful to the company because you can operate your store with ease, and that is where you get opportunities to step out.

Has your career followed the path you thought it would?

No not at all – I thought I would be in head office working in marketing. I love branding and marketing – so I was going to do that but then I fell in love with retail. There is just something about retail that is so special and leading people is amazing.

The stigma around retail is a lot of perception I believe, sometimes a little self-created. You know my role is a lot bigger than what people realise. I run a business that is very successful that just happens to be clothing - that is really the same as a service-based business, and I feel proud of that.

What advice would you give to yourself now if you were starting again in your career?

Nothing is owed to you – everything will come, be patient and let go. Trust the process.

What is the most important piece of advice for people wanting to be a Retail Director?

You got to have grit, and motivation to stick with it. You may need to upskill yourself in some areas like business to get where you want to go or get where you want to go faster.

Create your goals and development plan and share those with as many people as possible. You have to drive your own development and your own way forward. Lose the ego – start at a base level to give yourself space to learn – it will actually speed up your development.

What does an average week in your role look like?

My weeks in other states are very different to Melbourne based weeks. I work with the Regional Manager reviewing their development and goals, reviewing what we are doing for the week, completing store visits, ensuring the stores are looking good from a standards and VM perspective and the teams are happy. Review the strategy for community and people pipeline. Then I am on a lot of calls relating to store performance, community, new stores, brand product, HR/Recruitment/Finance. And then I always need space to plan out my next few weeks and future strategies. Average week is 40% what happened and 60% what is to come. I also always leave space to be a little reactive too and put out any fires if needed!

What advice would you give Store Managers that are getting impatient waiting for the next step?

Look at your goals – what is you want and why? What is the overarching purpose? What else is there in your role that you are not 100% an expert in? What would it look like if you were to totally master your role? And then what stretch assignments can you take on to help develop and engage you?

There is always more to learn, look at what you can do to keep engaged and committed. Be patient it will come. If there is a need to get to the next step look at where it is coming from, use that energy in development rather than resentment, and you will get there quicker. If you start acting entitled – it will make or break your next step.

The most rewarding moment in your career to date?

Being sent to NZ and winning the entrepreneur award consequently. Me being sent to NZ, but first building that plan really built the trust in me and showed them I was so committed and how much I wanted it. What are you willing to do to get where you want to go?

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