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PODCAST EPISODE 39: WINNIE PARK | CEO, FOREVER 21


For Winnie Park, CEO of Forever 21 and former CEO of Paper Source, one of the biggest leadership lessons she learned in her career was when she was told to stop being perfect! Her boss at the time challenged her by moving her into an area where she had no past experience. While initially this seemed like a bad career move, it resulted in incredible growth for her as a leader, and re-ignited her curiosity and humility.


In this interview, Winnie, who recently took over the helm at Forever 21, talks about the most vulnerable time in her life and how it prompted her to show up as her authentic self as a leader. She also discusses her early experiences emigrating from Korea to the US, how it established early patterns in her life, and the rippling effects of how you show up as a leader for your team.


Here are my three big takeaways from the conversation:


  1. It’s not only ok to not know all the answers, it will actually make you a better, more curious and thoughtful leader. Oh, and it will help people feel more connected to and inspired by you.

  2. You are establishing (or not establishing) trust with every single action and non-verbal communication.

  3. Good leaders cultivate other good leaders right from the start.


Winnie demonstrates how soft skills such as relationship building and self awareness can empower leaders to be most effective for their teams. I know you’ll find a ton of wisdom and insights from this episode. I can’t wait to see her plans for Forever 21!


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TRANSCRIPT


Winnie: There was a moment when I started at Paper Source and I said, I'm just actually going to show up as my authentic self and share my journey, my personal one, not just my professional one and the receptivity by the teams at paper source. When I was able to share my most vulnerable moment was incredible.


Aaron: I'm Aaron Levy. And I have this vision of a workplace where your manager doesn't suck where instead your manager is your coach helping you to reach your full potential at work. I founded Raise The Bar, wrote Open, Honest and Direct, and started this podcast to help companies transform their workplace to a place where both the company and employee succeeds.


In this podcast, I get to interview leaders who built high-performing teams. And learn from them on what it takes to unlock a team with potential.


Today, I'm lucky to have the new CEO of Forever 21 Winnie Park. Winnie's career as a brand builder over the last 20 years is really impressive, though what excited me most about our conversation today was her humility and curiosity and how all of those skills lead to high-performing teams. Winnie brings a level of humanness to the workplace and our understanding of people is what truly seems to be the connection that binds all her vast experiences together.


Listen closely as there's a lot of gold to glean from this episode.


Aaron: Winnie, thank you for coming on. It's a pleasure to have you, and I'm just really grateful that you are willing to join us in your first couple of weeks at your new venture.


Winnie: Thanks so much, Aaron. It's it's been a wild ride and I'm super happy to be with you.


Aaron: So my first curiosity, was with Forever 21 there being so much turmoil around it with bankruptcy, new ownership, a new CEO in you after a CEO that had only been there for a short period of time.


There's, you know, there's a lot of ups and downs. What inspired you to take on this role?


Winnie: I, sometimes I question that, but I can tell you what the point of inspiration is. And that is a couple of things. First and foremost the brand was founded by Korean immigrants.


And when I started shopping there a gazillion years ago, about the time they were founded about 30 years ago. It was exciting to see a business really flourished that had been started by Korean immigrants because I, myself can definitely relate to that story. Having immigrated to the states when I was two and a half.


And what I saw as value of the brand was just bringing really amazing trends and styles at a very, very affordable price. I've been a shopper. I've been a customer. I followed their journey and being part of that journey and being part of the story as we take the brand to the next level is something that just really inspired me.


And it wasn't intellectual inspiration. It was kind of, it was heartfelt. I would say that the other thing is I can totally relate to the journey that the teams have been on as I've had to go through and file chapter 11 for the last brand that I work with Paper Source. And that was an, an in an effort to really restructure it so that it was future-proof and that it could survive.


And we were able to successfully do that, but . It's one of these things where you start that process with a goal in mind and really with an aspiration of getting the business in a much healthier place from a debt perspective and from a real estate perspective. And as you go through it, you realize it's such an emotional journey and it really takes its toll on people.


And I was lucky enough to have my teams really stick it out with me. But there was blood, sweat, and tears. And so I could only imagine what the teams at Forever 21 had gone through. And we've been able at Forever 21 to retain a lot of amazing talent. Who've been there for many, many years, decades, and they've stuck it out because their passion for the brand.


And so for me, I could relate to their journey and wanted to be part of, of bringing them out of it.


Aaron: Yeah. I love that it's coming from the heart and with that, what are you hoping to bring or to evolve at Forever 21 as you kind of bring your heart and mind into it?


Winnie: You know, I'm still, I'm still figuring that out. And part of the process for me is tapping into the hearts and minds of the people at the brand who've carried it through and have so much of the history. But what I saw as an opportunity for Forever 21 is one, to move the brand from being quote unquote fast fashion and all the negatives that are associated with that, including an impact on environment and move it towards being what I think it is and what I think it has been, which is it takes a place in people's lives as a place and a brand that offers amazing trends.


And as a curator of those trends and taps into really the zeitgeists of what's happening in popular culture and delivering it in product formats. But I think that the future for Forever 21 is to take it one step further and actually build community as well as content around that amazing product and to do the storytelling and to really have greater relevance by touching people emotionally and not just by again, fashion drop after fashion drop.


And I see that transformation in the potential for it, both in stores and online because so many of our customers are actually the youngest customers are just centennials and their social natives they're beyond digital natives. And that connection point, that human connection point and storytelling is so important to them because they have access to whatever they want whenever they want.

They've grown up with Amazon at their fingertips. I think that there is a real opportunity to have Forever 21 to be a curator of products, but also experiences that are relevant and to raise awareness. We have an amazing collection on floor right now to celebrate Black History month. And we worked with artists largely from Los Angeles, Black artists in the product and the storytelling.


It's just amazing. It's moving. And for them to use us as a platform to really scale up their voice is something that I'm super, super proud of. And so doing those types of things to really, again, build community and relevance and be more than just throw away fashion is the aspiration for Forever 21 of the future.


Aaron: I love that. And you, you mentioned this younger audience that your buyers really are, and you've been in the world of fashion for, for a significant part of your career. And you've been in the world of retail as well for a significant part of your career. And with, as you mentioned, the decline of retail and the increase in people, jumping from job to job, to job.


How are you thinking about, or what are lessons you've learned from your past lives that you're going to bring forward into keeping your young population excited, energized by the product and by working at Forever 21?


Winnie: Right. that is a big question that faces so many of us in the industry especially with the pandemic and folks really just re-evaluating what work-life means to them as well as where they want to spend their time and how they want to spend their time. for me this really goes back to developing a brand that touches not just minds, but hearts and one of the key lessons that I've learned through my lifetime is . The places that I've been the happiest.

I had a personal connection to the people around me and that sense of community and belonging carried me through really, really tough times. And today more so than ever people work for and with people. It's less about company, big C and it's much more about people and feeling a sense of purpose, feeling a sense of belonging, having a mission that is shared, but also having fun.


I think so often you forget that aspect of, of just joy and what brings joy to people, especially as they work together. And so for me as I mentioned earlier, with Forever 21, having been through such a tough journey, one of the immediate I think opportunities is to celebrate the accomplishments of the folks, but also imbue fun and what they do.


I would say the other thing is you know, I think evolving the definition of what teamwork looks like. You know, we've all learned how to work remotely, and this is something that I'm personally struggling with right now is I've never started at a company where you start remote.


Winnie: I've had the benefit of being boots on the ground, meeting people face to face, and there's so much magic that happens when you're interacting with someone face-to-face it could be, you know, literally, getting a drink in the kitchen or just walking around and seeing something amazing and stopping someone and saying, Hey, talk to me about that.


I feel like I'm really missing that piece. And I would say that people are missing that piece. I think part of this is how do we find that balance between the face-to-face interaction and doing probably very fast and effective work via zoom. Teams, et cetera. The other balancing act that I think we all need to find emerging from the pandemic is unfortunately, zooms can go on chock-a-block all day and I do think people are working longer.


Winnie: And there are more meetings. And so finding that balance again between, you know, live interaction zooms and then recalibrating what good looks like in terms of we don't have to work longer. We need to work smarter. And so those are some of the things that I'm highly conscious of, especially as we look at the level of retention, frankly, retention of top talent.


The final piece of this is in my past life. I'm a real proponent of elevating teams and people from the point of leadership, as opposed to, from the point of being able to manage tasks, I had a mentor early in my career who said to me, Winnie, when you start your career, people will value you for what you can do.


Winnie: And you're really just executing tasks. Then as a manager, that second part of your career, they value what you know, because you have history. And then the third part of your career, as a, you know, an executive, they value you more for who you are. And for me, I've taken a step back and actually said, why can't we take that third component and have that be step one and cultivate leaders and leaders who are hugely self-aware self aware of the impact that they have are comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work are comfortable with vulnerability. And building real emotional connections with the people that they work with. Not just transactional ones. And it goes in line with, you know, another mentor telling me when I joined DFS, they said here positional power means very little titles, mean very, very little, especially in the world of luxury.


It is relational . In relationships and relational power. that means everything. And so with relational power, it's building relationships, it's building trust. And I will say that the last thing that I always hold in terms of trust, and I tell people is trust. is really action over time and consistent action over time. It's not words that's how you build it. And so for me those aspects of what good looks like in leadership are some things that I really hold dear. And I really believe you teach right from the beginning, regardless of level in an organization.


Aaron: Oh man. my whiteboard desk is covered in notes. I want to dive so much deeper into all these elements. And maybe I'll just start kind of where you finished, which is trust is consistent action over time. And I think you and I aligned on this last time we talked about. More, interestingly, I'm curious, how do you as a new leader, you know, whether you're coming in and being hired on as you know, a boss of a new team, or you're taking out a new role as a leader for a group of people that maybe were once your peers, how do you build that trust, build that consistent action over time?

I

Winnie: I happen to be in that position right now with Forever 21. I think I'm a day 15 on the job. And I know that the onus of building trust is actually on me. Not on the people around me. Step one is really, really simple which is, if you say you're going to do something, do it. And I call this follow through on your followups and it drives me crazy when you have a meeting where you talk, talk, and talk, and at the end of it, you don't have here's. Here's what each person's going to do to take the next steps.


Winnie: And so for me just taking a pause moment at the very end to say who's on first for what. And following through on it in a timely fashion. I would also say let's take that outside of just tasks again, but into how you show up as a leader. It is super difficult for teams when you wear your emotions on your sleeve.


I think you can be a leader who evokes emotion and the right kind of emotion, which is, you know, the emotion behind this sounds kind of silly but love the emotions behind safety, the emotions behind passion and excitement for a common goal, as opposed to some of the other emotions that can come when you're working with a leader fear feeling like you don't measure up.


I've worked with people who are highly unpredictable. They go from being super warm and, and exciting to angry. so the other consistent action over time is that self-awareness and understanding your facial expressions, how you went to a room, how you how you address someone even in passing how you kick up a meeting, even when you're angry matters.


Winnie: And there are ways to show your displeasure or to show disappointment without taking it out on the people around you, but you gotta be self-aware, and so that's the action we often don't check into. We're all real good at saying I did that. I did that. We make our checklists, you know, our to do list.


That's, that's kind of like what you expect early on in your career. As, as a leader, you need to step up your game. And it is a lot of just literally checking in with yourself to say, how am I doing? How am I going to show up for my people and my teams? And can I keep that calm? Can I keep that centeredness during the course of every day come what may? I think it is super hard and I think so many of us respond to difficult situations differently. Some people use humor. Some people, you know, like literally can't hold it back and they, they erupt. And the first step is actually being self-aware.


And how does that feel when you're on the other side of it. And I find that, by practicing, I call it conscious leadership and that level of self-awareness not just at work, but especially in your personal life with the relationships that matter at home and with your friends it has helped me tremendously. And so it's, but it is a practice like yoga you don't just master it, you gotta learn and practice and it's gotta be something you're really serious about.



Aaron: It's funny, you gave, you gave these two tips and one was like, oh yeah, I got it. Right. Like follow through on, follow-ups do what I say. I'm going to do, you know, at the end of a meeting, make sure we're all clear on our deliverables and action items. And as a top performer who was promoted to manager, that makes sense. That's easy. Okay. I can, as you said, add that to the checklist, make sure I do that.


Pay more attention to doing what I say I'm going to do, but then the second tip is. It's it's pretty profound and not something that we hear or talk about as much. I think that's probably why it's so profound is how you show up emotionally matters. And that range of emotions that you deliver to your team on a daily basis matters.

being able to not necessarily turn off those emotions, but how you check in with yourself, how you calm employees in this stressful moment so that your team doesn't get the lash out that they don't deserve because you're upset about something else, either at home or at work.


Aaron: And I think that's an incredible practice to work on. And you said words like awareness and consciousness and I'll add in intentionality, just bringing that idea. I think even sharing it with this audience is a, is a win in and of itself that how you show up emotionally matters and has an impact.


Winnie: Absolutely. And I also think when you do erupt and mis-direct your energy to people Having the humility to say I'm sorry. I had a boss who once , sent me a card that said, I'm sorry for what I said when I was hangry. . And I thought that was so apropos because how many times do we find ourselves just being hangry and saying or doing things that we, we don't feel good about, you know? But it is about saying I'm sorry, but the other piece of it is being conscious of the moment that you're in.


I do think that as you move on in your career and you move up and certainly this is true in retail. So for instance, I grew up in merchandising and you're often asked questions about the business and it's very difficult to say, I don't know. And you are really rewarded for being right.


And that becomes hard coded. So that when you become an executive in retail, being right often is more important than anything else. And that is a huge Achilles heel. It prevents you from listening. It prevents you from getting differing points of view. It prevents you from being dynamic and problem-solving, and it creates an emotional trigger where you're fighting to be right, as opposed to leaning in to what's the right answer and you may not have it. So how do you pause and really think through, wait a minute, am I being triggered? Because I'm so accustomed to being right. . That is what I need to feel a sense of self-worth and control.


And if you actually let go of being right, it's so freeing and it also allows you to do the right and human thing, which is to apologize and to find your humility. And I think in your humility, you're going to learn so much more.


Aaron: It's so interesting. There's a theme that comes as you get elevated within your career and as a leader and within the organizations that, you know, there's these phrases that I keep hearing from executives who are I find to be inspirational leaders like yourself and the phrases are the simplest ones.


I'm sorry. I was wrong. I don't know. And those become the most powerful things versus the beautiful, eloquent, strategic plan that you might take months to put together.


Winnie: Absolutely. And I would add one more, which has helped me that I think the, you know, the higher up you go in the organization, the more help you need and acknowledging that you need help.


And I have always found it really empowering when a leader that I, trusted and admired would say to me, Winnie, can you help me with this? I need help. Because that level of vulnerability is something that, that makes you want to help from an emotional perspective, not just from an intellectual one.


But it's also just so empowering. It's like, oh my goodness, I'm going to help the CEO. That's really cool. And truth be told, man, when you're a CEO, you need help more than ever. When you start your career, it's less so, and certainly in the middle, I think it's less. So, but once you get, to, to a position where you're really trying to be the North Star for an organization help is something that is, is critical and getting help is critical to success.


Aaron: Interesting that you're saying this and it's true. And it's right. And I just like, in my mind and playing this dynamic of immigrant minority female executive, it's almost like a, unfortunately, a unicorn in this world and the US; how were you able to kind of balance that? Probably I'm I'm making some assumptions, so please yell at me need to prove your worth with this way of leadership, which is

letting know that you actually can learn from others as opposed to proving worth. how have you balanced that dynamic in your life?


Winnie: I would say it's been a journey and I didn't do it very well earlier in my, in my life and in my career. you know, you add to the unicorn aspect, the fact that.

I immigrated to the States when I was two and a half years old. And during the, the post Vietnam war brain drain, my dad's a doctor. And so a lot of his medical school class took a test and he passed and he got us here, but my first language was Korean. And when I entered kindergarten, I didn't know English.


I really leaned into listening and observing but it was hard for me to say I need help because I literally couldn't say it. And I think a lot of my life, because of where I started was around adapting and trying to fit in and trying to be strong enough to. To just fit in. To just be accepted.


Aaron: It's, it's gotta be so hard to have that as, as a constant in the back of your mind, and from such a young age that builds and imprints, you know, thought patterns in your brain, how have you adjusted adapted or even accepted those, those thought patterns as you've evolved as a human?


Winnie: so just taking it back in terms of source, family and childhood

and trying to adapt all the time. And you know, when you are in adaptive mode, you're not asking for help. You're trying to blend in. And I would say that that was a theme throughout my career as well. In my life, you know, I crossed the Mason-Dixon line and went to Princeton for undergrad and I had a deep Southern accent.

And. I landed at a place where I felt like the biggest imposter on the planet. And again, it was trying to adapt. I'm trying to feel like I could fit in andthat I belonged. So you start to hardwire some of these survival instincts and once you become an executive it's so interesting; those survival instincts that you picked up when you were younger, definitely come through and you're not leaning into vulnerability. You're not asking for help. You are absolutely trying to be perfect and trying to adapt I was lucky enough. To have a boss pretty late in my career, but have a, a leader who pulled me aside.


And he was the CEO of DFS and Felipe was very aware of people because he was made aware of himself and it was a journey for him and he pulled me aside and he said Winnie , I'm just going to tell you how I see it, but you are perfect. You show up in every meeting perfect. You're organized. You've got your information together.


You look perfect and people don't like that. And he said, I'm going to tell you this because I was given the same feedback about a decade ago, and I had no idea. If you would show up and actually not be so perfect, not with all the answers, but show up with curiosity and ask for help. People would love you more Not necessarily your bosses, but the colleagues who work alongside you and members of the cross-functional team.


I had to take a breath because it went against everything I had trained myself to do in order to survive and, and thrive. You know, I was rewarded for always having the answers, always being perfect. And here he was saying, you're not going to get rewarded, you know, further on and you're, you're going to take some critical steps now where this is going to actually hurt you.


I literally and, and you know what, I was lucky enough in that he threw me in a situation where I knew nothing. So I had grown up doing merchandising and he came to me and said, my desire is to make DFS a consumer facing brand. And I want to develop the first ever consumer marketing team for this 50 year old brand.


And I want you to change from merchandising to marketing. And I said, okay. I don't think that makes sense. And here's why: one, I don't know anything about marketing, two, last time I checked, the board and you wanted me to be part of the succession plan to be the president of merchandising. That was what I was asked to do when I joined DFS four years ago.


So how do I weave that career progression behind, but more over how do I jump into something where I know nothing? And he said, you actually know a lot. And we're going to bring in a president of marketing who's been doing it for 30 years. She is going to be your partner in crime, but you bring a lot to her and that, you know, the organization, the brands, and this is going to kick you into high speed learning and curiosity mode.


It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I literally felt like I was being derailed from a career perspective. And instead I found myself in a situation where I knew nothing and I had the best time because I could turn on parts of myself that, that hadn't been turned on a long time. Curiosity being on a learning curve, feeling vulnerable.


Building something from the ground up because you know, the merchandising group was well-established for 50 years building a marketing team and trying to put DFS on the globe as a brand was a whole different set of challenges. that experience, and, I guess with Felipe, he not only gave me the feedback.

He put me in the situation where I had to like actually do it. And that was a big moment for me.


And I have to say the other piece of it was as a buyer or merchant at DFS you were revered by the organization, revered by the brands you've worked with; to go from that, I felt it, you know, I'd walk into the same meetings with Cartier or Gucci or some of the brands we work with. And I was just a nobody after being like the buyer, you know, the power of the pen and all that great stuff. And you know, having front row seats of fashion shows to be told, yeah, marketing doesn't care that much, you don't get you don't get a seat here.


Yep. Yep. You guys go execute campaigns in the background, but it was such a good experience for me because I realized that I had to carry a lot of that baggage too, of having the power of the pen and showing up a certain way. And when I went from hero to zero, I actually could learn and listen and build and work alongside you know, people who know a lot more than me about marketing and I was hiring, this amazing team of people who are like probably a decade or sometimes 15 years younger, who ran circles around me. And I would say, hold the phone, talk to me about search engine optimization. What was that about?


That took a lot of humility and I loved it because I found myself using parts of my brain and my kind of my emotional being that actually really get me excited. And that is when I'm in curiosity mode, learning mode and finding the humility gave me freedom.


Winnie: It gave me wings not knowing, not being the expert gave me wings that I never had before, because I didn't have to spend energy being perfect and having the right answers. And that is amazing.


And I would say that was, that was a real pivot moment. During that same period of time, I was living in Hong Kong and going through an awful divorce with my college sweetheart, a guy that I met in college, who, when I met him I went home to my roommates and said, I'm going to marry him one day. We had a life journey that brought us to Hong Kong for my job and we had a very young child. When we got to Hong Kong was four going on five, about to enter school and shortly thereafter, about a year into it, it became very clear that some of the things that my ex-husband struggled with, some of the demons were impacting all of us.


I made the very difficult decision to, to start this divorce process. And that was tough. That was really tough because while at work, I was in a learning mode and I'd done this pivot.


Personally I would go home and there was a lot of pain and loneliness and confusion, especially as I was trying to figure out how to get a divorce under British common law, gazillion miles away from family and friends And so, that was a parallel journey that I was taking.


With hindsight, I can see that the humility that I had to gain in my professional journey, not knowing anything about marketing or e-commerce, but having to erect an e-commerce site and the personal journey I was taking in terms of the humility. Accepting that I cannot control the outcome of everything and my perfect marriage was disintegrating.


That parallel journey, really. I would say what a big moment for me in terms of this next chapter, my life. it was a journey of, of humility of acceptance. And I actually held onto that shame until I left Hong Kong and DFS.


Winnie: There was a moment when I started at Paper Source and I said, I'm just actually going to show up as my authentic self and share my journey, my personal one, not just my professional one and the receptivity by the teams at Paper Source. When I was able to share my most vulnerable moment was incredible.


It was so uplifting and has now made me realize that I don't have to be something different at work than I am at home. That some of the things that I found shameful or difficult actually are things that real human beings that I work with can actually relate to, and take me down from being a quote unquote CEO, like someone at the top, to actually being a human being that they want to work with. That in a nutshell, I know it's long-winded, but those things really came together really in the past decade or so.


Aaron: Thank you for sharing in this format. And it's incredibly powerful and inspirational story around this. I mean, I'd circled it, right?