L Brands CEO Wexner shares leadership lessons from storied career

les wexner
Les Wexner’s September keynote attracted a record audience for a COE event.

Even as an icon in leadership circles who’s built a thriving, multibillion-dollar retail business, L Brands Founder, Chairman and CEO Les Wexner stays true to his roots – and is quick to acknowledge them.

“But for The Ohio State University, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college and get the basic education that helped me so significantly in my career,” he said, opening his featured keynote at the Center for Operational Excellence’s September seminar. “Every time I come back on campus, I smile to myself.”

Wexner came back on campus to headline a leadership seminar that attracted nearly 300 attendees, making it the largest in COE’s nearly 25-year history. Here’s a look back at some of his best insights over a wide-ranging discussion that covered his personal philosophy on leadership – what he called “a lifetime executive education program you have to master for yourself” – along with his outlook on the retail business and his verdict on crucial past decisions he’s made:

On the value of leadership education: “I firmly believe leadership is not just an important thing – it’s the most important thing, and it’s undervalued in high schools, colleges and universities. If there’s a single thread of teaching and learning that I try to influence at our university, and influence other educators to think about, it’s the importance of leadership as a subject.”

On what makes a great leader: “Leaders come in all shapes and sizes with virtually every characteristic and kind of personality, but they all have the ability to influence, and influence is the foundation of leadership – whether it’s by pushing from behind, coalescing the middle or being an insurgent, General Patton-type. I always default to the front; I like to churn things up and say, ‘We can take that hill, let’s charge.’”

On the virtue of adaptability: “Leaders that continue to grow are optimistic but they’re professionally curious about society and they think about adapting, trying new things, and understanding things they can’t so they can be continually relevant in their own lives. … In my thinking, the only way to test my adaptability is to do something different. It’s very important mid-career not only to have a good understand of yourself, but to think about how to exercise that curiosity muscle between your ears and be adaptive.”

On why brick-and-mortar retail is here to stay: “We’re pack animals. People like to be with people; that’s part of the human condition. It’s what they buy that changes, and one of the things that’s interesting to us is how the Internet has changed lifestyles, communication, and the consumer. … Still, we find that shopping has to be fun and interesting, and we’ve been experimenting with that for several years.”

les wexnerOn his game-changing decisions to spin off brands such as Abercrombie + Fitch, The Limited and Express: “I believe in life cycles. I look at those cycles and say, ‘OK, when’s the next wave coming, and is that a good or a bad thing for us? Those were very tough decisions I thought over for a long time. I gathered in my own mind the information and had to suck up some courage to do it. It turned out to be the right thing to do and it did take our business to a better place.”

On the inevitable challenge, and opportunity, of risk: “Leaders have to have a pretty good instrument on risk. We remember generals that won wars, not the ones that got killed doing foolish things. There’s that notion of knowing yourself, and leadership is about change, taking people to places that haven’t imagined. That means risk. … Leaders have a vision that’s a little different than the one that’s popular at the moment, and in that you have to assess failure. If I didn’t screw up some things, that means I didn’t push hard enough.”

On why aiming high matters: “I try to encourage our enterprise to really dream. If you don’t have a dream, you can’t have a dream come true. Still, you have to focus on ambition, in part, and separately think about the resources you need, and the risks. … The world’s changing while we’re here and it’s just going to get faster in the future. Are we stimulated by that? I am.”

On how he stays busy – and grounded: “What I worry about is running out of work – it would just be a terminal thing. I like the idea of work, and I have a substantive to-do list that’s more than I can finish. … I made a decision in my early 40s that I could make more money but I couldn’t make more time. Nobody can make more time. If I was effective and efficient, I could do more with the limited time I have.”

On why he enjoys leading: “People ask me when I’m going to retire, and I say, ‘When I’m unhappy.’ I like the people I work with, the challenges, the changes. Leaders have to be happy with themselves. If they’re not, they can’t lead themselves, let alone others.”

On the ultimate test of a leader: “The simplest measure of leadership is this: Did you actually take people to a better place? Are we better off today than we were yesterday, whether that’s in business, family or community? It’s not about how many people followed you blindly. Did you actually improve things in hindsight?”

Employees of COE member companies can revisit Wexner’s full keynote, along with the morning “Authentic Leadership” keynote by Fisher Prof. Tony Rucci, by logging into the members-only area on our website.

(Author’s Note: Quotes have been lightly edited and condensed)

Member news roundup: OSU fundraising tops $3B; Progressive makes hiring push

Center for Operational Excellence member companies have made headlines in the past week. Here are the highlights:

BMW Financial looking to innovate in auto-finance sector (Automotive Management Online)

Columbus-based BMW Financial has selected five startups to join an Innovation Lab, dubbed the automotive sector’s first financial technology business incubator. “The five finalists,” according to AM Online, present a range of innovations that could revolutionize how consumers own and insure cars in the future, from opening up entirely new types of leases to consumers, through to tackling the barriers young drivers face.”

FedEx Services Co-CEO to lead solo next year (Bloomberg)

FedEx Corp. this week unveiled a number of changes in its C-suite, led by news that FedEx Express chief Dave Bronczek will become president and COO of the parent company. This makes him primed to succeed CEO Fred Smith. FedEx also announced the retirement of Mike Glenn, whose roles included co-CEO of FedEx Services. The other Co-CEO, Rob Carter, will become FedEx Services CEO in 2017.

KeyCorp clears major hurdle to purchasing First Niagara (Albany Business Review)

Cleveland-based KeyCorp this week received clearance from the Office for the Comptroller of the Currency to buy Buffalo-based First Niagara Financial Group. It’s the last step in a nearly yearlong process to merge the banks’ assets.

Nationwide in deal to buy Jefferson National (Louisville Business First)

Columbus-based Nationwide is buying Jefferson National of Louisville, taking on the company’s portfolio of investment and fee-based advisers. Nationwide said the deal marks a major expansion of its sales reach in the financial services market. The transaction, which will make Jefferson National a Nationwide subsidiary, is set to close early next year.

Ohio State fundraising push tops $3B (Columbus Dispatch)

The “But For Ohio State” fundraising campaign launched under former Ohio State University President Gordon Gee is coming to a close with a haul past the $3 billion mark. OSU President Michael Drake on Thursday told major donors that the university brought in $3,004,563,961. For scale, that’s about half of the university’s annual top line.

Progressive Insurance mounts big hiring push (Insurance Networking News)

Cleveland-based Progressive Insurance said it plans to hire about 1,300 people by the end of the year, mostly information technology positions. Jobs will be added at its headquarters and other offices around the country. That’s an increase of about 5 percent over Progressive’s headcount as of June 2016.

Wexner Medical Center chief outlines path forward in Q&A (Columbus CEO)

Dr. Sheldon Retchin, CEO of OSU’s Wexner Medical Center, said in a recent interview that he’s seeking to “make Ohio State a place where innovation and research are really top of the chart.” Growth areas, he said, include research in addictive medicine and health policy.

Upcoming supply chain event keynote wins major industry award

Don’t just take it from us that our featured keynote for next month’s Center for Operational Excellence supply chain event is a big deal.

chris caplice
Chris Caplice

The Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals at its annual conference in Orlando this week awarded Dr. Chris Caplice the Distinguished Service Award, the most prestigious honor around for supply chain professionals. Caplice, the executive director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, is the keynote at COE’s Oct. 21 supply chain forum. Registration is open now, though seating is restricted to employees of COE member companies.

Speaking of Caplice, CSCMP CEO Rick Blasgen said that Caplice “from his involvement in education, to his innovative work in identifying and developing technologies that have contributed to the improved efficiency and effectiveness of transportation, logistics, and supply chain processes … has had a dramatic impact in shaping the supply chain discipline as we know it.”

Caplice has contributed to our growing knowledge on supply chain management from the industry and academic side, placing himself in what CSCMP calls an elite group. In addition to his MIT role, he has worked at Logistics.com, Sabre Holdings, the Virginia Military Institute and the U.S. Army, where he served as an officer.

At COE’s event next month, Caplice is addressing a serious challenge for many organizations today, which lack supply chain designs that can suitably adapt to disruptions. He’ll be highlighting four oncoming trends – miniaturization, virtualization, decentralization and digitization – that will alter the competitive landscape as companies devise new ways to serve their customers. This session will provide supply chain managers and others with new insights as they rethink assumptions in their partner selection, distribution network design, and chosen service platforms.

Read more about the event here or register now.

Member news roundup: Huntington-FirstMerit deal, Cardinal Health leadership

Center for Operational Excellence member companies have made headlines in the past week. Here are the highlights:

Cardinal Health steps up commitment to women in leadership roles (Columbus Business First)

Cardinal Health Inc. is making a concerted effort to promote women because that will bring it closer to its customers in health care, said Paul Gotti, vice president of nuclear pharmacy at the Dublin health care giant.

Crown Equipment honored for commitment to hiring veterans (Lima News)

Crown Equipment was honored Wednesday by the Ohio Department of Veterans Services for its dedication to hiring and retaining military veterans. Chip Tansill, director of the the Ohio Department of Veterans Services, traveled to Crown’s headquarters in New Bremen to thank the veterans for their service, and to acknowledge the company’s consistent recruitment of Ohio’s military servicemen and women.

Huntington sets sights on converting FirstMerit branches (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

Columbus-based Huntington announced its $3.4 billion purchase of FirstMerit in January. The deal closed two weeks ago and FirstMerit will be converted to the Huntington brand in full early next year. Until then, Huntington is asking FirstMerit customers to continue using existing FirstMerit branches.

Wexner Medical Center revenue tops $3B (Columbus Business First)

Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center had $3.21 billion revenue in its first full year with the James Cancer Hospital tower and doubled emergency department, a 9 percent increase over the prior year and passing the $3 billion milestone for the first time.

DHL Supply Chain adding to payroll in central Ohio with tax-cut help (Columbus Business First)

An unidentified beauty products company will receive a six-year, 1.485 percent tax credit in a pass-through by third-party logistics partner DHL Supply Chain. The company, formerly known as Exel, will add $13.31 million in annual payroll as a result of the project.

Scotts buying 90 acres in Marysville (Columbus Business First)

A Marysville hospital system is scrapping plans for an expansion in the city, opting instead to turn 90 acres of undeveloped land back over to Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. for product testing. Memorial Health will sell the land bordering Route 33 to Scotts (NYSE:SMG) for $4 million, both organizations said.

Goodyear’s SVP of global ops on way out (Crain’s Cleveland)

The tiremaker this week disclosed that Gregory L. Smith, senior vice president of global operations, will leave the company Dec. 15. Joe Zekoski, the company’s chief technical officer, took over his duties earlier in August.

Greif tops earnings estimates in latest quarter (Yahoo! Finance)

The Delaware, Ohio-based industrial packaging maker said it had profit of 78 cents per share. Earnings, adjusted for one-time gains and costs, came to 91 cents per share. The results exceeded Wall Street expectations of 72 cents a share.

Nationwide, Owens Corning make ranks of best places to work in I.T.

A pair of Center for Operational Excellence members have landed on ComputerWorld’s annual ranking of the best companies to work in information technology.

nwide oc logosThe magazine’s 23rd annual ranking placed Toledo-based COE member Owens Corning fourth on its large-company list, up from No. 7 in 2015. Columbus-based Nationwide landed at No. 36 on the list, up from 49th in 2015.

ComputerWorld’s rankings surveyed nearly 25,000 I.T. staffers at the nominated companies to rank the list, culling details on office culture, benefits, and training/career development opportunities.

The magazine singled out Owens Corning’s “dynamic environment that offers employees opportunities to grow professionally.” Nationwide received plaudits for its learning and innovation events, “hackathons” and peer-led educational sessions.  The company also is active in COE’s IT Leadership Network, a group of IT leaders committed to implementing process improvement principles in that space.

Coming in at No. 1 on the large-company list this year was Detroit-based Quicken Loans, whose president spoke for COE members in 2012.

Explore the list here or download a PDF of the detailed ranking here.

J&J exec, Buckeye football greats fill out summer innovation series

Whether it’s at a $70 billion-a-year consumer products conglomerate or a fledgling business in the heart of the Buckeye State, innovation is the fuel that keeps organizations moving and evolving.

The Center for Operational Excellence is continuing its three-part “Innovation Summer” series in July and August with a look at two very different organizations of vastly different scope and how best practices in product development are helping them grow.

meri stevensOn Wednesday, July 13, COE welcomes Meri Stevens (pictured, left), the vice president of supply chain strategy and deployment at Johnson & Johnson for Innovation Summer, Part 2: Innovation Beyond Your Four Walls. Building on a June 16 keynote from Mark Anderson of 3M Co. on R&D collaboration inside the company, Stevens will share how the maker of Tylenol, Listerine, and countless other products is collaborating upstream and downstream to fuel radical, breakthrough innovation.

For Johnson & Johnson, even the very concepts of “upstream” and “downstream” are changing in an era of unprecedented consumer involvement as products such as 3-D printers extend value creation beyond the company’s borders. Stevens will share how this shift has brought about major cultural change for J&J’s thousands of supply chain employees as they work to “move the needle” for the Fortune 50 business.

Stevens’ presentation will be followed by a trio of TED Talk-like presentations from Fisher College of Business researchers, led by “Innovation Summer” organizer Prof. Aravind Chandrasekaran, on the latest insights into collaborative innovation.

Click here to register for this 8:30 a.m. to noon event at Ohio State’s Fawcett Center, exclusively for employees of COE member companies. This session is recommended for those interested in either innovation or supply chain management.

carpenter schlegel“Innovation Summer” concludes Thursday, Aug. 18, by exploring principles of the “lean startup” with a presentation from Buckeye football greats Bobby Carpenter (pictured, far left) and Anthony Schlegel (pictured, immediate left). Both Carpenter and Schlegel, Fisher College of Business MBA graduates who played for the Buckeyes and went on to be drafted in the NFL, founded The Difference USA LLC, which makes and markets a portable striking machine. Schlegel, who invented The Difference, will share along with Carpenter his journey to bring the product to life and the lasting lessons the team has learned about the process of innovation.

Registration for this event is set to open Wednesday, July 13.

For details on these events and save-the-dates for additional COE opportunities, check out our events page.

COE summit highlighted on ‘Manufacturing Tomorrow’ podcast

manufacturing tomorrow
Have five minutes to spare?

The Ohio Manufacturing Institute just released the latest edition of its semi-monthly Manufacturing Tomorrow podcast, which they recorded at the Center for Operational Excellence’s Leading Through Excellence summit just last month.

Podcast Executive Producer Kathryn Kelley in this edition interviews a trio of COE members – Agrana Fruit’s John Labrador, Crown Equipment’s Craig Wreede and WillowWood’s John Matera – on what operational excellence means for them. Listen here, and check out the podcast’s website here.

COE regularly partners with OMI to bring speakers to Manufacturing Tomorrow. Past COE collaborations have resulted in podcasts interviewing Goodyear’s Norbert Majerus, COE Executive Director Peg Pennington, Snap-On Inc. CEO Nick Pinchuk and more. They’re all on the podcast archive.

Special thanks to Kathryn Kelley and the OMI team for visiting the summit and featuring our members.


Lean IT, innovation, women’s leadership sessions on COE summer slate

Following a record-breaking Leading Through Excellence summit in April, the Center for Operational Excellence is gearing up for a busy slate of summer events.

Spotlight on MassMutual at IT Leadership Network forum

Dalton Li
Dalton Li

After a visit from Menlo Innovations CEO and Joy Inc. author Rich Sheridan May 13, COE’s popular IT Leadership Network forum series returns June 3 with a presentation from Dalton Li, a vice president who leads the continuous improvement practice for $29 billion-a-year MassMutual Financial Group.

In this session, which kicks off with a networking breakfast, Li will provide an inside look at MassMutual’s approach to lean deployment, its coaching strategy, and its support system for sustaining gains. Li began his career as a nuclear submarine officer based in Annapolis and later served as an assistant professor for the U.S. Navy before working at consultancy McKinsey & Co. for six years. He joined MassMutual in his current role in 2012.

Formal invites for this session are set to go out early the week of May 2.

Innovation Summer series

B. Carpenter, A. Schlegel
B. Carpenter, A. Schlegel

Just a few weeks later, COE kicks off a three-part “Innovation Summer” series led by Associate Director Aravind Chandrasekaran. This series, set for June 16, July 14 and Aug. 18, tackles questions including: How can companies leverage lean/Six Sigma practices to build more agility for innovation teams inside their organization? How can they carry those across the supply chain? And how can these best practices cultivate an idea from its earliest stages?

Across this trio of sessions, you’ll hear from innovation icon 3M, Buckeye/NFL greats and business owners Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel (pictured, left), and more.

Registration for the first of the three sessions will open the week of May 9.

‘Build Your Brand’ workshop

Krista Neher

COE’s semi-annual Women’s Leadership Forum series returns June 24 for a workshop with Krista Neher, CEO of Boot Camp Digital. This “Launch Yourself” session will help attendees define, design and deliver a powerful personal brand online.

Registration for this limited-capacity session will open the week of May 16.

Check out COE’s events page for save-the-dates on additional events into the fall and through 2017.

‘Joy Inc.’ author, former summit keynote Sheridan returning in May

Miss last year’s Leading Through Excellence summit? Looking to revisit one of our most popular keynotes?

Rich Sheridan during his keynote at Leading Through Excellence 2015
Rich Sheridan during his keynote at Leading Through Excellence 2015

The Center for Operational Excellence is partnering with Fisher College of Business’ Master of Business Operational Excellence program to bring to campus Rich Sheridan, CEO of award-winning software developer Menlo Innovations LLC and author of Joy Inc. Employees of COE member companies are invited to join MBOE program alumni the morning of Friday, May 13, for a keynote by Sheridan, who kicked off the 2015 Leading Through Excellence summit and led a half-day workshop.

A programmer by trade, Sheridan entered the corporate world and found at the midpoint of his career that he no longer experienced the joy that had drawn him to the industry. After losing his job as a software development executive when the dot-com bubble burst, he founded Menlo Innovations in 2001, saying the company’s purpose was to “bring joy to the world through software.” Menlo has gone on to win the Alfred P. Sloan award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility for eight straight years and has earned five revenue awards from Inc. magazine.

In his keynote, based on Joy Inc., Sheridan will offer an inside look at the culture that’s flourished at Menlo over the last 15 years that leverages visual management, an open and collaborative workspace, and a “fail fast” ethos that has garnered attention nationwide. All attendees will receive a complimentary copy of Sheridan’s book, Joy Inc.

Click here to register for this limited-capacity event.

Team building, problem solving take center stage at 2016 COE summit

The Center for Operational Excellence’s flagship annual event has more than a few things in common with the fast-paced racing world featured in the kickoff to the fourth-annual Leading Through Excellence summit.

In the span of three years, COE’s April Leading Through Excellence summit has grown to a gathering of nearly 400 process excellence leaders from around the world: 50 companies, a dozen workshops and tours, 20 breakout sessions, four dynamic keynote addresses, and countless insights across three days aimed at helping organizations harness the power of process improvement.

Here’s a look back at the event:

PIT action

Leading Through Excellence began with a bang as nearly 100 attendees plunged into the high-paced world of pit crew racing, guided by Mooresville, N.C.-based training ground Performance Instruction & Training (PIT). The session’s focus on handoffs, coordination and standard work drove home the importance of having a high-functioning team for Cheryl Cole of KeyBank, which sent 17 employees to the conference. “We can all benefit from what we experienced from PIT,” she said. “Teams tend not to be aware of the significance of being in sync.”

PIT team
Team-building emerged as the heart of Leading Through Excellence, where a number of companies brought upwards of 15 employees. “Getting a team together, you start bouncing ideas off each other,” said attendee Linda Schaefer of COE member Clopay. “You get more people involved, the excitement builds, and great things always come of that.”


Operational excellence isn’t bound by the Japanese words that make the foundations of lean. Author Dan Markovitz (A Factory of One, Building the Fit Organization) in his workshop offered a jargon-free look at continuous improvement that’s at the heart of his own passion to break down barriers to understanding. “If we could speak to them using analogies and metaphors that make sense to them, all the sudden we don’t have to go uphill,” Markovitz told COE in a pre-summit interview.


Longtime COE member Cardinal Health Inc. hosted a “train the trainer” workshop hosted by Luis Loya (pictured, middle) that modeled the health-care company’s own best practices in teaching lean practices.

Off-site tours during Leading Through Excellence ranged from a trip to Anheuser-Busch InBev’s massive Columbus brewing facility to a trip through the production line at COE member Abbott Nutrition. Here, Ohio State’s own Spine Research Institute demonstrates its trailblazing work in studying back problems, a hugely costly yet widely misunderstood workplace ailment.

Ben Cook
After hosting two high-paced rounds of pit crew training simulations on the first day of Leading Through Excellence, Performance Instruction & Training’s Ben Cook took to the stage to kick off a full day of breakout sessions. Before a crowd of nearly 400 people from 50 companies, Cook illustrated PIT’s “think inside the box” philosophy, that’s hinged on driving precision from a highly functioning team and reducing human error as much as possible. “The problem is the human element – that’s what happened with us as pit crew members. If we break down, then we lose the race; the car’s not gonna lose the race for us anymore.”

True leaders don’t bark answers – they ask questions that help dig to the root of the problem. Attendees practiced asking effective questions in a packed session hosted by lean expert Margie Hagene.

More than half of all breakout sessions at Leading Through Excellence are hosted by industry leaders, sharing stories of what worked, what didn’t – and how we can all learn from it. Pictured is Guru Vasudeva, SVP and Enterprise CTO at COE member and summit sponsor Nationwide, who shared his own “day in the life of a lean leader.”

The balance of the breakout sessions at Leading Through Excellence are hosted by Fisher College of Business faculty members sharing their own research. Pictured is Prof. Aravind Chandrasekaran, who offered insights he gleaned from working with high-tech manufacturers facing sudden – and potentially cataclysmic – shifts in project scope.

Matt Dumas (pictured, above) of COE member Honda R&D said the summit is “a great event for a team. To have more of the organization thinking about lean and understanding these principles makes it that much easier to take it back and work together to apply it.”

Lead summit sponsor MoreSteam.com gave attendees a hands-on taste of process design principles with a catapult workshop that had participants taking a “MacGuyver” approach and facing off in friendly competition.

Longtime lean leader Joe Murli in his keynote address offered his decades-in-the-making perspective on the lean management system. Of the summit, he said “this isn’t just leading-edge thought, but edge of the envelope thinking here. It’s little things that we can pluck off the tree and bring back to put into what we’re already doing. That makes it much more powerful.”

Connecting an organization’s purpose and mission down to day-to-day work can be a formidable challenge for any company. David Kalman of Root Inc. in his popular breakout session showed attendees how visuals can help close that gap.

Harvard Business School researcher and professor Francesca Gino, author of the book Sidetracked, guided attendees through the wild world of decision making, where our hard-wired instincts often stand in the way of the right calls. “We are human beings,” Gino said. “Often we start with a plan, a clear goal, and we take the time to come up with a clear action plan. When we look at the outcome, we’re often a little bit off target.” Knowing how to counteract the unconscious biases and instincts we possess, Gino said, can lead us to better decision making, she said.

The behind-the-scenes action at Leading Through Excellence was fueled by more than three-dozen Fisher College of Business undergraduate students, graduate students and staff members, who served as volunteers and introduced speakers throughout the event.

Accidental Creative founder and acclaimed author Todd Henry closed out Leading Through Excellence, urging the audience to ask: “How are you bringing yourself to the table every day as a leader? A brilliant idea is not enough – in order to succeed, you have to develop your voice as a leader and you have to help your team develop its voice.”

Want to see more? Check out the full album of summit photos on our Flickr site. And mark your calendar for Leading Through Excellence 2017, April 11-13.