Ongoing Development, Operational Support

What the former CEO of Foot Locker told us about investing in the frontline

Posted on: December 14, 2023Updated on: January 2, 2024By: Maliyah Bernard

When Foot Locker, a retail pioneer and industry success story, wanted to move away from the way things were done—think tattered paper manuals and CD ROM-led backroom sessions—to modernize its approach to frontline training and enablement, they had their work cut out for them.

As a 150-year-old company that made the monumental decision to go digital across 40,000 associates in 28 countries and 3,200 stores around the world, there’s a lot to learn from their story. We sat down with Dick Johnson, the former CEO of Foot Locker, to learn more about why he decided to invest in technology that transformed the frontline employee AND customer experience and what it took to get his full buy-in. (And we mean full. After all, how many CEOs have to be weaned off their workplace training platform once they’re retired? Now you know at least one.)

Former CEO of Foot Locker Dick Johnson and CRO of Axonify Christine Tutssel at AxoniCom 2023

Q: Why was your team in the market for an employee enablement solution and what challenges were you up against before implementing Axonify?

Johnson: We used to very much be a standard operating procedure sort of company. You’d bring out three shoes for the customer. You’d bring socks over. All of these things were ways you got evaluated as an associate, having nothing to do with the customer experience. 

‘Why are you here today? Do you want to try something on? Are you looking for a specific color?’ All of these are questions that associates could ask to engage more effectively with the consumer, but we were more worried about making sure that we had three boxes at the try-on bench. 

We had the challenge of enabling and empowering the associate to get engaged. And all of these cultural mindsets that existed had to shift.

Then when Axonify came around and we created this platform together, all of a sudden COVID hit. We had 40,000 global associates in 28 countries and 3,200 stores that today are open and tomorrow could be closed. We had to think about how to get stores that are ready to reopen with local jurisdictions and laws and health and safety regulations that we had to follow.

There was no standard communication other than, ‘We’re here for you. The company’s here; we’re not laying people off. We’re going to continue to pay you.’ But when it came down to how to open stores in Nashville versus Memphis versus Singapore versus Amsterdam, we had a tool that allowed us to speak to each of these stores, geographies and regions, which gave us great access to the employees.

Q: What were some of the hurdles your team had to address?

Johnson: BYOD is a real challenge and one that we discussed a lot around my table with my senior leaders. What ultimately flipped the script for us is we created a reasonable digital engagement with our customers. When you’d be in a store and you would see a customer come in with their device and they would have more knowledge about what was in our store’s backroom than our associate had, it sort of started to trigger that we have to again, empower those associates so that they have at least as much information as the customer. I mean, you’d like them to be a little bit ahead, but to at least be on a level playing field. The engagement that our associates needed to have with the customer had to be at the level that the customers were already engaged with the company.

We also had a significant amount of tech debt. Any time we talked about adding an application or emerging tech, for us, there was a challenge. But empowering the frontline associate and making sure there are steady levels of communication was something our whole team believed in.

Q: Who were the stakeholders your teams had to engage with?

The leader of our North American stores who’s now running the Champs Sports division was really one of the lead advocates. We had a really strong L&D team that did great work at the corporate level and our CHRO always had a place at the table

But our team, again, being part of the FW Woolworth SOP sort of operating environment, started to make that evolutionary change that we had to get the power at the point of transaction, which was our associates with the customers in the stores. And again, you always have to satisfy the CFO’s requirements.

Any investment that you make, there has to be payback. Some of it’s soft payback and some of it’s hard numbers you can measure. In this case, empowering associates was an easy rallying point and it was a natural fit once we tested and piloted it. The good work that Axonify did to personalize [the solution] to the needs that we had at the time made it a no-brainer—then it was, ‘How fast could we go?’ 

Q: How did you drive buy-in at the store level?

It’s not a half an hour dedicated to training here in the back room. It’s two or three minutes. But people didn’t necessarily buy in right away. At a store manager or district manager meeting, you would hear the success stories. And I’m a big believer that success begets success. 

You’d hear this group over here talking about the improvements to their in-store scores, their engagement numbers. And at the root of many of those improvements was Lace Up. Then you’d have a couple of people over here who weren’t seeing the same level of improvement, and it became clear that, whether it was a store manager or a district manager, if they didn’t get with the program, they were going to get left behind. 

In our industry, we’re a competitive lot. Everybody is in business, but we’re sports-centered and winning is important. There’s nothing like walking into a store that had great monthly, quarterly or yearly performance—the manager’s going to tell you. That’s the great part about being in the stores: they’re going to tell you what’s working. I think we created a culture in which they also told us what wasn’t working, so we were able to use the tool to address some of those things as well.

Q: Results change minds. How did your L&D team get your support, and what role did you play in driving adoption?

Johnson: Your C-suite needs to understand the benefits that will accrue to the organization. Getting a hundred-point badge doesn’t mean anything to our organization, but asking the associates when I’d walk into a store if they’d Laced Up and teaching them that learning is a part of the culture they had joined did. After a long time of not providing them with those tools, our L&D department put a package together to prove the benefits. I think if you do that, it’s going to win more times than not.

They made me believe it was my idea—that’s the ultimate influence. The truth is that [as a company] we had to move forward, and the associates we were hiring didn’t want to spend time behind a PC in the back room. Plus, the things that we needed to train people on weren’t standard operating procedures anymore. Now it’s about engagement with a consumer; not just transacting the business or bringing out three pairs of sneakers for them to try on. It’s about figuring out why customers are in the store, the behaviors we wanted our team to exhibit and creating a much better employee experience. 

All of that led us to believe we needed to find a platform that allowed us to communicate and share information with our associates and, most importantly, get their feedback so we could reinforce the messaging.

Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.