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Advancing Women in 2016

Furniture World Magazine


by Abby Ludens, VP Talent Management, Mattress Firm

Editor’s note: As early as the 1950s, editorial features in Furniture World magazine written by luminaries such as Nat Ancell of Ethan Allen and Kay Lambeth of Erwin Lambeth, have lamented the underrepresentation of women in our industry. Only recently though, has there been some progress, with women advancing through the ranks into leadership positions. Here, Abby Ludens, Vice President of Talent Management for Mattress Firm takes a look at how the pace of change might be accelerated for the benefit of our customers and our businesses.

More than 50 percent of the U.S. population is made up of women. Yet women are vastly underrepresented in leadership ranks across numerous organizations and industries throughout America. This can be seen most strikingly in the retail industry.

As the Vice President of Talent Management at Mattress Firm, I can speak directly to the work we are doing as a mattress retailer, that can be of great value to other home furnishings retailers.

For us, the average buyer is a 51-year-old female. This is unsurprising in the retail space; women are much more likely than men to serve as household decision-makers when it comes to consumer purchases. Now, consider this: only 25 percent of our sales force is female.

Why does it matter for us?

Purchasing a new mattress can be an intimate decision-making process. We sleep on them. We spend more than 30 percent of our lives on them. They are personal, and the consumers’ retail experience should be, as well. And this personal experience is just as important for other furniture and accessory items sold in retail stores.

If a consumer – or even a potential employee – walks into a place where they don’t fit in, do you think they are likely to make a purchase or submit an application? Will they consider that a positive experience? Will they feel as though the company is doing all it can to attract them?

The answer to those questions is likely “no,” which is understandable. It’s human nature to look for places where we belong, and this sense of belonging often comes with a sense of representation.

It is a good business practice for retailers to create environments where customers feel at home. Since most retail shoppers are in fact women, it’s easily justified that our teams and leadership should be representative of these retail customers.
Once you are convinced that you need to do this, it’s necessary to attract highly qualified women to fill positions, while also doing a better job of identifying high-caliber candidates, already working in your organization, for advancement.

Regardless of whether we sell mattresses or other home furnishings items, for most of us the lack of women across our organizations is an issue that has become too obvious to ignore.

The reason many retail organizations are resistant to change is because those proposing it cannot satisfactorily answer the question, “Why?” But once this question is answered, it’s much easier to act. The good news is that through smart recruiting, providing resources to female team members and education, you can make a near-immediate impact.

It is true that women in the furniture industry have greater representation in advertising, public relations, design and sales positions, however, it would be disingenuous to limit them to marketing and consumer-facing leadership roles. Of course you want to capitalize on their ability to relate to consumers in an industry where most consumers are, in fact, females, but they shouldn’t just be added to the mix, they should be considered from the outset. It may seem difficult to attract those highly talented finance, operations and management female candidates, but the real dilemma is targeting those candidates already within our organizations and providing them with the proper training and development to succeed in those areas, to take on leadership roles.

Where To Start?

It may seem like the obvious place to start is at talent acquisition, just hire more women! However, if you don’t address the diversity gap first by implementing programs that will help women within the organization, you may be heading into an uphill battle. If women join an organization and see that there are no women in leadership roles, or programs for their advancement, they likely won’t stay long. You should first acknowledge there is an opportunity for improvement and then work to identify how the organization can become a preferred place for women to grow their careers. By doing this first, the company will naturally become a more appealing choice for female candidates.

It is important to find people who have a passion for this type of undertaking. Mattress Firm created a LeadHERship Board of Directors, which allowed us to establish and empower a group of 10 women in the organization who serve as champions for the initiative. We also asked for executive support with both men and women providing feedback and guidance.

A Talent Acquisition team was formed, made up of people who came from field sales and operations, which makes up 95 percent of our hires each year. Our recruiters have absolutely no experience in recruiting, or any type of HR-related background. Instead, they are people chosen from within the Mattress Firm organization who have a true passion for the organization. Many of them previously served as top salespeople, multi-unit managers and sales trainers. We find that they transition well into a role that is all about selling the company. Recruiting people to sell mattresses (or any home furnishings item) can be challenging, but it’s important to focus on the fact that the people you hire are providing products that are integral to your customers lives, health and happiness. This is why it’s important to have the right people tasked with hiring the best possible candidates.

Our team spends time on 20 college campuses across the U.S. and has had great success in finding incredible talent at college job fairs. We also partner with top sales programs. Women make up 51 per-cent of college students nationwide, so walking onto a college campus, we naturally have a captive audience. College students are interested in companies with programs focused on their development, and want to find a place where they can visualize their own growth. We’re fortunate to have those opportunities by providing them with full-time and internship opportunities.

Measuring effectiveness

Other companies have established similar programs with extremely positive results – up to a 50% increase in female hiring. While we would love to see this type of result long term, we’ve determined the best approach for Mattress Firm is to take baby steps. Our goal is to increase the number of women working in our organization by 10 percent, as well as to achieve a 10 percent increase in women in different levels of field leadership roles.

The LeadHERship Program

Mattress Firm intends to close the gap between the number of male and female leaders in our organization and the mattress industry overall.
In 2015, we launched the LeadHERship initiative to further promote, engage and foster diversity.

There are differences between men and women, both on the consumer side — how we make decisions — and on the employee side — how we communicate with, lead and manage people.

The LeadHERship program, therefore, identifies ways to develop leaders, teaching them various management techniques, with an emphasis on how to lead different groups of people. The initiative is intended for all employees.

Participants attend regularly scheduled leadership training webinars with guest speakers focused on communicating with women and women leadership. Members also receive a bi-weekly newsletter highlighting best practices and workplace-related articles. The intended goal is to offer opportunities to teach, connect, and open the door to beneficial conversations.

Internal leaders are used as teachers, chosen from Mattress Firm’s team of over 7,000 people across the organization. This gives us a large pool of talent to provide guidance to the LeadHERship group. Some past seminar topics included, “Communicating Through Change,” “Continuing Your Education,” “Lessons I’ve learned From My Parents,” and “Finding Balance in the Workplace.” Our next workshop is based on the “Discover your Strengths” principle. Men and women at all levels of the organization benefit, and we encourage everyone, both men and women to participate. The program also provides a forum to discuss some of the hurdles women face in a male-dominated industry. This is important and beneficial for all of our leaders to understand.

Diversity Training

When implementing a program such as this, it becomes necessary to educate colleagues on the importance of diversity within the workplace. Teach them how to lead different groups of people, how to properly communicate with them, plus to respect and embrace different perspectives. You need to enable and encourage a mix of ideas, opinions and perspectives. Diversity brings value to our organizations only when our organizations place value on diversity.

Hurdles to Advancement

Of course, closing the gaps does not come without its hurdles. For retailers, there are going to be naysayers, especially in the beginning. My advice is to engage them in meaningful conversation (rather than debate) and show them the value — to the individuals and to the organization.

Another hurdle is time. Especially true in retail, leaders and key stakeholders want instant results. Once they have determined to increase diversity, they may expect immediate and drastic change. And when they don’t see it, they may jump ship and move onto another pressing issue. It’s important to communicate that this is not something that changes overnight. It will take time, dedication and commitment. But the prize is worth the price.

For larger organizations, it can be challenging to connect all the different segments of the company so that they are in sync with the corporate plan. To be honest, this is a road we’re still navigating at Mattress Firm, an organization that has grown from 150 stores to more than 2,000 in less than two decades. We want to provide equal resources and allocate the same level of attention to all of our team members regardless of geographic placement and find ways to connect our team across the country.

Summing it up

  • So, how can retail organizations foster the advancement of women in leadership?

  • Consider your customers, and compare their composition to the make-up of your workforce. Acknowledge the gaps, and think through ways and opportunities to bridge them, creating a sense of belonging for both your consumers and your employees.

  • Recognize the benefits of diversity — for the culture, the industry, the consumer and the bottom line. A variety of perspectives, opinions, ideas and leadership styles is never a bad thing.
  • Provide resources and educate your team. Support women who want to become leaders and foster communication among all colleagues.
  • Commit to the cause. It can be a long journey — certainly not free of obstacles — but it’s an important one to take.the industry by encouraging, engaging and promoting diversity. I hope that we all work together to ensure that it does.

To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Advancing women in the workplace and fostering diversity is certainly something to be enthusiastic about.

After all, it’s a win-win proposition — for everyone.

About Abby Ludens: Abby Ludens, Mattress Firm’s vice president of talent management, graduated from the University of South Dakota in 2001 with a degree in Mass Communications. Following graduation, Abby joined the Mattress Firm’s sales management training program in Atlanta, GA. After spending over 4 years in the field in sales and multi-unit management, Abby transitioned to the corporate headquarters where she has spent the last 11+ years growing the talent management department at MFRM Family of Brands.

Furniture World is the oldest, continuously published trade publication in the United States. It is published for the benefit of furniture retail executives. Print circulation of 20,000 is directed primarily to furniture retailers in the US and Canada.  In 1970, the magazine established and endowed the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library (www.furniturelibrary.com) in High Point, NC, now a public foundation containing more than 5,000 books on furniture and design dating from 1620. For more information contact editor@furninfo.com.