While Beth Butterwick might have stepped down as CEO of the London-based international fashion house Karen Millen last month, we’re sure we haven’t heard the last from this inspiring leader who managed to elevate and empower the iconic brand in today’s crowded retail market. In a recent conversation with Aspire, Butterwick, who had senior roles at MS Mode in Holland, Gap Europe and Marks & Spencer prior to Karen Millen, shared her strategies and insights into how women can become influential and inspirational leaders and why she thinks Victoria Beckham is a powerful role model.
Q. What qualities does it take to become a CEO?
Aside of the technical competencies (that is a broad understanding of how your company operates), I think a key quality in any leadership position today is authenticity. I know I am myself at work, the person my organization and our external partners see is ‘me’. Secondly, passion for what you do and the people you serve is key; passion pushes you further and gets you through the down days, which let’s face it we all have. Curiosity is helpful as it drives your desire to learn new facts and find new and better ways of achieving results. I am also a perfectionist and always have been. My husband tells me, that it drives him absolutely mad that I’m into every detail. It’s a real pressure on oneself at times, but striving to make things better and to ‘be the best’ sets a great tone in the business; this is the mantra of many successful organizations. Finally, a ‘fast paced’ approach in fashion is key – ‘fail fast and move on, or achieve results and find ways of multiplying the results quickly’ is my approach. Once we’ve identified a business opportunity, I want my team to empower the business to be on-board so the results come through.
Q. Is passion what drives a successful business?
I’m convinced it helps! Passion for what you do or the customers you serve makes you focused on learning everything you can about that group of people; passion makes you go the extra mile; passion drives curiosity about how you can do things better. In a consumer led business, which fashion retail is, if you put the customer at the heart of everything you do, you can set the appropriate strategy, focus the team on the priorities, course correct along the way and reinvest your learnings into new ideas. Put simply, if you care about your customers and they are happy with the outcome, you reap positive results, your organization is motivated and energetic, your sales grow and of course the end result is your shareholders are satisfied.
Q. Did you have a woman who you looked towards for inspiration as you made your way to reach the top?
I think we all have role models in our lives and mine today, is Victoria Beckham. She started off as a young girl in a girl band and her fairytale could have ended when she married a successful footballer. Roll on 25 years and Beckham has continued to reinvent herself through drive and grit. Today she is an incredibly successful designer on a global stage. I’m sure that at many times she has done this through great adversity, because people have thought of her as simply ‘a member of a girl-band’, or someone that was riding off the back of her husband’s success. In getting to where she is today, she will have had to break the rules and gain the respect of a tough cohort of people across the fashion world. I really admire her for her passion and belief in herself. I also love the fact she is very authentic; like many of our customers, she is strong and motivated, but vulnerable too and doesn’t mind showing this side of herself, she will always pick herself up, learn and move on. Over the last 25 years she has evolved from simply being a member of a girl band to a strong, beautiful woman; someone who is very comfortable in her own skin and comfortable to speak out on all sorts of topics. Today she inspires millions of normal women around the globe. Her ethos runs through her fashion brand, too. She definitely inspires me!
Q. You spoke at an Aspire (M.A.D.) Making a Difference conference last year and kept your glitter trainers on with your Karen Millen dress (instead of putting your high heels on), why did you do that and what was the impact on the delegates?
You know what, people talked about my trainers at the Aspire conference and I hadn’t even thought about making a statement with my outfit in advance! The explanation is simple; I commute to work on the tube, so I like to wear flat shoes so I can stride to the office with purpose. I have a row of high heels under my desk at work, which I will change into depending on my day. We’re lucky now, in that many brands do really beautiful trainers. I have trainers to match my more glamorous, dressy outfits and will wear them to accessorize these. So, the fact that I was wearing a pink dress that day with my pink sparkly trainers, was normal. I think it really drew people’s attention. The result in being noticed was perhaps me saying ‘be yourself, feel comfortable and in feeling comfortable you too can be ‘beautiful me’. Look at Teresa May, aren’t we lucky as women we can express our individualism through our shoes?!
Q. How important is it for CEO’s to attend personal development courses such as Aspire?
On several levels it is important. It’s very important as a CEO that you actually do make time to take yourself out of your business to ‘reset yourself’ and have a helicopter view; attending anything that allows you to do this will have a positive impact on you personally and your business. When I attend conferences, I have a notepad and will write any idea that comes into my head (solutions or new growth strategies) so I can reflect and action on my return to the office. I think an important element of being a successful CEO is having a curious mindset; never stop the learning of new ideas and always think you can apply things in a different way or improve on what you do. That’s the second element to attending an Aspire conference. Underpinning all of that is that you meet great, new people, whether it’s Dr Sam Collins (who’s an incredibly inspiring individual) or when you’re in your group workshops, you meet other people that you end up connecting with for a long time. I think there are multifaceted benefits to joining an Aspire conference or others, particularly at a very senior management level when it’s so easy just to be totally entrenched in your business the whole time.
"Passion for what you do or the customers you serve makes you focused on learning everything you can about that group of people; passion makes you go the extra mile; passion drives curiosity about how you can do things better."
Q. When you were CEO, you described Karen Millen’s brand’s DNA as ‘one of unapologetic confidence’ what does that mean?
I don’t think that means that all Karen Millen customers are confident. If you go back to that Victoria Beckham analogy that I’ve just given you I think what we want to do with our brand’s style and the conversation is we want women at whatever stage of their career, whatever their confidence level, to feel if they come to us, they’re part of our community and we can give them that confidence that makes them say ‘I am who I am and I am comfortable with this’. It doesn’t mean to say we’re for arrogant customers, or they aren’t vulnerable at times, but during those vulnerable moments we believe we can equip our customers with more confidence. I always say to my new starters in the business that it is our purpose to provide outfit solutions that make our customers feel confident; whether it’s going into a board room with a group of men where you want to put something on and forget about it, or a wedding and your ex-boyfriend is going to be there and you’ve just got to look the very best that you want to be. Unapologetic confidence is just giving people that confidence that they deserve it. It brings great personal results.
Q. Is confidence something you are born with or something you have to learn? How does somebody learn it?
No one is born with confidence, but babies are sponges and some children learn about confidence at a very early age, boys over girls in particular. I was lucky in that my brother and I grew up in a very stable home and our parents were very loving, encouraging and congratulatory of anything we did well. I do think this gives you a good foundation from the beginning. My parents always encouraged us to try new things, to share problems and never be afraid of asking for help. However, my life and certainly my career have been far from perfect. It wasn’t until my mid 30’s that I became aware I was increasingly comfortable in my own skin. We don’t use our gut feelings enough to listen to our inner voice, the voice that can lead us to making the right decisions – right versus wrong. The more we find that we’ve succeeded in making the right decision, the more confidence this brings. I still have to step back at times to listen to my inner voice, but this discipline has certainly improved as I’ve got older and have learnt how to apply it. Confidence can also grow from asking for help, something I think women are better than men at. Maybe it’s the male pride, but finding a mentor or a coach – someone you can go to who can listen, ask the right questions to find a suitable resolution can both help solve that problem and boost ones confidence, too. I’ve always had a curiosity for learning so If I didn’t know how to do something, or was worried, I’ve been lucky enough to find someone that can help and encouraged me.
Q. Do corporations such as Karen Millen have a social responsibility to impact the community in which you work?
Yes, they absolutely do. We have a responsibility to the customers we serve, our employees, the factories we work with and our shareholders. While at Karen Millen, we conducted an internal survey on a range of social and ethical questions. 66% of the respondents told us they had changed with way they had shopped due to their views on sustainability. 79% said they would spend more on sustainable clothing. The top 3 topics our employees told us they wanted us to address were 1. Ensuring the highest standards of factory worker welfare 2. Reducing the use of plastics in our packaging 3. Increasing the use of sustainable fibers in our clothing such as; cotton, wool and silk. The things they think we do best as a company are 1. Recycling all our clothes to charities 2. Making quality products that are made to last 3. The fact that we are consciously increasing the amount of natural fibers we use. The customer quote I loved best is ‘I think I actually owe my KM dress money now, because I’ve worn it so many times.’ Today, the sustainability and social responsibility topic is top of every fashion retailers agenda.
Q. We recently interviewed a woman who had worked in clothing sweatshops in India, while leading Karen Millen did this phrase ring true: if it’s too cheap to be true, somewhere something is not ethical?
I believe so. Somewhere along the supply chain, whether it’s the farmer growing the cotton, or the picker, or the agent in the middle, or the manufacturer, someone / somewhere along the way could be taking advantage of.
Q. What should women do during setbacks, obstacles in their progression?
Lean in, acknowledge, embrace and deal with it! I do. I also believe in positive fate. I’ve had two career setbacks and better things came as a result. So, my advice is that at times when change faces you, face into it, accept it and that change takes you to a better place.
Q. What were those setbacks for you?
I was offered two great roles, that were later retracted for different reasons. It was very disappointing at the time because they were good brands I really wanted to go to. As it happened something better came along. In the first incidence, I was going to go to Harrods and my offer got retracted at the last minute. Then the Lehman Brothers collapse in September 2008 mean the financial sector imploded. I ended up taking a role in Holland, which resulted in my family having a wonderful, life changing experience; going to school in Amsterdam and meeting many global friends. I left with the experience of selling an international fashion retailer. Post this, I was offered a job back in the UK, however that business ended up issuing a massive profit warning; the new management decided not to take any of us on. So, I ended up taking on a role at a business that had been neglected, so myself and the CFO successfully took it out of administration and 18 months later, floated it on the AIM Listed London stock market. So better things come along when you lean into change and embrace it. Listen to your gut, trust your judgement, embrace change and stay focused and positive.
Q. There are still so few women CEOs, what are your top 3 pieces of advice for women who aspire to lead?
I tell my children (who are 18 and 16 and now making their University career choices) the same!