Winser meets - Angela Ahrendts, DBE - Woman of the World

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Winser meets - Angela Ahrendts, DBE - Woman of the World

Winser meets - Angela Ahrendts, DBE - Woman of the World

A globally respected business leader, Angela Ahrendts DBE is Chair of the Board at Save the Children International, a role she assumed in January 2021. She is also on the Board of Directors at Ralph Lauren, AirBnB and WPP, the world-renowned creative transformation company.

Raised as one of six in New Palestine, Indiana, Ahrendts earned a degree in merchandising and marketing before moving to New York to pursue a career in fashion retailing. She was President of Donna Karan from 1989 to 1996 and has held senior management posts at Henri Bendel and Liz Claiborne.

In 2006, she moved with her family to the UK, replacing Rose Marie Bravo as CEO at Burberry. At that time, Kim Winser was at the helm of another British heritage brand, Pringle, and when she arrived in London, Rose Marie introduced Angela to Kim. The pair became friends and Kim remains an admirer of Angela as an inspiring business leader and for her dedication to balancing her working life with her precious family. When Kim launched Winser London in 2013, Angela championed her fledgling label and is grateful that she has continued to support the brand while living in the US.  

Working closely with Burberry Creative Director Christopher Bailey, Angela was an early proponent of of digital infrastructure in the luxury sector, investing heavily in e-commerce, digital marketing, in-store technology and a roll-out in new markets, building what she calls a “connected culture” with employee and customer relations at the heart of the business strategy. During her nine-year tenure at the helm of the British heritage business, Ahrendts transformed the ailing trench coat manufacturer into an aspirational global luxury brand, seeing the company’s value rise from £2 billion to £7 billion.

Apple CEO Tim Cook enticed Ahrendts back to the US in 2014, when she joined the California-based tech business as Senior Vice President of Retail and Online Stores. After five years overseeing the retail strategy, she stepped down to pursue a diverse portfolio of board roles in the corporate and charity sectors. She lives with her husband in California.

You have been a successful business leader in various sectors. How would you describe your management style?

 

Regardless of the sector, I believe it is about being open, honest, transparent, present, authentic and having integrity. You need to be vulnerable: the more you put yourself out there, the more naturally your team will connect with you. Great leadership adapts itself to 1500 people in a town hall meeting or to ten people in a board room. Your vision needs to be felt, to be trusted, to inspire, whether you are leading a board to a new strategy, or onboarding new young talent.

 

How do you think leadership philosophies have evolved over the decades that you have been in the workplace?

 

I look back to my early days in the fashion industry, and I always wore a tailored jacket and never wore my hair down. Back then, the perceived wisdom was that the more women emulated men, both in appearance and behaviour, the higher their chances of success – almost the exact opposite of what I describe above. As women gained the confidence to be their authentic selves, using ‘soft skills’ such as instinct and empathy, the more people came on board, and the world saw leadership in a different way, understanding the value of EQ alongside IQ. We learned about the kind of leaders we wanted to be around.

 

I think there has been a generational, cultural shift, too, where social media offers a forum to express ourselves. At Burberry we talked openly about love and trust to all levels of management, which would never happened in the early days of my career. The ultimate goal of humans is to build and maintain relationships. Even in business, we have workplace relationships and customer relationships, and we need to nurture those so they mean something to everyone involved.

 

Do you feel that women in leadership roles bring something different to the table?

 

I think the traits that are traditionally associated with femininity and women have driven a kinder economy and a more holistic way of doing things. Women add tremendous value and perspective and insight into the world. We are wired differently: it’s not about doing things right or wrong, but about incorporating diverse thinking that represent the world as a whole, so action becomes relevant and purposeful. However, I am not a fan of targets for numbers of women on boards though: I believe in being publicly accountable, so society can gauge what you are doing and how.

 

Every institution, government, education establishment or business has to be agile enough to move and adapt and understand legacy and how to take that forward: you have a higher chance of success with a balanced board from a gender standpoint. Listening to how things can be done differently and having faith in that can be amazing

 

When I was at Burberry, it was the “soft” strategies that made us more profitable. I guess those are the things we traditionally associate with female characteristics. At Apple, we had tens of thousands of people who talked openly about life phases and how that impacted their work. We listened. In that third phase, when the kids had flown the nest, they embraced their renewed sense of flexibility and many welcomed an option to move to China. When you have young kids, it’s hard to work from home, but you might want flexibility to perhaps work in an office with some autonomy over how you deliver your hours.

 

There has to be give and take: that is part of the ‘S’ for social in ESG, so you can explore options and understand how different ways of working not only attracts new talent, but retains it in a way that stimulates and adds value. You don’t want to work in a company where 80 per cent of the staff have been there for 40 years, which can feel stagnant.

In recent years, we have seen a shift from profit-driven business to exploring purpose as a key part of enterprise. What is your take on that?

 

Customers, employees and investors are pushing big companies to report their ESG data. And that is a very good thing. We have certainly seen environmental impact improving because of the massive focus on it. Governance continues to improve too. But the S in ESG, the ‘Social’, is still a gaping hole. Organisations are simply not doing enough to improve things for their employees, the community and for the next generation. We need to demand more social integrity: businesses need to partner with NGOs to protect and educate society for humanity to survive.

You are the first independent Chair at Save the Children International: why the move into the charity sector and what do you hope to achieve?

 

The reason I am doing this is?  It’s a calling. I always thought I’d use my corporate experience in the charity sector; and have always supported a variety of causes.  I have worked with charity: water for a decade now, but issues around the world due to COVID, climate and conflict mean there is the most enormous sense of urgency.  In two years, ten years have been lost of the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals.  We can see for ourselves what is happening in Ukraine and it breaks my heart.  There is a huge desire to do something more – people want to lean in and help.

 

The charity sector has traditionally been governed very differently.  The CEO and team have a new strategy to triple our impact the next three years.  Instead of moving the 2030 goal posts, we plan to work three times faster, three times more efficiently, leverage technology and partners to ensure we help get back on track.  We have 30 Chairs around the world and have a role to play in fundraising.  More money has been made the last few years and we can be the connector.  

 

As someone with years of experience behind you, and with children in their twenties, what can you learn from the next generation(s)?

 

I think we learn different things from different people at different stages of life. The next generation feel an enormous sense of responsibility, and they have deep expectations of governments, companies and NGOs to fix the things that are wrong. They are afraid of climate change and are wise beyond their years. They are opinionated, but not divisive. They don’t want rhetoric: they see things and what something done quickly, but they don’t necessarily understand that things take time, because their world has always been immediate and fast.  The majority of Gen Z consumers will change brands if a business does not lean in to causes they feel are important: that wasn’t something that happened in our youth, we didn’t have the social platforms amplifying these issues.

 

My two eldest children live in London.  My 26 year old daughter works for a new non-profit.  My 27 year old son is a musician, and my youngest daughter is in college in the US.  I feel the onus is on us to continue to stay aware of the rapid societal changes and continue to evolve.   You want so badly to teach them life lessons, but they’re not always open to listen and many reach a phase where they think they know it all.  I tell them it’s fascinating that the older they get, the dumber they think we get.  Of course they need to experience life for themselves, but they also need to see that we as their parents are always open to listening and learning.

 

What do you believe are your strengths and weaknesses?

 

I have lots of fears and keep the lights on all night long because I don’t like the dark. By nature, humans are insecure. I’m one of the most insecure beings on the planet. Lots of people fake it, but I reached a point where I can talk openly and honestly about it. Most people can’t and I don’t think it’s good for our collective mental health if you hold those things in. Maybe my insecurity has made me work harder.

 

Maybe my strength is that I have been vulnerable and been open to working with people whose strengths compliment my weaknesses, trusting others who have expertise or skills that I don’t. I couldn’t do half the jobs I hired people to do at Burberry or Apple, I am just the connector and enabler in a collective that trusts and believes in all the component parts to function.

 

Who do you turn to for counsel?

 

I have always talked openly about the impact of my parents. My father passed a couple of years ago, but there isn’t a day goes by when I don’t quote him. When I was 13, he gave me James Allen’s As A Man Thinketh and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, both of which I still have. My father was an entrepreneur and loved how the mind worked, the idea of envisaging something and making it happen. My mother always had great faith and educated from a biblical perspective, and I often think of their teachings.

 

Along the way in life, you need a variety of people to turn to for different types of counsel. You don’t only learn the good stuff, you learn how not to do things too: sometimes by asking, sometimes by observing. You might learn leadership skills from someone senior to you, but also the mechanics of business acquisition from someone else.

If you hadn’t been a business leader…?

 

I can’t imagine having done things differently: I knew at 16 that I wanted to work in fashion and always told myself I didn’t want to wake up regretting not doing things. I have taken calculated risks, and embraced opportunities to change and travel, to meet new people and enjoy life’s adventure. I don’t even like the idea of retiring, because I don’t believe in the idea of doing ‘nothing’. I have got so much more to do and give. Whether it’s mentoring in the community, or working with non-profits. As long as we live, we should have a positive impact on others and live with fulfilment and joy.

Angela Ahrendts sitting on the front row along Emma Watson, Gwyneth Paltrow and Mario Testino

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

 

My husband and children, obviously. And my mother and father, even though he’s passed. Family is at the heart of everything. My husband loves country and western music and there is a song by Thomas Rhett called If I could have a beer with Jesus, which I think says something powerful. I’d love to have Jesus at my table. And Dr Charles Stanley, a Baptist pastor who I’ve listened to and learned from for the last 40 or so years.

 

Faith is important to you, then?

 

Absolutely. I’ve prayed my whole life for wisdom and peace. I came from a big family and was raised that way. How do you achieve that sense off inner peace if life is all about you? I find greater peace and less insecurity if I realise I am an enabler, as part of something greater. We need to believe life is more than just us as individuals and that’s what faith gives us. Religions unite people around something to achieve something greater than an individual can.

 

There are so many religions and faiths and I respect them all: they are mechanisms to make things happen. I would much rather believe that there is a higher force that calls on us and puts us in situations that see us as servants to society. I am not that smart: I am an average woman from the Midwest and have been put in some incredible situations and been tasked with achieving things. I believe I had a reason for being there, so I decided not to fail.

 

How do you care for your health and wellbeing?

 

When I worked in the corporate sector and had a very hectic, structured schedule, I got up very early to carve out that extra hour for me, to meditate and start the day with the right energy. I wanted off that treadmill, with less routine and more time to myself, but it means I can get distracted. So, I have to be more conscious about setting aside the time. My Apple Watch reminds me to exercise, so I do low impact rowing and Pilates, and I walk during the day with my husband, which is lovely because previously that only happened at weekends

 

What’s on your reading list?

 

I can’t read fiction. I’m too curious, and interested in learning and growing. I love autobiographies and books on philosophy: I like to discover more about people and the human character: I am interested in my own fears and reactions to life.  I am currently reading about Theodore Roosevelt and am looking forward to reading The Extended Mind by Annie Murphy Paul – I heard her speak and she is so interesting. We give the brain so much credit, but so much of life is to do with intuition and instinct, then the brain follows. That is how I felt about leadership.

 

What is your guilty pleasure?

 

Sitting in the sun for an hour and just ‘being’.

 

If you had one superpower, what would you choose?

 

I’d love to fly, to soar above the world.

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