How Stitch Fix’s Margaret Wheeler provides 2,800 personal stylists with an ‘amazing experience’ at work
The idea behind the Silicon Valley startup Stitch Fix is as simple as it is ingenious – give busy working women access to a personal stylist who will handpick and deliver clothes to them each month, all done easily online or through a smartphone app.
For that idea to work, however, you need a lot of employees. Entrepreneur Katrina Lake only founded Stitch Fix in 2011, but the company currently employs close 2,800 personal stylists, 1,000 warehouse workers, and plenty more at its headquarters. To top it off, a majority of the personal stylists work remotely in a variety of cities across the U.S., and the company’s warehouse operations are spread among five locations.
To keep all those highly-specialized employees happy and focused on “the Fix,” the company has made a big investment in employee engagement and company culture, including making sure the stylists who work remotely get access to training resources and social events. Leading the company’s engagement and culture efforts is Stitch Fix’s Chief People and Culture Officer Margaret Wheeler, a talent management veteran whose career spans more than 20 years at companies like The Body Shop, Starbucks, and Lululemon. Her daunting-sounding mission is to “create and maintain a consistently amazing experience” for all employees. In advance of her keynote speech at the upcoming TINYcon employee engagement convention, Wheeler shared her approach to creating that amazing experience for such a large, diverse workforce.
How did you get to where you are today? Did something happen that got you interested in working with people at work?
I went to graduate school to study literature because I was endlessly fascinated with people’s stories, motivations, and how things worked in their lives. But once I got to grad school, I realized that academia was not the dynamic environment I was looking for. Long story short, I fell in love with The Body Shop and its founder, Anita Roddick, and I wanted to do anything I could to be a part of it. I started as a part-time associate on the floor, and I was exposed to what great training and development could be like, and how transformative it can be for both the customer and the employee. Eventually, I transitioned into learning and development and began my career journey.
Your job – Chief People & Culture Officer – sounds fun. How did your position come about? Did human resources evolve into something better, or are roles like yours part of a completely new field?
For me, calling our team “people and culture” is really about reclaiming the essence of HR and moving it away from the negative association people have with the term. Being Chief People & Culture Officer to me means creating a culture, mission, and values that are aligned with the heart and soul of a company. That is what I love about what I do. I’m fascinated by the synergy that happens when all of the aspects within the realm of People & Culture work seamlessly together — from compensation to labor and delivery, to recruiting and business partnership — to create an inspiring employee experience.
What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to retaining employees, and how do you approach that challenge?
We have two TINYpulse questions that we send out in back-to-back weeks: the first asks employees what made them come to Stitch Fix, and the second asks what would make them leave. Asking those questions back-to-back was an important exercise in retention and asking ourselves, “Is the reality of working here the same as the sales pitch?” We want to make sure we’re aligned and transparent, so when people come here they find it almost exactly as it was presented to them. I also feel very strongly that the people of an organization generate the culture and always bring that message forward.
What’s your interpretation of employee engagement and how do you approach it at Stitch Fix?
Employee engagement is what happens when people feel dynamically connected to the operating system of the company they work for. It’s about sharing transparently the platform for how the company operates, and inviting employees to come in and operate with us together. We want to make sure we’re attracting the right people who want to be engaged with our own operating system and bring their unique talent and perspectives to make it even better.
How do you think a good employee engagement program can have a positive effect on customers? Is there something larger that happens when employees are engaged?
We’ve found that when employees are really engaged with the company culture, it drives innovation and commitment on the individual level. Employees will be creating and generating things that are totally in line with our culture because they are engaged with the mission of the company. I believe that a great client experience is directly related to the relationship employees have with the company
For us, an example is how a warehouse employee will fold each piece of clothing, wrap it in tissue, and place it in each box. If they didn’t care about the company and our mission, they wouldn’t do that. That level of engagement gets transmitted into the Fix, and our clients feel that love and care and engagement on an individual level. It’s a really special thing.
It seems like a lot of companies are perplexed about millennials. What’s been your experience with this generation? Are there any tips or tricks you have? Are they really much different than boomers and Gen X?
I take issue with companies that deal with their employees as cohorts or groups — it’s very marginalizing to employees on an individual level. Whether you’re discussing millennials or talking to a group of engineers, if you’re looking at a group of people and writing them all off as all being a certain way, it lacks sincerity and genuineness. In this line of work, it’s so important to deal with people as people, and not a stereotype. It’s not only lazy, but it can be dangerous — it says to those employees that they’re not of value because you already know them — even though you’ve made no effort to do so. It’s so important to be constantly working hard to not let those unconscious biases creep into the way you deal with people.
Recently, there have been a few things companies have done that have made a big splash – like $70,000 minimum wage, unlimited vacation time, or reduced workweeks. How do you think those ideas influence employees? Are these one-offs, or do companies having to start going really big to win over employees?
The road to hell is picking up programs that aren’t true to your company’s culture. Be inspired and tuned in, but don’t adopt anything without checking in and making sure that program will work for you.
Margaret Wheeler will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming TINYcon conference in Seattle, which is the first employee engagement conference by TINYpulse geared toward all levels of leadership – from the C-suite to individual team leaders. Find more info on programming and speakers at www.tinycon.com.