Johnathan Tate has a question for you: “Are you done learning?” If the answer is “yes” he asks you to think again.

This is Johnathan’s secret to success and a question he asks himself every day despite knowing what his answer will be. He asks the same question every day because if the answer is no, the next logical questions is: “What are you learning?”, which to Johnathan is key.

It’s this ritual of self-reflection that has helped our Emissary of the Month and former director of strategic enterprise capabilities, data, and analytics at Nike, adapt to changes quickly. As a former IT leader for companies like Nike and Walmart during the height of technological transformation this is something Johnathan needed to do—a lot.

This month we sat down with Johnathan to learn a bit more about his career, his advice to enterprise sellers, where he sees the retail space heading, and why you too should join him every day in answering “no” to his favorite question.

Navigating the Fast Pace of Change in Retail

Lifelong learning wasn’t so much a choice as it was a necessity for Johnathan during his time as an IT leader at Walmart. It was the early 2010s, and the company—along with just about every other major retailer—was looking to completely transform its retail apparatus. In such a rapidly changing and complex landscape, you either adapted or fell behind.

“You’ve never understood the complexity of Walmart until you’ve worked with or at Walmart,” Johnathan said. “We had vendors come in and be confident about their cloud offering, for example, and they assumed they knew how to scale for Walmart, but we would inevitably break their systems.”

His first project came with a $40M budget and was far and away the biggest he’d ever been charged with leading. To succeed, he knew he needed to learn fast and be able to change course quickly to keep the initiative afloat. Thankfully, Walmart prioritized professional staff development, and Johnathan was able to take advantage of the Walmart leadership institute to gain critical skills he still uses today.

When it was all said and done his commitment to continued professional development paid off. By the end of his tenure Johnathan was overseeing a portfolio of $80B in assets and was head of data governance and strategy, where he rolled out a strategic vision for shared services, data, and data management on a global scale. Oh, and he was working with hundreds of employees and leading a direct team of 36.

When he moved to Nike in 2014, however, he had to learn a new lesson: how to adapt to a completely different workplace culture. Walmart’s mission was always to reduce costs as much as possible, and then pass those savings along to the consumer. Nike, on the other hand, was a premium brand, dedicated to delivering the best possible product—no matter the cost.

Naturally, these contrasting philosophies resulted in drastically different cultures, each one reflecting the priorities of their companies. No matter how severe the culture shock was that he experienced, Johnathan adapted.

“Culture is the identidy of a company,” he said. “A company that’s failed to embrace culture will have difficulty being successful in creating the identity they want. You need to create the experience for your employees that you hope to represent in your brand.”

How Tech Has Transformed Retail—and Where It’s Headed Next

No matter what retail segment they were serving, both organizations were—and still are— susceptible to the whims of digital disruption.

It’s no secret that technology has played a huge role in transforming the retail space over the past 10 years, and Johnathan witnessed this shift firsthand. In the early years he watched companies update and succeed by integrating systems that reduced costs and simplified shipping processes or by experimenting with new e-commerce and global marketing strategies. Today these once-bold ambitions are becoming the norm.

“Over the past decade, the next generation of retailers and buyers has consistently said, ‘That’s not enough.’ Going online to buy a product and have it shipped to my house is a given.” According to Johnathan, customers are now saying: “I want it delivered in a certain time frame—and I want it more personalized to me.” Especially the younger generation.

Customization is now the name of the game, driven in large part by the preferences of a millennial generation that’s gaining more and more spending power each year.

“Individual identity is a huge part of the next generation of retail. The ability to add one’s own flair and input for a product is huge. Customers are willing to pay more for a product that can be customized to them, or that has social impact. The market and technology have changed in that sense,” he noted.

As customer expectations change, technology will have to change with them to enable retailers to deliver the experiences they want.

“The next big thing is going to be getting away from mass appeal and moving toward leveraging technology to create a unique experience for the consumer—ideally by using multiple platforms to create a catered experience based on data and behavior through social media and data partnerships.”

Lifelong Learning Is the Key to Sound Leadership

According to Johnathan, if you want to be a good leader you need to love learning.

“You might think you’re experienced and that you have all you need, but being a lifetime learner is a critical piece of any leader’s journey. If I could give one piece of advice, it would be to never stop learning,” Johnathan said.

Other tips: surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and absorb their knowledge, learn and grow from the diversity around you, both inside the workplace and out, and constantly expose yourself to new ideas, because you never know where that next great idea will come from.

And while lifelong learning is a full-time, round-the-clock pursuit, Johnathan emphasized the importance of punching out from time to time to give yourself a chance to reboot.

“Never underestimate the value of self-care,” Johnathan said. “It’s important to place priority on rest and self-development. The cogs are never going to stop. Everyone should step back from the noise every now and then and do an internal retrospective on what they value in life and to ensure that their priorities personally align with their priorities professionally. It’ll be hard to be truly satisfied until you do. ”

Johnathan the Emissary

Learning is also a key to success for salespeople—not just leaders— and Johnathan emphasizes the importance of it whenever possible on his Emissary engagements. Skipping the crucial discovery phase is where he sees a lot of enterprise sellers go wrong right out of the gate.

“I think our marketplace is crying out to the salesperson: ‘Get to know me first, and then
get to know my business.”

 

“I think our marketplace is crying out to the salesperson: ‘Get to know me first, and then get to know my business,’” he said. “So often we go out and try to sell, but we don’t understand the individual, the company, or their world.”

To achieve this effect, Johnathan said, engage with your buyers before they’ve even been classified as such. Demonstrate a genuine willingness to learn about their goals and struggles. What are they looking to accomplish? What are they hoping will take them to the next level? What’s standing in the way? Leave your sales deck unattached, and ask these questions up front with no motive to sell. This can help overcome what Johnathan calls the “authenticity gap”—a divide that exists too often between buyers and sellers that prevents relationships built on trust from taking root.

“A lot of salespeople are trying to build transactional relationships in order to get ahead or prosper, but my challenge would be to build relationships regardless of what might be coming back to you. Offer services and offer help, and be a servant leader,” he said. “Put yourself out there to help them get ahead, no matter what you may get back from it.”

This aspect of teamwork and collaboration between human partners is part of what drew Johnathan to working with Emissary in the first place. Too often, he’s observed that the human element gets left by the wayside—especially in tech-heavy fields. But the answers to a business’ most pressing challenges come from human insight and collaboration, with technology acting in a supporting role to aid and inform those decisions. Leveraging this crucial human element in their dealings is something that enterprise sellers should take to heart, too.

“I’ve seen IT initiatives rise and fall over the years because people forget about the human aspect. Emissary’s model, which emphasizes networking and building relationships with insiders that have knowledge in areas where you may not, resonates with my belief that we’re all constant learners.”

“Go in, build the right relationships genuinely and be authentic to yourself and to the other,” he added. “And you’ll never go wrong.”

Executive Insights

Johnathan Tate, former director of strategic enterprise capabilities, data and analytics at Nike, has built a successful career in IT leadership by committing himself to lifelong learning and adapting quickly to changes in the fast-paced world of retail. Retail itself has been changed dramatically by technology over the past 20 years, and providing customers with highly customizable products may be the latest transformation taking place.

For IT salespeople, he recommends committing yourself to learning as much as you can about your prospect—the person as well as the business—to build better and more trusting relationships.

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