Every day in June, FN is showcasing female leaders across the industry for our Women in Power series.
REI is the outdoor market’s largest retail force, as well as one of its most influential. And Susan Viscon has been steering several of the biggest impactful decisions driving business for years.
Here, REI’s SVP of merchandising talks overcoming personal doubts and defining moments in her career.
What were the biggest tipping points for you that led you to this point?
“I had just returned from maternity leave, and the action sports director of merchandising management role opened up. I wanted to interview the role but had some reservations about how I would manage a new leadership role and a young family. My two biggest supporters, my husband and my manager at REI, both encouraged me to take the leap. I recall my manager reminding me that this type of role only came available every five to 10 years, and she encouraged me to apply. I ended up getting the director job and frequently reflect on the power of the exchange and encouragement when I work with other women who are early in their careers. This was a major turning point for my career: I became a leader in a growth company, and because we had a lean team of directors and VPs, I was able to represent merchandising in many different projects and initiatives across the organization. This expanded my capabilities to think beyond the division and influence bigger company strategy. I stayed in this role for eight years, working on major business initiatives to grow REI’s cycle and fitness business, spearheaded writing merchandising’s divisional business plan and led reorganization work that expanded our team to prepare for growth. That year I was promoted to deputy VP and received an REI Leadership award.
“My next big pivot came in 2013. I was comfortable in my DVP role and felt like I knew what to do. This is a dangerous spot because unchecked you can become complacent and stop learning. Fortunately for me our new CFO, Eric Artz, came to REI asking very thoughtful and insightful questions. It was this engagement that allowed me to see how much more I had to learn and to shift my mindset from being a knower to a learner. This change was essential because it prepared me for the arrival of our new CEO, Jerry Stritzke. My engagement with him was led by my confidence in the work we had been doing, bolstered by my desire to learn from others and being open to doing things a different way. In 2014 I was promoted to SVP of merchandising and REI Co-op Brands, our private label brand. In Jerry’s first year leading the co-op, the key for me to be successful was finding my voice with a leader who had years of experience, brilliance in retail approach, and a strong opinion. I had great respect for my CEO and knew that I had to be able to hold my own, represent my team and push back when I wasn’t aligned with the request.”
What has been your biggest career accomplishment and why?
“#OptOutside. I was part of a team that [came up with] the idea of closing stores for Black Friday to help our employees and customers spend time with family and get outside on one of the craziest retail days of the year. As the chief merchant my role is to ensure we are delivering sales and driving the most out of promotions. In hindsight, I realized it is more important to get our employees and customers to value time outdoors and important for REI take that bold step and suggest something way out of the ordinary that aligned with our brand. Also, our #ForceofNature campaign. Bringing women to the forefront was always something the co-op had done well, and #ForceofNature was our way to communicate that work externally. I was the executive sponsor for an initiative around elevating REI’s commitment to women both internally and externally. We cared most about being authentic in how we were marketing, storytelling, assorting product, providing service/expertise and our internal employee experience. Early on we did focus groups with women. We knew we had so many rich stories to tell, and this opportunity created a platform for women.”
What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership in the fashion and footwear industries?
“Ourselves. I often speak with young women professionals who either don’t feel they are ready for a promotion because they still have more to learn, or are unsure that they can balance family commitments with work commitments that potentially come with a promotion. Having dealt with both of these concerns in my own career growth, I recognize there is validity in both points and that decisions differ for every individual. Having great mentors, and a strong partnership with my husband are what gave me confidence.”
What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you? What are you doing to support the next generation?
“The biggest challenge remains in the number of women making the jump from manager to director. This is where the count of women drops significantly. I currently serve on the board of Camber Outdoors, which directly focuses on workplace equity, fosters networks and creates programs like mentoring in which managers are paired with women executives in other companies. Meanwhile, I actively advocate for diversity in REI’s hiring pools for leadership roles. Further, I have had the privilege of co-hosting REI retreats with our leadership award recipients, grateful for the chance to personally share my own leadership journey and learnings.”
Have you encountered resistance when working under — or leading — men? How did you overcome that?
“I tend to see these challenges less about gender and more about the personality of the individual and the experiences or challenges they bring forward.”
What is a powerful leadership moment you’ve experienced?
SV: “Early in my director career, I had a crucible learning moment. I had approached my director role much the same way I had done as a manager — being an expert in my business, staying connected with all my team members and attempting to have all the answers. I received my first employee survey score, and it was very low compared to the prior year and other teams. I was devastated and at a loss on what to do. My mentor and peer pulled me aside and gave me the best advice. She shared that my scores are owned by my full manager team and that I wouldn’t be successful trying to fix things on my own. She told me this was about a leadership team working together. It was at that moment that I realized I was applying what made me successful as a manager to the director role, completely missing the point that I now was responsible for leading people managers and that success came through leading people. The next year we had a huge surge in engagement scores and maintained the high engagement for years.”
How has #MeToo changed the professional landscape and your workplace specifically?
SV: “#MeToo has been a wakeup call. Even years after we have thought we have evolved, there are still workplaces and employees who are dealing with discrimination and harassment. I continue to be thankful for REI’s approach to these types of issues, whether through inclusion training, a reporting hotline, manager expectations or legitimately investigating reported issues. I have always seen REI operate with integrity. I realize that not everyone has the same systems and support in place.”
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