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How FNAA Hall of Fame Honoree Diane Sullivan Changed the Industry With Her Personal Leadership Style

On Nov. 30, Diane Sullivan will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the 36th annual FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Nov. 28 print issue on the executive’s career. 

“People don’t work for companies, they work with people. They will live the vision when leaders make it personal.”

It’s always been personal for Diane Sullivan, who shared her golden rule of leadership at FN’s CEO Summit in 2013, the same year she received her first Person of the Year award at the FNAAs.

It was the case in 2015, when the chairman and CEO of Caleres embarked on an ambitious rebrand, uniting the team under a new moniker and belief that the company, formerly called Brown Shoe Co., had endless opportunities as a modern footwear powerhouse.

And again in 2017, when Sullivan took major steps to achieve gender parity on the firm’s board of directors, years before most major companies addressed the issue.

And it was certainly personal when the empathetic leader sat down for 60 consecutive nights in 2020 to write letters to her team during the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What’s most notable about Sullivan’s style is that it can be directly linked to the company’s financial success. In 2021, she led Caleres to its best-ever performance, and the company expects to surpass that record in 2022.

Sam Edelman, founder and president of his eponymous label, a star brand in the Caleres portfolio, said, “Under her guidance and leadership, Caleres has established itself as one of the foremost footwear companies in the world, composed of the industry’s most talented, thoughtful and passionate leaders shaping the future for our consumers.”

Edelman was just one of the game-changing acquisitions Sullivan has steered during her 18 years at the company.

She’s brought in Vionic, Allen Edmonds and Blowfish Malibu to name a few — and moved into the contemporary space via partnerships with Vince, Veronica Beard and others. And during an era of intense change and challenge for retailers across
the board, the executive and her team continually refreshed the Famous Footwear strategy to make sure the chain remained atop the family sector.

The executive — who held leadership roles at PVH and Stride Rite before arriving at Caleres — looks back at her footwear career with great pride. But Sullivan is also firmly focused on the future, and rattles off her 2023 travel plans with genuine excitement in her voice.

As she prepares to hand over the CEO reins to Jay Schmidt on Jan. 15 and assume her new role of executive chairman, Sullivan reflects on her five guiding truths. “If you apply them, you usually end up doing the right things.”

Jay Schmidt, Diane Sullivan, Caleres
Jay Schmidt will become Caleres’ CEO early next year, while Diane Sullivan will move to the executive chairman role.
CREDIT: Richard A Nichols

1. Business Is People

“This is No. 1 for me. People can say, ‘It’s just business.’ Yes, it’s business, but business is people, too. How you do things is as important as what you do. Empathy has been a popular word the last couple of years, but it’s what we were saying back in 2013 when I talked about this at the FN CEO Summit. How you treat your associates, your shareholders, your customers, your consumers, all of your stakeholders — you have to take it all personally. You need to feel your ownership through everything: who you are, what you are, how you behave, how it all manifests. It’s the one- to-one interactions and relationships that build a great culture, a great company and ultimately empower the people who are in the organization.”

2. Believe Anything Is Possible

“I’ve always believed that you have to be an optimistic person to achieve the dreams you have and to imagine what that’s going to look like. You can almost see the path of how you’re going to get there. It’s about your vision and staying relentlessly true to it. Just keep going after it and don’t let anything get in your way. It’s good for your own soul and it keeps you motivated, and it’s great for the people around you. That helps them get energized, too. You have to own the decisions and drive them. If you’re wrong, it’s OK. All those things together tie into the belief that anything is possible.”

3. Don’t Think About What You Want to Change, Think About Where You Want to Go

“Culture and strategy are linked in the best companies. You need to have the simple vision and make sure your teams understand the direction you’re headed in. What we’ve tried to do is make sure there’s a simplicity and clarity — and a repetitive way of communicating to people — to make sure they understand the direction. Culture is tied into it. It’s even more important now. When I’m in the office, I love it when I can see people. But that isn’t the world all the time, so finding those new ways to keep the culture, the strategy alive for everybody is going to take a lot of work over the next few years.”

4. Honor the Past, But Focus on the Future

“The best example of that was when we transitioned from Brown Shoe Co. to Caleres and how we thought about what we wanted to look toward. It was about the passion, the spirit and the people. We had to look forward, but we also knew that there was this legacy and heritage and this passion for fit. Our logo, [which just evolved again], celebrates the year our company was founded in 1878 and respects what our past is all about. It’s about making sure there’s a thread that’s running through all the things you’re doing. There’s real meaning about what your differentiation is and what makes you authentic. It’s about respecting and honoring, but also driving to the future.”

5. It’s Never About One Person — Leadership Is Everywhere

“It used to be that you could have a leader and they could make things happen. That is so not true anymore. It’s this idea of an incredible team of people who know how to play their positions, know the direction of the company and work together — and ultimately win. You need to respect the diversity, the different strengths, the different ways of thinking and approaches that people take. It’s always been a team, and great teams are the ones that win. But today, leadership is [everyone].”

For 36 years, the annual FN Achievement Awards — often called the “Shoe Oscars” — have celebrated the style stars, best brand stories, ardent philanthropists, emerging talents and industry veterans. The 2022 event is supported by presenting sponsor Nordstrom, as well as Caleres, FDRA, Merrell, Vibram and Volumental. 

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