Build-A-Bear CEO: How to navigate difficult career decisions

April 26, 2015, 3:00 PM UTC
Photograph by Jay Beauvais — Build-A-Bear Workshop

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: Describe one make or break moment in your career–how did you navigate it? is written by Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

After earning an MBA from Columbia University, I had spent almost 15 years in the toy industry. I worked at two of the largest companies–Mattel and Hasbro–and on some of the most iconic brands in the business spanning from Barbie to NERF to Transformers to Playskool. In the past 15 years I have risen from an assistant product manager of Barbie Fashions to the senior vice president of the U.S. Toy Division followed by the head of the Global Preschool Division, both at Hasbro. I enjoyed the industry. I loved the products and the kid consumer. I understood mass market wholesale. I had tremendous momentum, great relationships, and future opportunities. Then, in mid-2009, I received a career altering phone call.

I was offered the opportunity to become the president of the Stride Rite Children’s Group. I was being asked to re-invent an iconic footwear brand in an industry unfamiliar to me where the primary source of revenue was mall-based specialty retail. Additionally, the business was struggling. Sales were down and profitability had been falling ever since the economic downturn of 2008. What a ridiculous risk, I thought. I’m a toy person. What do I know about shoes or turning around a vertical retail organization? On the other hand, being in my 40’s, I thought this might be one of the last times I could successfully jump to another industry without being deemed a toy “lifer” and thereby, limit my future potential. But could I do it?

Who was I?” I thought. A manager who was an expert in toys or was I a leader who was an expert in branding, marketing, product development, and perhaps even “turnarounds” given the number of brands I had revamped at Hasbro? I had overseen the sell-in, display-development, and product creation for big box retail for most of my career–maybe I knew a little more about the retail industry than I thought.

Separately, although the scale of the businesses I would be managing was similar, the scope was broader at Stride Rite. The new position included direct oversight of the business units profits and losses with multiple disciplines reporting directly to me including retail, wholesale, finance, etc. In the end, after deciding that I did possess enough skills and knowledge necessary to enable success while mastering the potentially steep learning curve of the comparatively unfamiliar specialty retail business and footwear category, I took the new job.

Looking back, although on the surface it was a risk, it turns out I was correct. My skills in areas such as leadership, marketing, and product development were transferrable. And, although I did not have direct experience in specialty retail, ironically because I had not had the pre-recession traditional mall-based retail mindset, it enabled me to bring a fresh perspective to the table–that worked.

But the best part of this decision was that without the specialty retail experience gained at Stride Rite, my resume would have never hit the radar of the search firm that had been hired to find the new head of Build-A-Bear Workshop just a few short years later. Basically, if I had not made the choice to leave the toy industry that I loved, I would not have had the opportunity to return to the toy industry only three years later as a CEO. That being said, here are three things to keep in mind when making a career decision:

  • Be courageous and take calculated risks–sometimes a risk in the short term can lead to accelerated growth in the long term.
  • Understand how your skills are transferrable across industries and look to develop skills that are broadly applicable.
  • Take charge of your career and be willing to reinvent yourself throughout it.

Read all answers to the Leadership Insider question: Describe one make or break moment in your career–how did you navigate it?

Why I gave up everything to start a career in Singapore by Perry Yeatman, CEO of Perry Yeatman Global Partners.

Why I choose to put my children before my work by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.

How this Google executive handles stress at work by Margo Georgiadis, president of Americas Operations at Google.

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