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The emotional quotient: How Dick’s Sporting Goods’ CEO capitalized on her psychology background to navigate pandemic disruptions

March 1, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC

When Lauren Hobart arrived on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in 1986, she planned to major in psychology and international studies, but had little intention of actually pursuing a career in those fields. Still, the future CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods felt the coursework would serve her well in whatever career she ultimately chose.

It proved to be a prescient academic decision. Hobart, who became CEO in February 2021 after almost four years as president, says she’s leveraged the soft skills learned as a psychology student to guide Dick’s through the pandemic-related turmoil of the past two years.

Retail is a customer-centric business that requires high emotional intelligence, communication, and invaluable people skills, Hobart tells Fortune. “Psychology was the best degree I could have had. It’s not like I figured out how to shrink people’s head, but rather caring about human behavior and people’s dynamics,” she says.

Case in point: In spring 2020, shortly after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Hobart took weekly trips to Dick’s stores and distribution centers to check in on frontline workers who were far removed from the company’s Pittsburgh headquarters. She also sent weekly companywide emails that touched on shared personal matters, such as the caregiving experience amid the global health crisis.

Hobart was named president of Dick’s in 2017 after nearly two years as chief marketing, customer, and digital officer. That promotion made clear she was the chosen successor of then-CEO Ed Stack, her longtime mentor and the man who turned a two-store retailer in upstate New York into a national sporting goods powerhouse that still bears the name of his father, the company’s founder.

Stack now serves as executive chairman of the sporting goods retailer, but with a 60% voting share in the company he still wields considerable influence. Hobart notes that their close partnership has been instrumental in navigating pandemic disruptions. Analysts expect Dick’s full-year 2021 revenue to be up 41% to $12.3 billion, compared with that of 2019. The financial uptick can largely be attributed to customers’ pandemic pivot, as housebound Americans took up sports, built home gyms, embraced athletic apparel, and turned to the great outdoors.

But the pandemic-driven consumer highs have come with some stomach-churning lows. Hobart, 52, spent the initial weeks of the pandemic balancing cost-saving measures with providing employee support. The company furloughed thousands of workers as stores closed in spring 2020. Upon their reopening, Dick’s corporate team had to establish clear lines of internal communication and offer moral support as chains dealt with turbulent business conditions, pushback over mask mandates, and, more recently, supply-chain challenges.

Getting employees back to work quickly and safely was priority No. 1 one, Hobart says. Though Dick’s curbside pickup option had been in the works for years, the pandemic accelerated its rollout. Hobart, still president then, saw curbside pickup as a way to have stores play a central role in its booming e-commerce business, increase employee engagement, keep more workers employed, and demonstrate to frontline employees that management saw them as indispensable.

Now, as CEO, Hobart says she feels this more keenly, and she tries to cultivate an air of approachability with staff, making a point to interact regularly with employees on social media. On LinkedIn, she often likes and comments on staffer posts, welcoming new Dick’s employees to the team or congratulating store managers on well-designed displays.

Though Hobart partly attributes her professional success to an early interest in psychology and honing related people skills, she’s quick to point out that she concurrently developed “hard” financial, marketing, and operations skills throughout her career.

Finance chops and a ‘mini MBA’

After graduating college in 1990, Hobart worked as a credit analyst at Chemical Bank before its merger with JPMorgan Chase, doling out middle market loans and learning the intricacies of financial analysis. She likens the role to a “mini MBA,” one that taught her hugely useful skills like how to read financial statements and build a roster of notable clients. That’s translated to her work at Dick’s. “We just raised our inaugural bond, and all of those skills were so important,” Hobart says.

After a two-year stint at Wells Fargo, she left the world of banking and headed to Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1995. While there, she landed an internship in strategic planning at Taco Bell, then part of PepsiCo, before securing a job at its upstate New York headquarters post-MBA.

“I was obsessed with working at Pepsi,” she recalls. “I wanted to work at a company that I wanted to talk about if I were at a cocktail party. I wanted to be passionate and interested in the products I was selling.” That line of thinking still holds today as the head of Dick’s, she says.

Hobart spent four years in a consulting role at PepsiCo, working across divisions and learning the crucial art of brand-building and business analysis. As part of an “academy company,” she rotated jobs every two years to gain a well-rounded view of the business and develop skills in areas like production, distribution, and marketing. She would later serve as marketing director at Mountain Dew and Diet Pepsi. Of note, many former PepsiCo executives have taken the helm at other companies, including(Target CEO Brian Cornell.

When Hobart left the food and beverage giant to become Dick’s Sporting Goods CMO in 2011, she had several blind spots, she concedes. “We were in the newspaper circular business, and I didn’t know how to do a newspaper circular,” she recalls. She did, however, understand the importance of building internal brand awareness as a rallying cry for employees who were geographically dispersed. Creating a unique, identifiable Dick’s brand has helped foster a heightened sense of belonging and purpose, Hobart says. “That enabled us to tap into this incredible aspect of our culture, this pride, this authenticity, this history that we have,” she says. “We’re this American dream. We value sports. We cry when we see sports.” In other words, Dick’s is moving beyond the perception that it’s simply a reseller of other brands’ goods.

A P&L on the way to the C-suite

During her six-year tenure as Dick’s marketing chief, from 2011 to 2017, Hobart had a front row seat to Stack’s leadership strategy and an inside look at how he made executive decisions. She also welcomed responsibilities beyond what her roles entailed. As Dick’s CMO, for instance, she took over its specialty concepts business, notably its Calia apparel brand in partnership with country singer Carrie Underwood. “It was the first time I had been able to run a full P&L,” she says, a key gauge of a future executive’s potential for bigger jobs.

In 2015, Stack added another weighty responsibility to Hobart’s marketing portfolio: heading Dick’s e-commerce, a billion-dollar P&L that convinced Stack he had found his eventual successor. On her watch, e-Dick’s commerce grew into a formidable multibillion dollar rival to Amazon in the sporting goods market. It later helped the company navigate the shuttering of in-person stores early in the pandemic, with online sales doubling in 2020.

Here, Hobart credits her prior experience in finance as essential to nailing e-commerce. “I would not have had the confidence to run a P&L without the banking background,” she says.

She also played a central role in some of the biggest moves by Dick’s in recent years, notably its 2018 headline-grabbing decision to stop selling assault weapons and ammo at most locations, the beginning of a firearm phaseout.

A desire to learn has served her well throughout her career, Hobart says. Since late 2020, she’s served as a board director at at Yum Brands, which is now coincidentally home to KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut. Before that, she was on the board of burger chain Sonic Drive-In. “I always come back with something that I learned that is applicable to our business,” she says.

Meanwhile, Hobart says she has maintained her personal, affable management style since becoming CEO at Stack’s urging. Soon after she took the reins last year, she recalls, he told her, “Being Lauren is what got you here. So keep being Lauren.”

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