I have a pretty good fashion sense for a man—and a CIO. I also have retail experience; I put myself through college working at a department store. So it wasn’t that much of a stretch when I took the job as CIO of Express, the ladies’ clothing retailer, in 1993. The company was 90 percent women, and, being a man, I knew I had to go the extra mile to better understand what our customers wanted and how they wanted it.
I did that by working in an Express store in San Antonio for two days each month while I was CIO. Express had a policy in the 1990s that all the executives had to do that. The women who worked at the San Antonio store were thrilled that someone from corporate had picked their store; most of the other execs had chosen posts in Los Angeles and New York City.
I showed up early in the morning, just like the store manager did. I put merchandise on the floor, stocked the shelves, ran a cash register and waited on customers, which was probably the most rewarding part of the job and, at first, the most uncomfortable. Initially I felt uneasy asking, “Can I help you pick out a dress?” Or, “Would you like some help looking for the right size jeans?”
To fix that, I would always wear a suit and tie, and introduce myself: “Hi, my name’s Les Duncan. I’m here from headquarters, and it’d be my pleasure to help you with something.” After that, most of the customers didn’t seem to mind having a man wait on them. Occasionally, I could sense a woman was still uncomfortable with me, so I would back off and let one of the female associates take over. But that didn’t happen too often.
What I learned was that women are great to work with and work for. My CEO was a woman, and she was one of the greatest leaders I have ever worked for. Not only did she possess an inclusive style that made me feel like part of the executive team, but she had a keen understanding of how IT could enhance the business. She never shied away from leading-edge IT projects—a CIO’s dream.
As for the “men from Mars, women from Venus” issue: In the Express environment, where women understood the merchandise and the customers’ needs much better than men, it was a huge bonus to have women surrounding me and helping me make the right business decisions.
—As told to Thomas Wailgum