Leadership   //   April 3, 2023

‘Partner leadership’: Tommy Hilfiger’s Avery Baker on pivoting management styles for a new era

This article was first reported and published on WorkLife’s sibling site Glossy.

In the same way that the pandemic has changed wardrobes and daily routines, it’s disrupted long-held notions of how to be a successful leader. 

“Turbulent times” are now all the time, said Avery Baker, president and chief brand officer of Tommy Hilfiger. “Success lasts just a few moments before the bar is raised and the next threat or challenge appears. … And the expectation that you will fix [problems has been] the price of being a leader.” 

Attuned to the limits of any leader’s power nowadays, she said she’s taken a “more human” approach to guiding her team. With that, “unlocking the potential of the people” around her has bubbled up as a top priority.

While speaking at SXSW this month, Baker recalled New York Fashion Week in September, when Tommy Hilfiger hosted a multimillion-dollar outdoor fashion show-slash-carnival in Brooklyn. The who’s who of fashion attended, and Julia Fox and Amelia Gray walked the runway. It rained the whole night.

Rather than label the event a disaster and hone in on strategies to avoid similar outcomes in the future, true to form, Baker chose to focus her team on celebrating the positives. That included the event’s 19 billion media impressions. She owed the change in her approach to a new mindset instilled by the life-disrupting events of the last three years, most notably the pandemic. 

Just as the office structure has crumbled, so too has the concept of leadership. “People don’t want to be commanded or controlled anymore,” she said. It’s somewhat fitting, as today’s leaders have fewer answers; it’s a new world, compared to three years ago, and new territory for everyone. And she sees that as an opportunity to rewrite the leadership playbook. 

A leader’s power remains in their ability to impact how the company is perceived, she said. That’s largely by guiding internal behaviors and beliefs based on the needs of the organization. As such, servant leadership isn’t the way forward, she said, calling it grounds for “chaos.”

Best suited to the ever-challenging new norm is what she’s dubbed “partner leadership.” Under the model, team leaders and members help each other: The leader empowers and inspires team members to help them learn and grow. At the same time, the leader learns from their team. In short, the leadership style recognizes everyone’s strengths while using them to support everyone’s weaknesses.

“It’s built for the future all of us want to create,” she said. 

Keys to the success of “partner leadership” are a leader’s willingness to show vulnerability and take feedback, plus all parties’ mutual trust, she said. “Allowing someone to see that you’re a human being and struggle with many of the same things they do is one of the greatest positives we can give to each other in this time,” Baker told Glossy.

As a defining moment in her career, she recalled the CMO of Tommy Hilfiger during the brand’s late-’90s heyday telling her that even he had imposter syndrome. Baker has been with the company since 1997.

For a recent example of “partner leadership” in practice, she pointed to a time when she opted not to present to her team her “perfect plan” to solve a problem. Instead, she brought the team into the plan’s development. That paid off: “People took more risks, plus they were more open to constructive critiques and more collaborative,“ she said. “It’s helpful when they know you’re right there with them in the trenches.”

She added, “My team needs me to set clear direction and standards. But they need room to learn, and I need to give them time to grow. And we have to do that while delivering faster than ever before.”

Historically, Tommy Hilfiger has invested much time and energy in employee communications, hosting presentations and meetings with high levels of production, Avery said. During the pandemic, leadership found ways to maintain that virtually, with mini films and shows providing inspiration and entertainment.

In addition, the company maintained its monthly town halls. These company-wide meetings provide valuable “airtime” to people at different levels of the organization, allowing them to share an impactful program they worked on, and talk through the learnings and wins.

More recently, Tommy Hilfiger has established more touchpoints between employees at all levels and senior leaders, including informal meetups in non-corporate settings.

Tommy Hilfiger’s global headquarters and sister brand Calvin Klein’s European HQ are housed in one Amsterdam-based complex. Around 2,500 employees call it their office and work there three days a week. On Monday, PVH, which owns both brands, reported an overall revenue decline of 1% for 2022 — Tommy Hilfifger’s revenue also fell by a single percentage point. However, the brand’s fourth quarter reflected 3% growth year-over-year.

“There’s a lot of acceptance for different leadership styles and different ways to get things done [at Tommy Hilfiger],” Baker said. “I’ve always felt empowered to learn, lead, and build and grow teams in a way that’s authentic to me versus feeling pressure to conform to be someone else.” 

To her ability to remain innovative after 25 years at the company, Baker credited founder Tommy Hilfiger’s constant focus on the future and “determined optimism,” both of which permeate the company, she said. The new, talented people who join the company also keep her moving forward. That includes a “SWAT team” dedicated to innovating around web3. 

Looking back, Baker said she considers the September fashion event a top-two proud moment of her last year, along with her team’s ongoing resilience. On top of the fashion show, which was livestreamed on Roblox, it featured custom T-shirt stations and a Travis Barker performance, plus served as the launchpad for a TH Monogram product collection. “It’s never just models on a runway; we go big or go home,” she said.

Rather than host a fashion show in February, the company invested in a global marketing campaign starring musician Shawn Mendes that involves a “tour” stopping in key markets. In addition, this month, it held a large activation in Decentraland’s Metaverse Fashion Week that broke new ground on the interoperability between digital worlds.