Lessons in Leadership: Wisdom from L.L.Bean Chairman Shawn Gorman
One of the outdoor industry's most experienced leaders dishes about lessons he's learned over the years, how he defines success, and more
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If anyone is qualified to dispense wisdom to the outdoor industry about how to do business better, it’s Shawn Gorman. As the great-grandson of L.L.Bean’s founder, Gorman was born to a legacy of success and stewardship in the outdoor space. Time and again over the past several decades, he has helped steer his company through challenging periods, always focusing on his great-grandfather’s core business philosophy, which he calls “L. L.’s Golden Rule.”
To learn more about how Gorman approaches leadership at one of the industry’s largest and most important legacy brands, we picked his brain on a few topics relevant to his success. An edited version of our conversation is below.
What does success mean for you?
Success to me, and to the people of L.L.Bean, has always been about shared rewards. When my great-grandfather started the company, his vision was to create products that could help people enjoy the outdoors as much as he did. And his legendary approach to service, known as L. L.’s Golden Rule—”sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit and treat your customers like human beings, and they will always come back for more”—is still very much at the heart of our business today.
As an outdoor brand, we exist to help people to get outside. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen a big upswing in sales as more customers have turned to L.L.Bean for gear and apparel. This has led to historic levels of performance for the business, which is great—but even better is the fact that we’ve structured the company to share that success with the people who make our work possible. That includes our employees, customers, vendors, the communities where we live and work, and our shareholders. Achieving strong financial performance enables us to meet our stakeholder obligations, which is L.L.Bean’s true definition of success.
What important leadership lessons came out of the pandemic for you?
The challenge of the pandemic continues to offer lots of leadership lessons, but one of the biggest for us has been the importance of perseverance—which also happens to be an L.L.Bean core value. While no one could have predicted how long we would find ourselves in this pandemic, we’ve been reminded that patience, resilience, and taking time to recharge have never been more important than they are now.
Another one that came out of the pandemic has been re-affirming the significance of the guiding principles that L.L.Bean was founded on—one of which is deep concern for our employees’ and customers’ wellbeing. In March 2020, we put the health and safety of our people first by closing our retail locations, while at the same time implementing a pandemic pay policy to protect employees’ wages and benefits. We also helped our communities by making masks for Maine healthcare workers and packing food for pantries across the state. At the time, we didn’t know where our business would be in the months to come, but we did know that by staying true to our core values and taking care of our people, we would remain L.L.Bean.
What keeps you up at night?
As a family brand now entering our sixth generation of private ownership, we understand the role that stewardship plays in both the long-term success of our business and in ownership continuity. Being chairman is an awesome responsibility and certainly creates some sleepless nights, but it’s also a privilege that I’m extremely proud to hold.
Of course, I don’t carry the responsibility alone. Our entire family-ownership group understands and embraces our role as stewards of the company. It’s our job to prepare the next generation to step in and lead when the time is right, and ensure our company and stakeholders continue to thrive for another hundred years and more. It’s such a humbling feeling to be part of something bigger than me. Every day I think about the people who have gone before me and the lasting mark they’ve left on this business.
The future of the planet looks increasingly bleak and the climate crisis is getting more urgent every day. What gives you hope?
It’s true—our climate challenges continue to grow every day, but still, I do remain optimistic. Throughout the pandemic, more people have discovered (or rediscovered) the outdoors as a place for respite and recreation. And as people spend more time outside, their appreciation of nature and commitment to protecting and preserving open spaces also (hopefully) increases. This is at the core of our purpose, and why L.L.Bean exists: to help people to experience the restorative power of being outside. Science shows that when we spend more time in nature, our overall sense of wellbeing improves. I believe that as more of us realize the power and draw of the outdoors, we will become better and more active stewards of the environment, which is both good for the planet and for our collective physical and emotional health.