How does someone who went to college to become a high school math teacher end up leading learning at Nordstrom?
The answer is simple: She loves finding solutions.
Jesse Schlueter, vice president of learning and leadership for Nordstrom, leverages her passion for numbers in her role managing the development of the retail giant’s 72,000 employees. With a bachelor’s degree in sociology and statistics, a master’s in organizational psychology and a work history rooted in operational development, Schlueter is able to take a decidedly business-first approach to L&D.
“Jesse is a very business-oriented leader,” said Christine Deputy, chief human resources officer at Nordstrom and Schlueter’s direct supervisor. “She starts with really understanding what’s happening with the business, what’s happening with the customer and what the strategy of the organization is … and then build[s] out the function in order to achieve those aspirations and those business objectives. She’s highly operational.”
“What I love about Jesse is that she takes a step back and looks at the overall picture of the business, in terms of where we’re going and what we want to achieve, before throwing out solutions,” added Lisa Price, senior vice president of human resources at Nordstrom. “She takes a more holistic approach.”
That also means continually assessing the needs and preferences of Nordstrom’s diverse workforce — from the executives in its Seattle-based corporate headquarters to the sales associates in its 370 stores across 40 U.S. states, Puerto Rico and Canada.
“We are learning all the time about our evolving workforce — what matters to them and what helps them do their best work,” Schlueter said. “We are very focused on staying agile and building experiences that meet people where they are — mobile first, for example — and hosting discussions where people are versus teaching them in a classroom. We strive to provide our employees with the resources they need to succeed in their roles.”
Navigating a Changing Sea
Schlueter’s business-centric approach has been particularly well suited to helping a longtime institution like Nordstrom navigate through an industry sea change.
Technology — the ability to shop online and by voice command, thanks to apps such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Voice — has changed retail, trimming the number of brick-and-mortar stores while transforming the physical act of shopping into a unique and personalized customer experience. Nordstrom has been around for more than 115 years, so adapting to this new economic climate requires not only an operational update but also a culture shift. As a result, Schlueter has been tasked with “changing some things that are very deeply seeded in the organization in terms of the way we’ve done things historically,” said Farrell Redwine, vice president of human resources at Nordstrom.
Some might balk at the potentially choppy waters ahead, but Schlueter revels in such challenges. “Retail is really exciting given its dynamic nature,” she said.
Indeed, it’s no surprise that someone who says she loves L&D because the field itself is “always changing” is an expert at leading organizations through periods of transformation. From 2003 to 2014, Schlueter helped Dunkin’ Brands — which comprises Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins — transition from a private to a public company, revamping its franchisee training program and redesigning Dunkin’ University. After that, Schlueter took over as vice president of learning for Cablevision during a time when the telecommunications company was undergoing a series of layoffs and in talks to be sold to European conglomerate Altice (a deal that went through in June 2016).
Schlueter’s track record of success with leading companies through organizational change is partly what motivated Deputy, who was also Schlueter’s former boss at Dunkin’ Brands, to immediately think of Schlueter when she was looking to create a new, centralized L&D department at Nordstrom and needed someone to build and lead it.
“She can create clarity where there’s complexity,” Deputy said. “She’s unafraid to engage with her team and provide direction. She’ll make decisions so she can continue to move things forward. Those things are key leadership principles for many organizations, but in particular right now at Nordstrom those are things that we’re focused on and value because we are in an industry that’s going through massive change.”
Her ability to build relationships is also critical to her success in this arena, her colleagues say.
“She’s extremely collaborative. She engages key stakeholders and really leverages her partners, both in the business and in other parts of the HR function,” said Redwine.
“She has a definite ability to connect with all different people and backgrounds and levels in our pyramid,” added Kerry Price-Duffy, vice president of human resources at Nordstrom.
Pivoting to Learning
Growing up near Madison, Wisconsin, Schlueter exhibited an interest in leadership from an early age. She was actively involved in her high school’s student government and represented her peers as student council president during her senior year. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she deepened her knowledge of human behavior with her double major, ultimately landing her first job as a market research analyst for the Wisconsin Department of Revenue in 1999.
“I really enjoyed learning about customers and what motivated them; humans in general are fascinating to me,” Schlueter explained during a 2017 Chief Learning Officer Breakfast Club in Seattle. However, she added, “While market research was definitely interesting and connected to the business, I knew that I could help support the organization differently if I moved into the HR space.”
So in 2003, Schlueter pivoted into organizational learning and development at Dunkin’. She credits one of her first bosses in the field, who at the time was the vice president of strategy at Dunkin’, for giving her opportunities “way above my pay grade” that helped inspire and shape her approach to L&D.
Her big-picture thinking may also be a result of the numerous roles she’s taken on, from senior director of field learning to director of corporate social responsibility, both at Dunkin’, to her current position at Nordstrom, which she assumed in early 2016.
“A lot of learning people are obsessed with facilitation of classroom learning or are very focused on a playbook, no matter what the actual organization or business culture or norms are,” Deputy said. “Jesse is not like that. She is technically capable. She understands adult learning principles; she understands learning management systems; she understands how to drive, execute and create an operational system.”
“She has this vision of what things can be in an end state and then lays out the steps to get there along the way,” Price-Duffy said. “She’s been able to have that very clear picture all along and brings others along with her. Her energy and optimism, and her ability to motivate and share that vision with the team, are really impactful.”
Building Something New
When Schlueter joined Nordstrom, each business unit was handling its own training programs. She quickly moved to centralize L&D under one roof and built a new team of both talent and learning professionals that is now about 100 strong.
“Her ability to come in and very keenly assess where the organization was, introduce an operating model for her team, and set up and build a function to support the organization on an enterprisewide scale — she was able to do that in her first few months,” said Redwine. “The work she’s done in such a short period of time to support our business evolution and organizational transformation and our talent management philosophy and performance approach has just been amazing.”
Indeed, in less than two years on the job, Schlueter has introduced a new competency model to, as she described it, “give managers tools to support their teams and employees a guide to support their development”; implemented a consistent new-hire experience “to help support our store managers in providing the best onboarding for new team members”; and instituted a new performance management approach called Grow@Nordstrom, which was soft-launched with senior officers last year and is currently rolling out to the rest of the corporate center.
“It’s a quarterly conversation that’s much more informal, led by the employee versus the manager. There are no ratings,” said Price-Duffy, who has also worked with Schlueter on shifting to a more on-demand learning model, which includes increased digital learning capabilities. “That was a really, really significant change. Like many companies, we previously did biannual, very formal structured performance reviews with ratings systems that were not super effective. We started to test [Grow@Nordstrom] out and had incredible feedback, both from managers and employees.”
Schlueter and her team heard that managers felt less pressure to write long, detailed performance reports while employees felt much more empowered in terms of their career development and growth.
“I sit in on our talent reviews, and I hear people say, ‘Well, in my quarterly connect,’ or, “in my Grow conversation.’ It’s so quickly become incorporated in our language,” Price-Duffy said. “For it to be sustained and to become a part of the culture, in a company that has been around a long time and has a pretty established culture, [is impressive].”
“There is a level of engagement that I would say hasn’t been there in the past,” Redwine said of the response to Grow@Nordstrom. “And there’s a real sense of shared ownership around everyone’s success.”
“We have a strong feedback culture and check in with our managers and employees both formally and informally,” Schlueter said. “We’re hearing that we’re headed in the right direction.”
Nordstrom SVP of HR Price has worked with Schlueter on multiple projects and says one of the things that stands out about her work is her ability to seamlessly instill learning and development into employees’ work lives. “She thinks about how to roll out our new programs in a way that doesn’t feel like a separate, one-off training but rather is embedded and reinforced in other key initiatives,” she said.
Schlueter is also aware that much of an employee’s leadership development happens in the context of doing their job, and is “excellent at calling out and acknowledging when either she, her team or we collectively as an HR leadership team are learning on the job,” Price said. “Jesse has a common phrase, ‘hashtag development (#development),’ because development comes in a whole host of different ways. She’s very keen to call out the journey that we’re on — and that journey is about developing and becoming better and stronger leaders for the organization.”
Schlueter is currently working on launching Nordstrom’s first-ever leadership development program, Lead@Nordstrom, with the intent to provide managers with tools and resources so they are able to create an environment where their teams can do their best work.
Schlueter seems an ideal person to create and implement such a program, considering her colleagues unanimously praise her ability to inspire and motivate those around her.
“Her optimism and enthusiasm and energy are infectious,” Deputy said. “People want to be around her. She’s generous with her time and her efforts and her support of her peers. I think that’s a huge part of why people want to work with her.”
Agatha Bordonaro is a writer based in New York. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.