A “Shoe-in” for Talent Management

Designer Brands’ Karen Cho uses her knack for adapting to teach leaders how to attract and retain talent in retail’s progressive industry

There are few industries as evolutionary as retail. Every move must be calculated to satisfy the ever-changing need of the consumer, the logistics of the products, and the specific needs of the business itself.

Footwear retailer DSW itself has made major moves to adapt to the changing retail landscape. In 2018, its parent company DSW Inc. acquired two companies, Canadian footwear retailer The Shoe Company and footwear sourcing and design company Camuto Group. In March 2019, to reflect its new position as one of North America’s largest designers, producers, and retailers of footwear and accessories, DSW Inc. rebranded itself as Designer Brands.

Karen Cho Designer Brands
Karen Cho, Designer BrandsCourtesy of DSW

While all this change may seem intimidating, Karen Cho is up for the challenge. With over twenty-five years of experience, Cho has witnessed the evolutions of retail from industry to industry, gathering insights on not only how the market thrives, but also how the consumer buys—a practice Cho likens to “running down the sidewalk while pouring the cement.”

Prior to moving into her current position as vice president of corporate human resources for Designer Brands, Cho worked at Apple for eleven years leading recruiting teams as Apple expanded their retail presence across North America and Asia Pacific. There, she learned how to attract and retain talent in the industry, while also showing the ways employees’ careers can develop once they are in a position. Her purpose was to guide her team to feel empowered to make decisions and adapt quickly to change—to grant them a sense of purpose and direction.

At Designer Brands, Cho has carried this mentality into her recruiting efforts by giving DSW’s store leaders the tools they need to encourage and support their team members. From both a corporate and store level, employees are given career maps that describe the competencies necessary to explore different roles and expand their career portfolios, allowing them to grow. Cho and her team’s goal is to make talent management a specialized priority by moving its function beyond just HR and instead into the hands of every leader inside the business.

“Anyone managing one person or five hundred people is accountable for creating a goal around how they’re going to better manage the talent of their team,” Cho describes. “That goal can be personalized for individuals who are figuring out how to network externally to grow in a particular function, or it may be working with us to figure out how we can develop skill sets internally to prepare them for their futures. It helps people think proactively around their talent needs and take ownership for whatever happens moving forward.”

Cho believes attracting and retaining talent in the retail industry stands as one of the greatest challenges any brand faces. In an industry where many employees use their jobs as stepping stones, Cho says it is imperative to cultivate a sense of purpose to show every hire that there is a career path in their retail positions. “Our talent is our greatest asset and our greatest competitive advantage,” Cho says. “Continuing to develop our most important resource is critical not only for our associates’ personal development, but also for its impact on the company as a whole.”

“Our talent is our greatest asset and our greatest competitive advantage. Continuing to develop our most important resource is critical not only for our associates’ personal development, but also for its impact on the company as a whole.”

Designer Brands’ unique emphasis on celebrating self-expression allows its employees to bring their whole selves to work and feel appreciated in their role. Since Cho started at Designer Brands, she has noticed how the company’s progressive attitude toward internal development has influenced her career, as well. In just five years, she has grown from managing solely the talent management portion of HR to overseeing all aspects of the department.

Her ability to grow and adapt in her position showcases the prosperity that comes when a company invests in its team. “I have the ability to show others that potential goes beyond work experience, which has helped shape the way we look at career development planning,” Cho says. “Now, we focus on helping people get the experience they need in order to do really great things.”

In the next few years, the HR crew at Designer Brands hopes to leverage the constant change of the retail industry to appeal to the new wave of tech-savvy customers. They plan to incorporate more employees with varied skillets outside of retail to harness the unique value their perspectives bring to the table, which translates to customers. With the resources available to them, we can expect Cho and her team to make running down retail’s evolving sidewalk seem effortless—each equipped with a stylish pair of shoes.