It was a question that stayed with Elizabeth Norberg for a long time. After sixteen years at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, she was a seasoned HR veteran. Norberg was leading company-wide initiatives and reporting to top executives at the well-known business with 180,000 employees and 1,300 properties across 100 countries.
She eventually left hospitality for healthcare and in the midst of a difficult and stressful situation, a senior clinical leader was the one who delivered the query: “I save lives for a living, and what do you do?”
Norberg left the conversation determined to find greater clarity about how her actions as an HR leader impact people, businesses, shareholders, and communities.
The search for an answer to the physician’s question propelled Norberg, who had worked in five industries at that point, to step into retail by joining Foot Locker Inc. in late 2018. As executive vice president and global chief human resources officer, Norberg leads all aspects of an important people and corporate communications strategy with the goal to build the organization of the future and unite communities of talent as the iconic sportswear and footwear retailer invests in technology to engage its customers in new ways.
Foot Locker Inc. traces its roots back to Woolworth’s and Kinney Shoes. The first Foot Locker store opened in 1974, and the name of the public company was changed to Foot Locker Inc. in 2001. The company has locations in twenty-eight countries and annual revenue of approximately $9 billion. The organization has about 50,000 employees and approximately 2,800 stores worldwide.
Leading all aspects of human resources and corporate communications is a big job, but Norberg is up to the task. Growing up as part of an immigrant family with modest means in small-town Colorado gave her a strong work ethic. “I was raised to appreciate what we can all do to positively contribute, and that work ethic is still with me today,” she explains.
Norberg didn’t always plan to pursue a career in human resources. Although she studied business management, a fanatical obsession with world travel sparked in her an unending curiosity about people. Norberg, who calls herself a “well-traveled nomad,” doesn’t only take posh guided tours or sit on white sand beaches. She packs a backpack and heads for the secret spots only locals know.
The immersive approach has helped Norberg experience the true beauty of more than forty countries and all but two of the US states. Seeing places like China, Namibia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Thailand, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Argentina, Chile, England, Columbia, Mexico, Canada, Austria, Greece, Croatia, and Austria deepened her interest in culture, her appreciation for diversity, and her passion for people.
“Leaders sometimes fall into a trap of thinking that people can be secondary, but people impact everything, and I value helping people reach their full potential,” she explains.
That’s exactly what she’s doing at Foot Locker, and she’s doing it at an important time in company history. The company is in the process of transforming its assortment as it works to diversify and broaden its selection, while its biggest vendor Nike, which represented approximately 70 percent of sales in 2021, continues its push into direct-to-consumer.
With more changes on the horizon, Foot Locker has no choice but to diversify, innovate, and digitize—and Norberg’s people strategies are leading the way.
Foot Locker spent decades building a solid foundation, and Norberg is quick to point out that none of her plans move the company away from its core culture. “People like to use the word ‘transformation,’ but we aren’t simply changing from one thing into something totally new,” she explains. “We are building on our solid foundation to create a better version of who we are—a natural evolution that capitalizes on new opportunities.”
No company was immune from the disruptions of 2020. Fortunately, Foot Locker had spent the previous two years investing in technology and improving its networks. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced nonessential workers home, Foot Locker took on the incredible task to go online, and this accelerated the full-scale adoption of its budding e-commerce platforms, loyalty programs, and omnichannel experiences.
HR supported the endeavors by introducing a new people strategy anchored by technology, diversity, and an internal customer service strategy. Norberg and her colleagues leveraged technology and partnered with Axonify to create a culture of learning through Lace Up, an app and workforce productivity tool that utilizes gamification as one way to create greater connectivity with and among our employees.
Employees use Lace Up before hitting the sales floor to receive important product updates and additional training. Participation is high, with 95 percent of employees in North America logging in at least twelve times per month. Additionally, Norberg and team created an online “learning academy” to build future capabilities oriented around leadership, business, and technology “schools” and leveraging vendor partners such as LinkedIn Learning and McKinsey.
Norberg also partners with Integrity Pharmaceutical Advisors for Foot Locker’s healthcare needs. “Elizabeth’s leadership to partner with a transparent Pharmacy Benefit Manager has permitted the highest levels of healthcare for all Foot Locker members,” says Thomas Cordeiro, president and CEO of Integrity Pharmaceutical Advisors. “This allows IPA to engage with advanced clinical programs to improve patient outcomes that has become a standard that is now modeled by other commercial health plans.”
Diversity is also playing a big role in the efforts to elevate Foot Locker’s overall talent solutions. Norberg, who serves as the company’s chief diversity officer, says its diversity, inclusion, and belonging strategy (DIBS) builds on a program formalized in 2019.
“This started as a company transformation, evolved to a culture transformation, and became a total transformation to help the company and our workforce get through the challenges that seemed to increase in 2020.” she says. Today, Foot Locker hosts six employee resources groups, with at least three more in development, including one on work/life balance and mental wellness. Foot Locker’s DIBS plan leads with a strategic focus on the workforce makeup, succession and development.
And, as 2020 saw an unprecedented shift in how people live and work, Foot Locker launched Live Well. Work Well, its guiding principle to support employees as they balance work and personal priorities. Through this approach, Foot Locker developed global resources to help team members maintain balance, recharge, and reset—from cultural priorities to programs to policy. The goal: ensure Foot Locker’s culture helps team members to reach their full potential both in and out of work.
With technology, people, and diversity efforts underway, Norberg and her team turned their attention to communication and a greater internal customer focus. First, they integrated all messaging built on constituents that make up the “Four Rs”—public relations, investor relations, employee relations, and corporate responsibility. HR recruited and reorganized leaders to build a seasoned team to streamline messaging. The team also reemphasized a longstanding commitment to serve customers and increase shareholder value.
Hiring top talent and re-engaging existing talent is a critical imperative for Foot Locker. Norberg and her team revamped the company brand and leveraged opportunities with hybrid work models to secure top talent previously out of reach, while expanding opportunities for career growth with the existing workforce.
As supply chain issues, global conflicts, increasing competition, and a lasting pandemic bring additional uncertainty, Foot Locker finds itself at an inflection point. “The next two to three years are critical to success, but I believe we’ve built the rocket ship that will take us to the next level. Our consistently low turnover and high workforce engagement scores tell us we are on the right track,” Norberg says.
A series of strategic moves and acquisitions will help fuel that trajectory. In recent months, Foot Locker has announced long-term partnerships with Adidas and Reebok, forged into the Asia-Pacific region with the acquisition of sneaker boutique atmos, and brought in retail chain WSS to reach the Latinx consumer. With a new geographic footprint, a stronger connection to its customers, and robust digital platforms, the famed sports and shoe retailer is ready to put its best foot forward.
At Foot Locker, Elizabeth Norberg is harnessing the power of talented employees to serve customers, drive outcomes, and generate profits. In doing so, she’s discovered the answer to the question posed to her by a doctor so many years ago. What does she do? She helps people be successful, which helps the organization to create value and win.
Compensation Advisory Partners LLC:
“Elizabeth has been a wonderful HR partner at Foot Locker. She displays a keen understanding of the issues and works to put Foot Locker in the best position at all times. Elizabeth is a pleasure to work with!”
—Margaret Engel, Founding Partner