JoAnn Martin was a JDA customer for 17 years before she joined the company as vice president of Industry Strategy for Retail. Her experiences at L Brands, DSW and Luxottica, leading planning, allocation and analytical teams – and implementing a broad set of JDA solutions – has given her a unique approach to her job and an intimate understanding of the challenges and opportunities retailers face today. When she’s not helping her customers make a positive impact on the bottom line, she’s a wife and mother to an active teenage son and daughter whose activities keep her family on the go. In talking with her about her unique career path I learned that she is a strong leader, has a thirst for learning and loves receiving feedback. She possesses experience and insights worth exploring.

SCN: What was your dream job as a kid and why?

JM: I was 100 percent certain I was going to be a lawyer. I thought a job convincing people you were right all the time sounded awesome!

SCN: You studied finance, marketing and political science in college. What happened to the goal of being a lawyer?

JM: I became a math girl, and fell in love with statistics, finance and analytics. That became a passion for me. I realized the classes I was gravitating to were pointing me to business.

SCN: What was your first job after graduation and what did you learn there?

JM: I worked at a mutual fund accounting firm for nine months. I learned that I didn’t want to be an accountant, and that I didn’t want to work with my soon-to-be husband, who I met there. It wasn’t super exciting or dynamic. I knew right away that I needed to look for something different.

SCN: You also learned what you didn’t like, which meant you weren’t stuck in a job you hated.

JM: Yes!  I loved the analytical side, the trending and the forecasting. Accounting just wasn’t that for me. It is black and white. So, if nothing else, I learned that I don’t like black-and-white jobs. I like more free thinking and different approaches; having a linear job from an execution standpoint just wasn’t a fit.

SCN: Your first job in retail was at L Brands. What was your role?

JM: I started in finance doing inventory control and working with the distribution center and supply chain. I loved it! I learned a lot about supply chain from a finance perspective. I was entrenched in distribution center finance for a while, just because I loved the whole dynamic of the DC. I didn’t know a lot about retail when I joined. I didn’t have a great major plan for my career, seeking out one title or another; it’s never how I’ve approached my career. I’ve just looked for different opportunities that intrigued me. Within six months, I was a manager. Looking back, nobody should have listened to me, because I didn’t know anything about managing coming out of school.

SCN: As a new manager, who did you turn to for advice?

JM: I’m an open book, so being honest, having humility and saying, “I think I’m in over my head” or “I don’t know what’s going on,” is a really important part of being a good leader. Sometimes stretch assignments, or being put into a role before you’re ready, means that somebody saw potential in you, but it doesn’t always mean you know how to do things right now. That’s where I was.  I had some really great role models that I sought out for advice, but it was never one person.  I approached leaders who had skills or traits that I admired and asked them how they developed them.  There’s no one universal leader where you say “yes, that’s exactly who I want to be” so I cobbled it together from leaders I admired.

SCN: It is interesting that you didn’t specifically have a plan for your career early on.

JM: Don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty driven and focused, and I had mini plans but not a maximum plan. For me it’s never been about title especially in retail because new ones are always being created, it’s always been about the work. I think everybody is driven by different things, but I always advise people who report to me: don’t shoot for a title, but shoot for a job or a responsibility.

SCN: What is the best risk you’ve taken and why?

JM: Coming to JDA was probably my biggest professional risk.  I am comfortable in analytical roles within retail, but I have a passion for systems and tech. Even though I’ve been flexible with my career, I’ve always taken the tried-and-true path. I have excelled and loved leading large teams with a focus on development.  JDA is a completely different role and dynamic and I have enjoyed every moment.   At JDA I learn something new every day and I am energized when my experiences can help a retailer overcome some of their challenges.  This risk has been exciting, scary and very rewarding for me personally.

SCN: Does a career spent implementing JDA as a retailer give you instant credibility when you talk to customers now?

JM: It feels that way. I think that’s one of the best parts of my job, telling a customer firsthand my experiences with the tools.  When I was in the business, I didn’t want to hear from a lot of people who didn’t have first-hand knowledge. You want somebody who’s walked a mile in your shoes and who isn’t just trying to make just make a sale, but truly understands and has experienced the business process and problems and can relate to the impact it has on their business.

SCN: When evaluating the opportunity to join JDA, who did you seek input from?

JM: I am very fortunate to have a great network of mentors. My former chief supply chain officer knows my skill set and me very well and was a great sounding board. I talked to a lot of consultants I’d worked with over the years. I’d been considering the consulting or software side for a while, so every time I had an interaction, I’d write down what I liked, didn’t like, the challenges I observed and how I thought it might impact my career path. I also reached out to people from JDA to let them know what I was thinking about my next step. Across my network I got a lot of conflicting responses. Some people told me that it was the worst thing that I could do. It had absolutely nothing to do with JDA, but more about a career path within retail. Overall the feedback and the response – especially from people on the retail side – was not as positive as I would expect it to be to make the transition.

SCN: What did people see for you and your career, that prompted them to discourage you?

JM: I had risen very quickly in retail and had been in management for a long time, so I think they expected me to continue to gain more responsibilities and span of control within the retail business.. But for me, it was about the experience. I knew I was ready for a change and made it.

SCN: How long after joining JDA did it take for you to feel like you made the right move?

JM: It didn’t take long. JDA is probably the most welcoming environment. At DSW, part of our corporate values was focused on collaboration, and I felt like we lived it. But I’m not sure I really saw collaboration until I came to JDA. It is a common goal here and the most refreshing environment that I’ve ever worked in.

SCN: What is the best advice you ever received?

JM: Respect is earned not granted.  My mom provided me with this advice and really applied it to all I have done.  She instilled in me the concept that a title doesn’t entitle and that being a leader takes ethics, requires a strong point-of-view and fortitude to go after what I wanted.

SCN: How do you keep your skills sharp?  

JM: I love to surround myself with people who are smarter than me.  I ask a ton of questions and I am never afraid they will be perceived as stupid.  I read a lot to keep up on trends but I love to simply talk to people to gain insights that help reinforce or influence aspects of my thoughts.  I learn through discussion and experiences best.  I never stop seeking out new knowledge.

SCN: What advice do you have for someone taking on a leadership role for the first time? 

JM: Leadership is a gift and skill that isn’t given to you just because you are an excellent individual contributor.  It isn’t for everyone.  As a leader you gain strength and satisfaction seeing others accomplish their goals.  Your job as a leader is to make your team and those around you more visible to an organization.  You are the champion of your people and their success is your success.  How you view success changes when you are a leader.  It is no longer a “you,” but a “we” mentality.

SCN: What is your mindset as it relates to feedback?

JM: I love feedback. Good, bad, whatever I can get, because I believe you can’t grow without it. In the past I’ve required my teams to provide me feedback – how I was managing and areas where I could do better. At first, they were hesitant, but I told them that I can’t improve things if they don’t help me by offering feedback. I like to regularly reach out to peers and executives and ask, “how am I doing?”  I like to debrief immediately after meetings by asking “how could that have gone better?” or “What could I have done differently?” I’m a strong believer in seeking in-the-moment feedback when it is freshest. With a constant cycle of communication, nothing should ever be a surprise.

SCN: That’s a great approach. Constantly seeking feedback.

JM: Look, I’m not great at everything. Anyone who thinks they are, is just not being honest. It’s the hardest and the most rewarding thing – to ask for feedback and to actually receive something constructive in return. It’s funny, when I ask for it people naturally start with praise, but for me, I look for the criticism. I will say “This is what I think I could have done better, what do you think?” That makes it more comfortable for them to comment more openly, because I’ve already identified something to get the conversation going.

SCN: You have been very proactive in seeking feedback. Why is that?

JM: I think a general frustration people have in their careers relates to development, feedback and movement in an organization. To me, development is a shared responsibility between individuals and leaders. You can’t force develop people, they have to be open to it. Leaders need to communicate openly and honestly with their team members. When you become a leader, it’s no longer about you. I’ve seen a lot of great, brilliant, phenomenal individual contributors move into leadership and they  stall their careers because their strength was being a highly contributing individual contributor.  You need to be open to feedback and align your goals and performance to that of your organization to make sure they are compatible.

SCN: Do you think you need to manage people to be a leader?

JM: You can absolutely be a leader as an individual contributor. It’s not about the title. Strong individual contributors often have valuable leadership qualities. Titles don’t change anything about who you are and you can make a contribution at every level and continue to grow in your career without the title.