Microsoft's Shelley Bransten headshot.
Shelley Bransten, corporate vice president of worldwide retail and consumer goods for Microsoft, tells us how the power of mentorship has helped shape her career. — Microsoft

Why it matters:

  • Microsoft’s Shelley Bransten applies lessons learned from her mentors, including, ‘When feeling stuck or stale, keep moving; don’t sit in your own level of dissatisfaction.’
  • Ask yourself: What gives you energy? What drains you?
  • When you believe in the value of a business idea, have the courage of your convictions to fight for it.

Microsoft’s Shelley Bransten fell in love with the power of technology to glean shopper insights during her tenure at Gap.

She’d been singled out as a top performer by the apparel merchant at a time when brick-and-mortar stores were the only real retail game in town, Amazon was just a four-year-old bookseller, and when landing on a brand-leadership track marked a plum path up the retail ranks for a young professional.

That a mentor intuited Bransten’s passion for tech, encouraging her to follow that (seemingly unglamorous) career muse, proved pivotal. Today, digital technology is the engine fueling the economy across business industries, and retail is no exception. Indeed, serving the global $23.8 trillion omnichannel retail industry is integral to Microsoft’s $43 billion business.

Here, Bransten, corporate vice president of worldwide retail and consumer goods for Microsoft, shares the invaluable lessons learned from a “posse” of mentors, and how leaning into being “the least cool kid in a fashion company” proved fortuitous.

CO—: Who is your mentor and why?

SB: There are so many people who have mentored me. It’s less a single mentor and more of a personal board of directors — this posse of women and men who I turn to for advice, and it’s important to think about them as mutual relationships.

CO—: What are they like?

SB: They are all [mostly] women, and a couple of great men too, as it’s important to be balanced. They include women that I deeply admire, that will give it to me straight; I’m not looking for people to make me feel better about myself. They tell you what they think you’re capable of, and what they think is not good for you. As you get deeper into your career you appreciate that honesty more and more.

CO—: What’s one pivotal piece of advice you received from a mentor?

SB: One of my main mentors is Eva Archer-Smith, who was my executive coach at the Gap.

At the time, they were trying to foster female middle managers who were identified as high performers, and they invested in those employees to figure out not just the next six months for them, but the next two or three years.

Eva is a former chief marketing officer at Continental Airlines. One of her analogies that has stuck with me is how she talked about every job being a combination of getting airplanes up and down every day, versus building a new terminal.

We would have a coaching session twice a month, and she would ask questions like, ‘What gives you energy? Where do you feel excited, and where do you feel drained?’

When it was time for me to decide [whether or not] to take a brand leadership role at Gap Inc., she had observed that what gave me energy was building the new terminal. I was the least cool kid in a fashion company — I liked the data, the technology, the underbelly. I wasn’t interested in the [ads] in Vogue magazine.

Rather than running brands, she said, ‘I think what you’ll really love is the new technology and helping brands adopt technology.’ That was really good advice that only someone who had mentored me and watched me could have given me.

The tech that excited me was the customer analytics side. I love using data to tell stories. What I was good at was speaking about this with Stanford Ph.D.s and data scientists and analysts. I could feel early on, in the days before data scientists were the new rock stars, that it was going to be really important for retailers to understand data to help understand our customers better and get us to tell stories to our customers better.

It’s less a single mentor and more of a personal board of directors — this posse of women and men who I turn to for advice, and it’s important to think about them as mutual relationships.

Shelley Bransten, corporate vice president of worldwide retail and consumer goods, Microsoft

CO—: What have you learned from a mentor that’s been key to leading a business?

SB: Another person who is incredibly inspirational to me is Jill Standish [senior managing director, global lead, retail for Accenture]. Her basic advice is: Don’t sit in the muck. When we’re feeling stuck or stale, keep moving, keep pushing, don’t sit in your own level of dissatisfaction. She’s been incredibly helpful to me in thinking [about how to] get out of my own muck.

An example is when I joined Microsoft. I don’t think most major retailers understood the solutions we were bringing to the retail industry. We were showing up with a bag of tech, but not speaking their language, such as: How do you drive comps [comp store sales]? How do you drive customer acquisition, and how do you improve inventory turn?

Everyone’s talking about machine learning and blockchain. That’s great, but what’s the application of that to solve the most important challenges for retailers?

Jill was really helpful to me [in saying], ‘Don’t feel frustrated that people don’t understand; design for the future.’ I ultimately came to four key retail priority scenarios, where we were going to build our own tech or recruit other interesting startups or other tech companies, to answer the most pressing challenges for retailers.

You can’t just talk about tech for tech’s sake, but [for] solving for business problems. No one needs another tech company showing up and talking about all their shiny objects.

CO—: Is there a recent project that reflects a mentor’s imprint in some way?

SB: My current boss Deb Cupp [corporate vice president of enterprise] is a phenomenal leader and an amazing human being.

When we initially brainstormed the idea for [the new platform] Microsoft Cloud for Retail, she knew how radical it might be within Microsoft because tech companies are traditionally more horizontal by nature than vertical. But she 100% had my back, saying, ‘If you believe that this is the right thing for the company to do for this industry, you’ve got to push for it, and I will create every forum I can to make it [happen],’ and she’s done that.

Tech is more important, not less important, for retailers [these days], and solutions versus lots of individual pieces of tech even more so. Retail customers across the globe are coming to us and saying, ‘We need more finished solutions to understand our customers better, have a more agile supply chain and empower our frontline workers.’ Microsoft Cloud for Retail will do that by connecting experiences across the end-to-end shopper journey with integrated and intelligent capabilities. By bringing together disparate data sources across the retail value chain, we’ll enable retailers to realize the true value of their data. That data will not only enrich key business processes but be turned into actionable insights for them.

CO—: Complete this sentence: Had I not met my mentors, I likely never would have...

SB: I likely never would have made the jump from retail to technology.

Read more here on the power of mentorship from business leaders.

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