Career insights and leadership from female partners at Columbus Consulting International 

Susan Riley and Lynn Hughes are retail professionals, each with over 20 years of industry experience. Prior to becoming partners at Columbus Consulting, the women held leadership roles overseeing change management, training, systems implementation, and planning and allocation for major retailers including: Express, Justice, Neiman Marcus and PVH. In honor of Women’s History Month, we reached out to them to share their thoughts on their careers and what they learned on their individual journeys.  

QUESTION 1: HOW DID YOU DETERMINE WHAT YOUR CAREER PATH WOULD BE?

Susan: “I actually went to college to study retail management, so this has been a long time in the making!”

Lynn: I grew up in the retail industry and have always loved it. The industry allowed me to pivot into other areas and I wound up changing my path from store management to POS (point of sale systems). As a store manager, you are exposed to many areas of the business and when my store was a pilot location for IBM’s first POS system on the market, I took a lead role and enjoyed the process so much that I became the POS coordinator for 150 stores in the apparel chain. I installed systems, trained the store personnel and supported the stores as they rolled out to the new system.  The rest, they say, was history!

QUESTION 2: WHAT WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT TIME IN YOUR CAREER AND HOW DID YOU MANAGE THAT TIME AND EVOLVE FORWARD?

Susan: “I had a good run and it wasn’t until the end of my brand career that I felt a little burned out. The hours were long and I had accomplished so much with the companies I was fortunate to have worked with, that I felt my next move should be different. I am not sure I would categorize the time as difficult, but I do think you need to be aware of your own career path and know when you want to keep moving up and forward, when you want to plateau and when you want to step aside. I chose to walk parallel to the industry I loved and move into consulting.”

Lynn: “Being in the store systems area, people expected me to be technical, which I’m not.  I’ve been placed in positions and situations where the work required a technical knowledge and mindset and was ill-equipped to handle the work and position.  Realizing this, I then focused on positions where I was working with IT but viewed the tasks and projects from an operational and business perspective.  This skill set provided the IT team with a person who could “translate” the business requirements into the functionality the store and operational teams requested, at a very detailed level.  Working in consulting provides opportunities where my experience and skill sets are in high demand.  I have a strong sense of accomplishment when I see the end result of my work in the stores and the ease of use for the store personnel.  That’s what it’s all about in my book.”  

QUESTION 3: IF YOU COULD UNDO OR REDO ANYTHING FROM YOUR CAREER PAST, WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?

Lynn: “I wouldn’t undo or redo anything. You need to accept that everyone’s career journeys are different, but they all lead you to a certain place. You can choose to stay in that place or move on in the same or different direction. The key is to not let things happen to you, but for you to make things happen. It may seem a little optimistic but it is more about how you address those moments and use them to change and evolve. All of my experiences led me to where I am today as a consultant. I spent many years at Federated Department Stores and leveraged my skill sets to move from implementing traditional POS systems to leading industry developments in touchscreen POS—which earned the company I was with the Microsoft RAD (Retail Application Developer) award for two years in a row. I truly feel that had I not gone through my career experiences, I would not be as experienced in guiding my current clients through their own projects and deliverables.”

QUESTION 4: REFLECT ON YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCES BEING A FEMALE PROFESSIONAL. WHAT STANDS OUT THE MOST TO YOU?

Susan: “It sounds cliché, but mentorship is critical. Finding women in your field who have gone through whatever you are going through adds valuable insights into helping you navigate your own path. And, while it is not mandatory to find a mentor within your own company, it is important to have someone “at the table” on your behalf. Someone who has your interests and who can represent you to the right audiences. Luckily, the retail industry has a large number of female professionals that I’ve been able to look up to and resource for my own mentors.”  

Lynn: “Working with store systems, the vast majority of my co-workers have always been men and I’ve been in many situations where I was not offered a seat at the table.  I have been fortunate to have been involved in some cutting-edge industry projects where my female traits were beneficial. I’ve built on that through the years.  I have also been very fortunate to have a highly skilled and respected male mentor who has helped to guide and train me on additional skill sets that have helped me take my store systems and store operations knowledge and experience and mold that into my current career path where I’m able to do the work I love every day.  I’m very thankful to him and others who have helped me through the years.”  

QUESTION 5: WHY HAVE YOU CHOSEN CONSULTING AS YOUR CURRENT CAREER PATH? IF YOU DID NOT CONSULT, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING NOW? 

Susan: “Consulting firms, like all other companies, can be very different from one another. There are large firms that have to manage billable hour goals and sales revenue targets, others that sell their own technology or software solutions and still others that only focus on one area of the business from the strategy or implementation side. I never imagined that consulting would be in my career path.  I knew I was ready to leave the brand/retailer side of my career but I still wanted to be in the industry somehow. Columbus Consulting is a perfect fit. They are very unique in that they do everything from strategy through implementation and they work for the clients –only providing solutions that they need and that will drive their businesses forward. At Columbus I have flexibility and work with the industry’s top talent.”

Lynn: “If I wasn’t a consultant, I would still be in the retail industry. I just love this business and, as I said before, have grown up in it – it’s in my blood There has been so much evolution through the years from single brick & mortar stores to shopping center chains to strip center locations to big box and electronic commerce and now unified commerce—it is a dynamic industry and always evolving.  I also love how advanced the industry has been in embracing and promoting female talent. From the selling floor to the C-Suite, women have found their professional homes in retail and I’m fortunate to be one of them!”

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