Training Your Staff to Become Better Leaders

It has been quite telling over the years working with retail brands, whenever you bring up the subject of employee engagement, it’s usually not a top priority. Everybody is so focused on e-commerce and social media that employees are often treated as an afterthought. And while digital is, of course, critical for any brand in bricks and mortar retail, people are the power behind real success. So why aren’t retail leaders more focused on leadership?

April Sabral has had a long career in retail leadership with companies such as Banana Republic, Starbucks, and Apple. She’s the brains behind retail, a digital learning platform designed especially for retail leaders. In this episode, we talk about retail leadership and her new book, The Positive Effect.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda, and you’re listening to Think Retail.

I found it quite telling that over the years working with retail brands, whenever you bring up the subject of employee engagement, it’s usually not a top priority. Everybody is so focused on e-commerce and social media that employees are often treated as an afterthought. And while digital is, of course, critical for any brand in bricks and mortar retail, people are the power behind real success. So why aren’t retail leaders more focused on leadership? April Sabral has had a long career in retail leadership with companies such as Banana Republic, Starbucks, and Apple. She’s the brains behind retailu, an online learning platform designed especially for retail leaders. Today we’re going to talk about retail leadership and her new book, The Positive Effect.

Hi, April. How are you?

April: I’m great, how are you? Thanks for having me on.

Melinda: Well, thanks for joining us. Can you start us off by telling us a little bit about how you ended up as a leader in the retail industry?

April: Absolutely. So, yeah, I started off in retail when I was 16. I moved out of home. It was my first job, right? Easy to get a paycheck and had to kind of provide for myself. And I landed my first management job when I was back in the UK, at Gap, in my early 20s. And, you know, from there, went to Starbucks when Starbucks opened in the UK and moved over to Miami with Starbucks as a store manager. And really, I hadn’t thought about it as a career choice. It was, like, most people, a lot of people fall into retail as an accidental career, until I started moving up into that district manager role and multisite. And I was fortunate I got a lot of development and leadership skills in those first jobs. And I just stuck with it.

I think that I really loved people. You got to love people if you work in retail, and I loved leading stores, and running businesses, and providing great customer service. And, yeah, I just stuck with it. And so 25 years later, three countries, I went from sales shop floor manager all the way up to vice president. And the last role I held was at DAVIDsTEA for North America, where I led the sales and operations team and just kind of took everything, I knew that I had learned over the years, and just now, you know, I’m on a mission to really help leaders in retail understand their role and how important it is. And I love it. I absolutely love working with people and I love retail and I love customer service.

Melinda: You talk a lot about mentorship. Can you tell me what has your experience as a mentor taught you about leadership in the retail industry as it is today?

April: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think that it’s missing, I think that most people are self-taught in retail, unless you’re fortunate enough to have great leaders that are patient and take the time. But that’s very rare. My experience is I have to seek out mentors within the organizations and sometimes beyond the brands that I work for. And this is why I joined programs like the John C. Maxwell team because that was giving me a team of people around me that could actually help me further develop my own skills. And that was about 10 years ago, which really helped me become a better mentor to many other leaders.

But I know that it’s missing because many leaders that I have worked with over the course of my 25 years leading thousands of people call me and they’re always looking for advice and guidance with the decisions that they need to make. And that’s where I think mentorship would be, you know, highly beneficial if it could be introduced into a more formalized program. Because, you know, when I knew I was leaving DAVIDsTEA, I would constantly ask my team this question, I’d say things like, “What decision would you make if I wasn’t here?”

And what this would do, it would get them to share their thought process. And then I’d be able to kind of coach them on the thought process and share with them what I would do, and then we’d be able to talk about that gap. And that is mentorship at its best. But you know, it takes time. And it takes a commitment. So I think if senior leaders could do that more and they could connect more on a deeper level, they could fuel the future of leadership within their organization. And the best example I saw with that was when I worked at Apple, they had a formalized mentorship program. I’m not sure what it looks like today because that was back in 2010, but I feel like it’s missing.

Melinda: I was actually going to ask you, you have worked for some very successful brands and I wanted to know if there was a company that had an approach to people and mentorship that contributed to their success. Could you tell us a little more about the mentorship program at Apple?

April: At Apple it was formalized. They took us out and they put us through training. And I just remember going through that training program at the beginning when you had to kind of apply to be a mentor, if I’m getting that right. I can’t remember where I got selected. And at the beginning of the course, it was a four-day training course, they asked us to write a letter to somebody, somebody that we looked at like a mentor. So you had to write this letter, you had to write everything in like a thank you letter to everything that they had ever done for you and taught you. And then they asked us this question of, “Would anybody ever write a letter about you like this?” And I was like, “Oh my God, I don’t know.” Like that’s a whole different perspective.

Melinda: That’s a great exercise.

April: Right. It really is. But if I think back to Gap, when I worked at Gap back in the day, like this is 20 years ago now, the foundation of training I think that they provided at that time was so pivotal to my success. And it was such a great experience. I mean, they sent me on four leadership conferences a year when I was a store manager. It was called a Top Store Management Program. Obviously, it’s costly. So, you know, that’s not available for people now. But there’s other ways of doing it virtually.

But, yeah, I think back to that time, and I think that that was over 20 years ago, but they had an extreme investment in leadership development. I think that was the foundation of my success for my whole career. Because everywhere I went after that, I kind of had this expectation, and then I would introduce and implement things that I had learned.

Melinda: So in your book, The Positive Effect, you emphasize leading with empathy. Tell me why this is the way you approach mentorship.

April: Yeah. Well, I think empathy helps you understand people, right? This helps leaders understand people and really to stop making assumptions. There are many times I coach leaders on how to put themselves in others shoes and shift their perspective. And I think this golden rule, there’s a rule that says, you know, in customer service, treat people how you want to be treated. But I always say treat people how they want to be treated. Because when you put the focus on how they want to be treated, it puts you in a more empathetic place. It helps you seek more understanding. And it’s a bit of a different perspective. You know, empathy is hard to experience unless you’ve been in someone’s shoes, right? Like, true empathy.

But creating a sense of it starts with accepting people and help… Like I write about this in the book – helping them feel accepted and be supported. And that takes us lowering judgment, stop making assumptions, and getting our ego out of the way so that we can truly be in service to others. And I think that is so important in today’s world, right, with everything that’s happening and going on around us, especially having empathy for what the frontline workers are dealing with right now, in terms of retail, and the shifts that we’ve seen in the last year. There’s a whole load of complexities.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely.

April: And it’s really important. But, yeah, I think treating people how they want to be treated. I was coaching a leader last night. They called me, they wanted a coaching conversation. And they were frustrated about a situation with a person. And I said, “Hold on a minute, step back, you know, like, you’re jumping to a conclusion and you’re not really seeking understanding.” And so I think empathy today is important, especially because a lot of people are working in a remote world. And I managed leaders remotely for years having teams across the country. So, you know, I had to really learn that very fast to make sure that my team wanted to work for me.

Melinda: Right. And, I mean, it does add a complexity in that we’re not getting all of the talk that you would normally get around the water cooler where you develop those relationships. And there’s also nuance that you can’t capture on a Zoom call in the way that people are communicating. So that adds another whole layer to it, I’m sure.

Can you give us an example of an assumption that you’ve run across maybe more than once, just so people can understand a little bit more what you’re talking about when you say that?

April: I’ll just go back to this conversation I had last night with the leader, because this has happened many times with many leaders, but it’s the same example over and over again, frustrated with the fact that somebody’s performance is not there, or they’re not meeting a deadline, right? And then they’re making an assumption about this person that they’re not a good performer, not committed, not engaged, don’t care about their work. And I had to coach this leader last night and say, “Well, you’re making all these assumptions. But, you know, when you set the expectation at the beginning of the week, did you ask that person to walk you through how they were going to meet that expectation, and how they were going to achieve it, and what support you needed from the beginning?”

And this leader said to me, “Well, no. You know, I just expected that they could do it.” I said, “Well, you’re expecting that they’re highly competent in something that you’ve just hired them to do because you’re competent at it. That doesn’t mean that that person has got that same competence level.” And so I coached this person, “Go back and step back, and then go back to this conversation and say, you know, ‘I’ve thought about this conversation that we had yesterday and I want to come back to… Walk me through how you’re going to achieve this.’” Because then you’ll be able to catch in advance and then see the gaps and then provide some training and some coaching. And I can tell you, I have this conversation hundreds of times in my week with leaders, especially when I was managing remote teams. It’s that most of the time when somebody has not met an expectation that somebody set, and they’re making assumptions about this person based on this one situation.

And if I go back to the beginning when I was a manager at Gap, and they taught me Situational Leadership, it was not about that. It was about assessing the situation and then kind of tailoring our approach as a leader to get the best out of somebody. Because you don’t know if they’re going to be a future leader, you don’t know if they’re going to be highly competent. You’re making these judgments. But you’ve got to stick on the facts and you’ve got to stick in the moment.

Melinda: Oh, that’s a great example. In your book, you outlined three pillars that are the foundation of your programs at retailu. Can you tell us about these three pillars and how they connect to the curriculum?

April: Yeah. So in the book, I introduce you to, like you said, my three pillars, which is accept, create, teach, act, lead with awareness. And teach is really the pillar that connects to the curriculum. And it’s because teach, this pillar explains why leaders should have a mentorship and coach approach. The courses that we’ve designed are to give leaders the tools to level themselves up and then to use them with their teams. Because the biggest gap I always see or saw when I was leading big teams was leaders just really don’t know how to develop other leaders. They know how to do the job, most leaders in retail get promoted because they’re really good at the job, or they just get things done. Or they build really good relationships cross-functionally. And so that helps them get promoted.

But, you know, again, the biggest step is if they can’t succession plan, and they can’t develop other leaders, then they’re not fueling the pipeline. And so this is how the retailu courses are designed. And that pillar really speaks to that kind of approach. And I think what’s great about the retailu courses is that it does give people tools. Like I remember trying to create leadership conferences for 250 managers, and the whole DMs would be out of the business for a whole week, creating content, looking for TED Talks, reading books, just creating your own content. So, I saw the impact that that would have on the store teams and the business. We took the approach of creating it for everybody so that they don’t have to do that anymore.

Melinda: Great. And throughout the course of your career, there have been a lot of changes that impact the way employees expect to be treated, how we expect to collaborate with our teams, and what we want from our leaders. How has this impacted the relationship between senior leadership and frontline workers in retail?

April: Honestly, I think the gaps got wider. And I say that because I don’t think the intent is for it to get wider, but I think it has because senior managers have got their own problems to solve. Like, if you think about the problems that everybody is solving right now in retail, you’ve got supply chain, you’ve got e-com, you’ve got digital marketing, but it’s on steroids now compared to where it was 15 years ago, like, how do you communicate your brand? How do you get that message out? Everybody is fighting for foot traffic, especially in bricks and mortars. And then if they’re not, if they’re focused on e-com building that business, and that takes a big focus and how does e-com connect to the stores and incentify the stores? So I think that it’s got bigger.

An example of what I did when I was at DAVIDsTEA to try and close this gap was I brought managers into the office, and that really comes from my experience of coming from shop floor and always feeling like giving them that platform. And I brought about, you know, a good chunk of managers into the office and had them kind of dissect the different departments and all the things that were causing barriers in the stores for them to be able to be on the shop floor. And then I had them present it to the senior leadership team. And it was kind of like speed dating, they would come in, they would sit down and these managers would present.

But it was really beneficial for the senior team to hear from those managers firsthand of what was getting in the way. And it was silly things like printing something for visual merchandising for a price tag could take a manager 30 minutes, and that’s a big barrier for a manager to get that job done. So, I think that those senior managers had to hear that. But it was really hard to get those senior managers in the room because they were so busy. I don’t think it’s bad intentions. I think it’s just prioritizing people and connecting with that frontline associate.

And then, you know, the generation that’s coming up is very different. I have a 17-year-old. I have a 23-year-old. And they’re searching for meaningful work and they want to be invested and recognized for their contribution. They’ve grown up in a world of online reviews. They expect to be heard. So how do retailers attract this younger generation? And how do the senior leadership teams actually put a focus back on a people pillar? That’s going to be really important in the future.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’ve got a 14-year-old and an 11-year-old and I see the same thing in that their expectations around their relationships with, for example, right now, it would be their teachers. And their expectation there is very different from what I was able to expect when I was their age. And I think there are some positives around that. But I definitely think that when it comes to leadership, if there’s that generational gap, that you add on to the time crunch that efficiency, efficiency is something that every industry is facing that imperative. So, how do you find the time to educate yourself and understand and develop empathy? That’s also a challenge for companies.

April: Absolutely.

Melinda: One of the things that you said in the book really stood out to me, and it was that every single week, every one of us interacts with at least one retail worker. And I’m going to guess that for most of us, it’s probably a lot more than that, especially when we’re out of the pandemic. Based on my experiences, those interactions are really widely varied. You can have one that’s absolutely fantastic. But you can also have one that is so poor that you walk out of the store and you don’t make that purchase. What do you think it will take for retail leadership as a whole to acknowledge the power of these interactions and really value frontline workers for what they bring to the equation?

April: It’s so true. I’ve just been having service lately that’s hit and miss as well. I had an experience a couple weeks ago where it was with a young gentleman and a retailer, and he was just…he wanted to do the right thing. He wanted to give good service, he was nervous, but he was just poorly trained. And it was me and my business partner, we found ourselves saying, “Hey, you know, you just go into POS and you look for this or you look for that, then you’ll be able to find this and you’ll be able to process a refund this way.” And he was like, “Oh, well, thanks.” And then we were like, you know, “Don’t worry about it. We’ve worked in retail for years and we have a retail training company.” So, we have the empathy with him because we could see he wanted to do a good job, he wasn’t a bad person, but he couldn’t give the service that we needed because he just was poorly trained.

And that was really heartbreaking for both of us and instead of watching that because we were those people, you know, 25 years ago. So, I think it’s a shift in focus. And I think it’s reprioritizing people. And I think you have to treat your people like your customer. If you’re a leader, you need to recognize that everybody that works for you – you’re in service to them and they are your customers. And so I think you need to be transparent. I think you need to share what’s going on. But I really believe that you need to invest in training in people. And I don’t just mean like product knowledge and operations, just that kind of training, because that operational piece is generally there. But I do think that you have to think about inspiring people and helping them. Because an engaged frontline employee works for their leader. No matter what brand they’re working for, they’re working for the person that leads them. And so that leader needs to be engaged.

And it goes all the way up from, you know, associate to assistant to store manager to DM. And, you know, you can train selling skills over and over again and, like, change your selling model. I’ve seen this happen over and over again, where the sales are not there or the service isn’t there or customer service scores are low, and then we keep changing the selling model and focusing on that. But if you don’t focus on the manager of the store, it doesn’t matter what you do, because that manager holds the keys to that store associate and that team being customer-focused because they are leading the charge in that. And I think that middle management or store management DM have kind of been a little bit forgotten about and I think it needs to come back to investing in those people, those middle managers that really make or break. A DM going into a store for two hours can impact how a store manager feels and then that trickles down because they’re going to share all of that with their associate team whether you like it or not. So that’s really important.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely. And, I mean, you touched on a good point there is that those frontline employees, they generally… People want to do a good job. They want to feel good about showing up to work and feel like, “Yeah, I did a good job today,” no matter what their job is. And especially now I feel like so much has been heaped on frontline workers. They’re bearing the brunt of consumer frustrations when, you know, things are not working the way you want because of the pandemic or maybe you’re waiting too long in line, or maybe the product you’re looking for isn’t available and that frontline worker is bearing the brunt of that in many cases. And so if you’re not giving them your full attention, those workers might go away. And I think we’re going to see, once the pandemic subsides, there’s going to be a gap there in just finding employees who want to work in retail.

April: Absolutely. Mm-hmm.

Melinda: So if there is this gap in terms of training those store managers, how do they activate? How can senior leadership activate them and help them support those frontline teams?

April: I think training and development is key. I mean, I’ve got a whole company around it because I think it’s so important. I don’t think it can be underestimated. I don’t think the power of positive leadership can be underestimated. And I think the ROI of leadership training needs to be talked about more. And it’s a hard one to kind of quantify because, you know, when you look at conversion rates, it’s easy. It’s like, traffic into store converts into a transaction. So that’s an easy one. But ROI of leadership training can kind of be a little bit vague. And I think that’s where people get stuck and don’t talk about it. But, I mean, I can give you a whole list of ROIs on leadership training. Like it increases the productivity of the entire team, develops decisions quality and effective problem solving, it improves leaders’ ability to succeed under pressure, builds resilience, it increases their emotional intelligence, which improves teamwork, it improves listening and communications skills, it retains top talent.

I mean, I can go on and on. It improves prioritizing the business acumen and also awareness of diversity in the workplace, which is really important now. It’s come to the forefront. So, you know, the ROI of leadership training, as much as it might not be like a UPT add-on, and I think that’s where everybody’s been so focused on that in bricks and mortar in the last five years, just because of the shift on e-com and trying to drive that revenue in stores. You know, you cannot underestimate all of these points that I just shared because that is going to drive your bottom line. It’s going to create cultures where people want to thrive. And I think that needs to be a discussion, I think HR teams, operations teams, I think marketing teams, I think that whole leadership team has to have that within their meetings.

And unfortunately, I can share in my own experience, that really wasn’t a topic of discussion when I was on senior leadership teams in the last 10 years. It really wasn’t. So I think that’s got to come back. And I think that’s important, that they really have a people strategy because people are going to be, like you said, selecting where they want to work, thinking about what that looks like. And they might be asking these questions in the future.

Melinda: Right. And I think especially as we integrate the digital experience more heavily, those personal interactions that you have with staff are going to become much more important to the customer right now. We’re kind of in a strange place because of the pandemic but once we are on the other side of it, if we assume that people are going to be using digital more seamlessly, then those interactions might be fewer. And so the emphasis on how we interact with those frontline employees as consumers, I can only imagine that it’s going to mean a lot more to me.

April: And also when you’re thinking about leadership development and training, traditionally training would be managers would go to conferences and things like that every year. And that’s not going to happen anymore. It’s just not. It’s gone away. The expense is too much and it’s not necessary. And I think what I love about the retailu courses and the feedback that we get from everybody on them is that they’re designed with this in mind. It’s like a four-minute video, you watch it, you do a practical activity in your week with a team, you have a mentorship moment with your leader. And then on the weekly conference calls, you can talk about that competency for 10 minutes as a group. And it operationalizes the way that leadership training is introduced into a business.

And that is key because that’s where things fall down. It’s like HR teams will introduce things but if the operators don’t embrace it, then it doesn’t really fly and it doesn’t get executed. You know, operations are all about execution. So you’ve got to give them something that’s practical enough that they’re going to embrace, that’s time-bound, that fits into their week, and that they can actually practically use. That’s what we’ve aimed to build. And so far, so good. It’s making a huge difference to the clients that are using it. And, I mean, it’s because I’ve seen it. I did it firsthand, right?

Melinda: And I think using a learning platform online is it’s more accessible. It would mean that maybe companies that aren’t as big could also access it. Whereas, you know, sending all your leadership to a conference is quite costly. And really only larger companies would be able to afford that. I’m assuming that with an online platform, it becomes more accessible.

April: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we pride ourselves on making it accessible for all. And so the price positioning is very affordable. But that does not mean that the content is not excellent. I mean, I was in operations. I knew what budgets I had for things. And so we’ve made it so that it’s very accessible. And especially now with everything that retail is going through, leadership development should actually not be really expensive. It shouldn’t be. It should be accessible for all and we’re really passionate about that.

Melinda: Oh, that’s great. So, if you could give retail leaders three simple tips on how to break through to their teams, and be the kind of inspiring leaders that make people feel excited to get up and go to work every day, what would those top three tips be?

April: I would say that, from my book, I would say use the three pillars of leadership that I introduced in this book, which is accept, create, teach. And so accept is no judgment, no assumptions, and be supportive, like highly supportive. That speaks to empathy. There’s a whole chapter on this in the book.

Number two, create, think, and envision, and be responsible. Be a responsible leader, be transparent. Think and envision what you want for your team because when you take that time and you really create that vision and envision it. That’s important. A lot of senior leaders don’t plan thinking time into their week, and with the busyness and the remoteness of everything that’s going on, that is really important. And be responsible.

And then number three is to teach, mentor, and coach and be selfless with it. Like your job as a leader is to mentor and coach your team. And if you take that approach, you will be less frustrated, you’ll be perceived as somebody that they can connect with. And you’ll be there again to support them. So, it’s all in the book, I would say grab the book and read it because these three pillars are not like a Harvard degree or something. But it’s what I have used over the last 25 years.

I mean, when I wrote the book, I sent emails out to my network and said, “If you had to describe me in three pillars, what would it be? Because I need to put down everything that I have learned and achieve and executed in a book so that I can help more people do the same.” Because the teams that I led, a lot of them followed me from business to business. And that doesn’t just happen by accident and being a nice person, that happens because there’s an intentional way to lead. And so I think, accept, create, teach, be supportive, be responsible, and be selfless.

Melinda: Great. And where can people find The Positive Effect and retailu?

April: So retailu is So it’s retailu, like university, dot ca. So you can just log onto the platform and get in contact with us through that. And the book is for sale on Amazon. So if you just put, you know, “April Sabral, ‘The Positive Effect’” in Amazon, it will pop up.

Melinda: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for chatting with us today.

April: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

Melinda: In order to close that widening gap between frontline workers and senior management, engaging store managers through leadership development is essential. As consumers head back out to spend their pandemic savings, brands will need well-trained and engaged staff to greet them. Forgetting about service in a rush to get digital platforms working is in some ways understandable given everything that retail brands are juggling. But to April’s point, excellent service isn’t just about what customers want. It’s about ensuring your employees are valued and given not just the tools but a reason to provide service excellence.

At SLD, we strongly believe that when building digital infrastructure for retail, you need to review the entire journey and ensure that human service is offered at the right moment in the right way. Will your people have the right skills and motivation to do your brand proud? Well, if you’re wavering on that question, first of all, you’re not alone. And secondly, you can consider retailu and April’s book, The Positive Effect, as tools you can leverage to develop the kind of leaders your brand needs. Thanks for listening.


April Sabral is the founder and CEO of retailu, an e-learning platform that provides retail specific leadership modules and live workshops for mid size retailers. She is also the author of The Positive Effect: A Retail Leader’s Guide to Changing the World.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email