How Jackie Robb made time to study an MBA by empowering her teams
If Jackie Robb were a football coach, she'd have a few grand final wins to her name, judging by her record turning around the Greater China businesses of US office supplier Staples.
The Melbourne Business School Senior Executive MBA graduate believes business success is all about empowering teams to serve customers.
"Every quarter in China, the leadership team and I would go out for an entire day with our delivery drivers, sitting on a box of paper in the delivery van, and spend the whole day delivering orders," Jackie says.
"We showed our associates that we were serious about the customer and invariably brought home a list of improvement issues that were annoying to our customers but invisible to the organisation."
Most importantly, she says, her leadership team lived the Staples' mantra "it is all about the customer" and brought about cultural change that was crucial to ongoing success.
In the five years Jackie spent as Staples China President, the business went from loss-making to profitable as revenue increased by about 50 per cent year on year, every year.
"That growth came from the winning of several large customers which led to the expansion of our geographic spread from three cities to 31, and the introduction of our own China brand, all executed by our teams," she says.
"We built our business on an ethical, compliant framework that put the customer at the core of our strategy. We grew the top line and learned to pivot our strategy quickly as China is a very competitive market and if one strategy doesn't work, you pivot.
"In my opinion, given the fast shifting technological, political and demographic landscape, that's a constant challenge for every business in the world now."
Jackie empowered her teams so well that she was able to study her MBA in Melbourne over 18 months while still running Staples China from Shanghai.
"By the time I started the program in May 2017, the Greater China businesses were on track to exceed our expectations in terms of revenue and profit, and my teams were very capable and in control, so I could attend each module," she says.
"I chose to study the Senior Executive MBA at Melbourne Business School because it was the only program I could find for senior executives, and I wanted learning that would challenge my thinking and biases and complement my experience."
Despite a record of senior roles that includes three years at PwC, more than 20 years at Sigma Pharmaceuticals and seven years at Staples, Jackie says the MBA program gave her new challenges to sharpen her skills and mindset.
"The Senior Executive MBA program is essential because – if I can use an analogy – experience is like having a lot of tools in your toolbox, and the program helped me learn how to use each one well. It gave me a wider perspective and lenses to look at things differently."
Jackie says the program also gave her 29 lifetime friends who have formed a strong close-knit bond from learning together over the 18 months.
After graduating in 2018, and after Staples sold its China businesses, Jackie returned to Australia and took on the role of Chief Operating Officer at Australia's largest pharmacy chain Chemist Warehouse, where she draws heavily on what she learned on the program and her China experience.
"Building sustainable operational strategies to support the ongoing growth of the business and developing high-performing teams to deliver these strategies is my key focus," she says.
China and Asia are important regions for Chemist Warehouse, which is ranked No. 1 on Alibaba's international e-commerce site, Tmall Global – and Jackie knows just how much the Chinese like Chemist Warehouse products from personal experience.
"When I was working for Staples China and getting ready to leave for my studies in Melbourne, I would have a queue of people outside my office asking me if I could bring vitamins or creams back for them. I would have the Chemist Warehouse Australian website open, using a VPN, and be placing orders."
Jackie's empathy for others is probably why she gets so much out of her teams, and it extends beyond her day job to her volunteer work for Global Women Connect, a not-for-profit organisation that mentors women across borders and companies into leadership positions.
"Most women have self-doubt. We don't go after what we want because we don’t believe we are good enough. Mentoring helps women leaders to reduce their self-doubt by learning from other leaders who share their knowledge and experience and act as a sounding board," she says.
"There are so many talented and capable women who can lead organisations and build great teams, create great places to work and help grow other women leaders. That’s why Global Women Connect is such a great initiative. It's leaders helping women leaders succeed."
Jackie's advice to people of any gender who want to lead well is simple.
"If you want to go on to do bigger and better things, the only way to do it is to make sure that you develop your team to do your job and find your successor."