Women in Business Q&A: Lisa Malat, VP of Operations and CMO, Barnes & Noble Education, Inc.

Lisa Malat serves as Vice President of Operations and Chief Marketing Officer at Barnes & Noble Education, Inc. Lisa provides strategic direction and executive oversight to Barnes & Noble College's campus stores in the areas of consumer and corporate marketing, talent management and in-store and eCommerce strategy and operational efficiencies. Prior to joining Barnes & Noble College in 1996, Lisa held several senior-level management positions at Macy's, including roles in Store Operations, Process Re-Engineering, Distribution, Customer Service, and Learning and Development.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

My identity as a leader was formed at an early age when my parents' marriage dissolved along with my sense of safety and stability. With my mom battling her own demons, and my dad in another state, I was left to figure things out on my own. I escaped to my large group of friends, whose mothers were having their own existential crises (it was the 70's, after all). My friends became my family and we raised each other. In a short time, instability developed into independence and uncertainty led to confidence.

Although I grappled with how to fill that void, I never allowed it to define me or my future.

I developed a powerful sense of purpose, a belief in personal responsibility and determining my own future. I learned and understood the power of women mentors and the importance of collaboration and inclusiveness, which today remains at the core of who I am as a leader.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Barnes & Noble Education?

I spent 12 years at Macy’s before I joined BNED. I went through their Executive Training program and charted a path that was outside the retail merchandising norms at the time. Beginning as a merchant at the age of 22, I landed on the selling floor at Herald Square, on the front lines with customers and leading a large team of associates. I was promoted every two years, learning business operations, distribution and logistics, customer service, business process re-engineering and training and development. This breadth of exposure and experience taught me how to deliver operational excellence. I experienced the joy of being a champion of people and recognized the incredible power of the customer voice.

In each position, I found opportunities to innovate, to continuously ask how we can do it better, evolve our thinking and bring it to life for the organization. I developed a keen sense of discipline and focus as I understood the interdependencies and saw how the pieces fit together to drive value for everyone.

The fundamentals I learned as a rookie leader on the selling floor at Macy's Herald Square continue to ground me to this day.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Barnes & Noble Education?

In one word, CHANGE. Constant change has been both the highlight and the challenge of my

20 years at this company. Our industry was among the first to experience disruption driven by new technologies and consumer expectations. The relentless pace of change has given me the freedom to think and act like an entrepreneur, and constantly innovate new programs and processes.

Our fast moving, constantly changing industry has pushed us to be nimble, to think creatively, and to continuously adapt and evolve. Today we are redefining our core business and are excited to bring to the market fresh solutions for the education, technology and retail sectors.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

My advice to women in any industry is to take charge of your own career. You cannot wait for someone to give you the power, the position, or the assignment. Instead you need to seek out every opportunity to build your skills, your network, and your knowledge.

Look for ways to add new value to your organization. Find that “white space”: what is not getting done or not getting done well. Keep asking yourself: “Where is the opening to deliver exceptional work that goes way beyond anyone’s expectations?” Then have the grit to grab those opportunities and the tenacity to deliver. That is how I built my career – by identifying the needs of the organization, and then building the right teams, solutions, and strategies to best move forward. I have found that stamina, creativity, authenticity and a really good sense of humor have helped me get through the day.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

I learned that people, relationships, and forging connections ARE the work.

In my late 20s, I got a wakeup call when I received feedback from my team. I realized I wasn't connecting with people – I was too heads down on each task, and not making human connections.

Every leader receives challenging feedback at some point, but it’s what you do with that feedback that matters. It can shut you down or you can begin to understand how to become your personal best as a leader, coach and mentor. To this day, that valuable lesson guides me.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

There is no magic bullet; it's a give and take and a negotiation every step of the way. There were times when I thought I had it all figured out with day care, dance recitals, store meetings and everything else in between, only to have my plans fall apart the next month. The balance will never be perfect. Flexibility and compromise are all part of the package.

Logistics aside, I believe that my passion and commitment for what I do outside the home has made me a better parent and role model for my daughters. They see that having a fulfilling career and a thriving family is possible. They know that they don’t have to choose and it’s not an either-or situation. When I asked my oldest daughter for her perspective, she said “a balanced life isn’t just about dividing time between work and family. It’s about genuinely caring for the people in all aspects of your life, and knowing that every relationship worth maintaining makes life balanced.”

What do you think issue biggest issue for women in the workplace?

I want women to own their power and to recognize that their ideas, thoughts and opinions are just as valuable and NECESSARY as anyone else’s at the table. There must be a diversity of perspectives to get to the best solutions. The best meetings, conversations, and teams I have been a part of were ones where ALL voices were respected and heard. Everyone, both women and men, at all levels within the organization, are responsible for ensuring this is foundational to the company culture and mission.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

The best part of my job is coaching and developing our future leaders. However, as much as I mentor them, they mentor me right back, and that is one of the greatest joys of my job.

My leadership style has evolved along with the expectations of the new generation entering the workforce. They thrive in a collaborative environment where information is democratized and where they can work "outside their job descriptions" to contribute meaningfully to the direction of the company.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

I admire women who are following their passion and finding purpose in what they do.

I do not look at industry, title, fame or accomplishments. Women who recognize their obligation to rise up and develop the next great generation of women are those whom I admire; women who are authentic and generously share their stories and truths, so all can learn.

What do you want Barnes & Noble Education to accomplish in the next year?

We are faced with a consumer who is moving at lightning speed, coupled with an industry that’s reinventing itself to meet the changing expectations of a new generation and the technologies that impact their college experience. We are getting ready to launch some very exciting learning platforms that will meet these challenges head on. Students and their success has always been at the core of our mission- this year, we are excited to take that commitment to an even higher level. It has been and continues to be a privilege to serve students and be part of their future.

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