One of the most influential events on Steve Clemente's style of management was not a merger, acquisition, new supervisor or similar major occurrence.
“Probably the single-biggest impact to my leadership style was when I had children,” says Clemente, president and CEO of Nebraska Book Co. (NBC). “I think that really helped me put things into perspective and balanced me as a leader, as it really helped me separate home from work – and be better in both roles.”
Before Clemente and his wife, Lisa, had their first daughter, Ashley, now 10, he says his work life took priority over his personal life in terms of the time he spent at the office. With Ashley and her sister, Anna, 9, Clemente says he found a greater balance while also applying some of the lessons learned as a parent to his role as an executive. “My kids have taught me patience,” he adds, citing as an example the process of teaching his youngest daughter how to tie her shoes. “I recognized her for the things she did right as opposed to criticizing her for what she did wrong. By doing that, she was able to perform the task faster and feel better about herself rather than being penalized for what she didn't do right. It was a learning experience for both of us.”
Recognizing staff's positive accomplishments while setting expectations and holding them accountable is central to Clemente's work at the company. “I believe that when people naturally wake up in the morning and head into work that they want to be successful,” he says. “You can draw that out more by focusing on the positive as opposed to the negative.
“The perspective of parenting has made me a very different and more effective leader,” Clemente continues.
Learning Through Practice
Clemente joined the company more than two years ago as senior vice president of its college bookstore division. He assumed his current role following the departure of Barry Major and retirement of CEO Mark Oppegard.
Before joining the company, Clemente worked for 15 years at Target Corporation, last serving as a vice president of store operations overseeing 82 retail locations and operations in excess of $3 billion. His stores represented the company’s largest food region and Clemente excelled at providing complete lifestyle services for guests. Clemente’s team also developed Target’s college style focus – expertise that lends itself well to his role at the helm of NBC.
While at Target, Clemente started developing some of the foundations for his approach to leadership. Several of these foundations he attributes to former supervisor Bryan Berg, a senior vice president at Target.
“He's someone who has lived by the motto of letting people practice, and knows that it's OK for people to make mistakes,” Clemente says. “He knew that when something didn't go well, the person involved would be harder on themselves than he could ever be, and allowed individuals enough flexibility and autonomy to learn without micromanaging them.”
Clemente likens the roles of Berg and other management mentors in his career to that of a coach. “As a kid playing football and baseball, I worked out the kinks during practice outside of the big game, and had a coach to help me improve,” he says. “In business, I've been fortunate to have bosses who have helped me do that early in my career and that helped form my leadership style.”
Part of Clemente's current role includes serving as a mentor to others. “I consider it a privilege to help leaders achieve their professional goals,” he says. “They don't even have to pay me for that. The excitement I get from that is something that makes me proud day after day.”
More Than Textbooks
One factor that attracted Clemente to NBC is its team-oriented culture, which he attributes to former CEO Oppegard. “He is the person who remembers everyone's name – a constant and principled family man who realizes that our business is about more than selling books – it's about the people and knowing that people make the difference,” he says.
“That's what drew me in – I wanted to work for a company that focused on teamwork and had a family-oriented culture,” Clemente adds.
NBC was founded in 1915 with a single bookstore near the University of Nebraska campus that purchased textbooks from students and resold them. Today, NBC operates 250 bookstores nationwide, outfitting students with more than just textbooks. In addition to selling and renting textbooks, the company offers services including store design and planning, collegiate merchandise buying and advocacy, marketing, and college bookstore management systems.
“What we do today is much more than just sell used textbooks; we are the complete college outfitter.” Clemente says. “We accomplish this by focusing on innovation and providing what students need to make college one of the best times of their lives.”
NBC also operates an online store offering textbooks and more, www.neebo.com, under the brand Neebo. The company adopted the brand in 2010 in response to survey results and the realization that guests wanted more in terms of branding, design and product assortment. “Our strength was that we understood what college students wanted, but our brand didn’t reflect that. That’s why we created a younger, hipper consumer-facing brand that better connects with students,” he adds.
Two years ago, the company also reorganized and refocused its efforts on providing the best-possible service to its customers and improving the overall college experience. Each of the company's retail outlets strives to be a solution for its campus, offering the best mix of services for students while supporting the school’s mission.
“Our goal is to exceed the expectations of our guests and partners every single day,” Clemente explains.
Ultimately, the company's goal is to be the most knowledgeable and welcoming provider of collegiate products and services. “We have a strong team that is focused on what we do and why we do it,” Clemente says.
“I firmly, confidently believe that with our team and our simplified focus, we can get there,” he adds.