Lululemon’s clean slate at the top

December 11, 2013

(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

From the outside, the board leadership change announced by Lululemon Athletica on Tuesday may look like a reaction to the yoga wear company's latest social media disaster. Chip Wilson, who vaulted the company into a viral maelstrom last month for comments he made during a Bloomberg TV interview, is stepping down as chairman of the company's board of directors. Wilson came under fire for saying some women's bodies "just actually don't work" for the company's yoga pants, and then issued an apology video that was widely panned.

My guess, however, is that the transition has just as much to do with wanting a clean slate of leaders at the top as it does with the specific comments from an apparently gaffe-prone chairman. At the same time the board made the announcement about Wilson, who will remain on the board but be succeeded by lead director Michael Casey as chairman, it also said it was hiring a new CEO. Laurent Potdevin, most recently the CEO of TOMS Shoes, will succeed Lululemon's current top executive, Christine Day, who announced in June she intended to leave the company. Day was CEO during the sheer pants recall from earlier this year, which cost the company millions and raised questions about quality control.

Bringing in a new CEO to work directly under Wilson, the founder-chairman, could have created a tricky situation where she was stymied by the founder's attachments to the past. As one retail analyst wrote in response to the decision, changing the chairman's post prevents a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario. It should give Potdevin more flexibility to make changes, unencumbered by the founder hovering just overhead.

Wilson's embarrassing gaffe must have played a big role in the change. But for a company that needs to win back customers frustrated by lingering quality complaints and show investors that it's turning a corner, the most important thing is to make clear that real change can take place. Though Wilson will remain on the board, his move out of the chairman's job helps to signal that it's really Potdevin's company to lead now.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Lillian Cunningham · December 11, 2013