23 January, 2017

Hello from the ‘other side’

How difficult is it for retail brands to secure the senior leaders they need to remain competitive and compelling and take their companies forward while still delivering returns to shareholders? Maria Stanford shares her views of the retail sector as former Group HR Director of the Selfridges Group; now part of Green Park’s Retail and Board Practice.

How wide do UK retailers need to spread the net globally in order to find the strong leaders they need? What are the technical skills executives should have in terms of finance, IT, marketing or similar, and how has the digital revolution altered the balance?  Should retailers look for those with in-sector experience or be sourcing senior hires from technology businesses?

When I started my first job in HR at BHS, it was still called staff management. From there to managing large teams of HR professionals during my career at Selfridges Group, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the retail sector that are having a huge impact on the requirement of the leadership team. In turn, this has impacted on how we identify, engage and secure such talent.

A key change is the huge choice for customers and the availability of information that they can source before going shopping. Customer power is a game changer and challenges the loyalty that any retail brand has with consumers. Retailers have to ensure their brand has integrity and a clear position in the marketplace to encourage customers to associate with them.

The digital agenda has also completely challenged the retail sector. People like me grew up in a world where the shops were open 9 – 5.30 Monday to Saturday with maybe a late evening on Thursdays. Now you can shop 24/ 7, 365 days a year.  People are now willing to shop on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and in the early hours of the morning. 

For executive appointments it means not necessarily replacing like with like, but instead looking at the required skills mix with a new mind-set. Do we have the right people in the team to manage and understand customer data analytics in order to drive better decisions? The rules of the traditional retail board, no longer apply. What happens to the traditional Operations or Stores Director roles at a time when most successful retail is multichannel? Instead, we are seeing the growing importance of IT, digital and data specialists and the emergence of jobs such as Chief Customer Officer. Until relatively recently, these roles just didn’t exist in retail, therefore, very few people have had the career background that naturally lends itself to the job profile.

There is also a necessity for senior retail leaders to collaborate more. Traditionally the retail industry has placed greater value on functional expertise than leadership skills. Departments can’t work in isolation in anymore, whether that’s marketing, buying, supply chain management, pricing or store design. Everything is intertwined.

The smartest organisations are those that value leadership, not just functional capability, and recognise the importance of data analytics and technology, understanding the digital models that have enabled pure play online retailers to take an increasingly large slice of the retail pie. The strongest proposition will blend this customer understanding with a strong brand and efficient processes.

I’m excited to have joined Green Park who, among publishing extensive research reports on topics such as diversity and leadership, are this year launching a ground breaking study on the race for retail transformation. The DNA of the Retailers of Tomorrow has been produced by Green Park in partnership with World Retail Congress, Planet Retail and TrueStart and will launch in April this year at The World Retail Congress, to be held in Dubai.

The global study, which introduces a new index to benchmark retailers across a number of quantitative and qualitative indices, will go some way towards identifying the ‘best practice’ leadership and organisational design necessary to navigate the highly complex transformation of the retail sector.

It’s a pleasure to be involved in a project that seeks to really understand how the retail sector is continually evolving and transforming, and to help identify the challenges faced by leadership teams in the global battle for customer loyalty. Like me, Green Park are passionate about retail – and that’s one thing that will not change.

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