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Retail paths to leadership: stockroom to boardroom

The pages of IR reflect the skills needed to connect profitably with the connected customer’s wallet, but skills don’t just ‘appear’ – they’re built and developed. Ian Jindal considers how we fit our organisations to be skills-building, adaptability engines. Are we creating pathways from the stockroom to the boardroom in multichannel?

Our Top500 readers are familiar with and committed to recruiting and retaining the multichannel skills necessary for success. They are also obsessed with the challenges of maintaining the ‘right’ skills for tomorrow’s successes, and the resilient, adaptable attitudes needed to support development.

However, how do we move from “hiring the best talent” to “creating tomorrow’s talent”? Can retailers be the engine of future success rather than paying to use the talents developed elsewhere? Creating the future rather than paying to catch up? A recent article in the New York Times was shocking and stark in its depiction of two janitors working for global companies, 35 years apart. Once cleaner (spoiler alert) rose to become the CTO of Kodak in its heyday. The other janitor is in an outsourced company, with no benefits, no holidays for four years and with limited career options funded by the company for whom she cleans (see As my colleagues have written elsewhere, behind the ongoing upheaval of Brexit is a feeling amongst workers that their careers and opportunities are limited.

A lack of security and hope in a future, allied to a threat to current prosperity is a corrosive situation, and retailers – as significant employers, and indirectly a sector that funds its own customers’ salaries – has a role to play in creating opportunity. There are shining exemplars of individuals who’ve risen from the shop floor or shelf stacking to run their organisation: Sir Terry Leahy (via UMISt), Steve Rowe at M&S , Paula Nickolds at John Lewis (via their graduate traineeship) are all excellent examples of career-long service and progression. However, what should retailers be considering in order to make this a norm rather than an exception? This year I’ve worked with a few brands and retailers to consider career development – for example how a talented Ecommerce Director might have a path to CEO, or how marketers can develop their skills to thrive in a multichannel, digital business. A number of generic approaches have emerged, including…

z Pathways – create explicit pathways for progression. Articulate the skills, experiences and support an employee needs in order to reach the board. One example might be opening role profiles to scrutiny, or being clear about the differences between one’s current appraisal and the senior roles.

z Training and development – graduate recruitment is well-developed; numerous retailers have apprenticeships schemes, inhouse training and even their own degree programmes. However, we also need to look at non-academic and experiential training. While we may all understand wholesale relationships in an abstract sense, six months of making sales, dealing with queries, mollifying your largest source of revenue in the US, or learning from retail formats of franchised partners is an experience that you need to live through and learn from. Providing

an experiential path is vital for learning.

Supporting initiative – we often have to ‘force-train’ colleagues in matters of compliance or standards, but we should also offer open-ended development: opportunities where an employee’s interest and energy can be directed. Coding classes, online presentation training, comedy improv and sales… There are many and varied skills that could sound like a cliche in an illiberal joke, yet which add to the distinctiveness, completeness and effectiveness of senior skills.

Synthesis – while we need specialists, senior leaders are jacks of all trades and masters of most. The ability to understand, synthesise and extend perspectives has been behind advances in science and the arts for millennia… we need that flair and fluency in retail too. As future retailers our message to staff has to be that we’ll hire well, train and support them over their career – and that their performance is tied to our success. Our customers want leaders of character, experience-makers and characters of distinction – in the store, around the board table, and in the contact or fulfilment centres. During November and January I will be running a number of discussions to hear how leading retailers are creating the human capital advantage that will allow them to survive and thrive.

If you’d like to contribute, share your learning and development approaches, or workshop options, please drop me a note at as we map a human path of advantage and distinction – people and capability in the age of digital capability, AI and machine learning.

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