How are retail CEOs leading through (the uncertainty of) this stop/go scenario?

- by Fran Minogue, Managing Partner in Articles

How are retail CEOs leading through (the uncertainty of) this stop/go scenario?

There was a horrible novelty to the first lockdown.

We’d never been there before and the first priority was colleague safety and then to focus on keeping operations going.

And the weather was good; we had a lovely late spring/early summer, so at least that one hour of exercise a day could be spent in the park or the garden, even getting a tan.

It all feels so very different this time around. We know what we’re in for. The second lockdown has been met with weariness, resignation, cynicism and even anger as many feel the tiered approach was working and the havoc wreaked on the economy is unjustified.

Thousands of shops and restaurants will never reopen and unemployment figures will take years to recover. The last 6 months have been brutal.

There’s been a shake out and weak and inefficient businesses that didn’t adopt a truly omnichannel model and limped on after the last financial crisis, propped up by cheap money, will now finally disappear forever – and sadly few will miss them.

Exciting though news of a vaccine is, will it be the panacea we hoped for and how long will it take to roll out? One thing’s for sure, it will come too late to save the high street from a meltdown; we’ve handed Christmas to Amazon on a plate.

Against this sombre background, how are CEOs stepping up to lead and motivate colleagues to go again? How will they manage through this difficult stop/go scenario?

Mike Logue, CEO of Dreams is incredibly proud of how his colleagues have performed over the last 8 months. To keep communications flowing, he created the Hub, an app that has been downloaded by 97% of colleagues of which 70% are active weekly.

Mike and the top team use it for updates – good news and bad – but it is accessible to everyone - manufacturing staff, delivery drivers and store teams, to share successes and have fun from celebrating birthdays to holding bake-offs and quizzes.

While Mike says he has never experienced a year as tough as this one, he is confident that Dreams will come through this even stronger, having invested in the business while many competitors have gone to the wall. He has acquired and expanded mattress specialist Feather and Black and will shortly be launching a new value led brand, taking advantage of more cost effective locations as rents become more affordable.

Encouraged by colleagues’ suggestion on the Hub, the Board has decided to award a one off bonus to the teams that worked through the first lockdown while others were furloughed, to thank them and, whilst money is important, he believes that what really motivates people is recognition and honesty. As Mike says:

Listen, respond and tell the truth – the vast majority will come with you

Jo Whitfield, CEO of Coop Food is also focusing on recognition and celebration, keeping energy levels up and making sure colleagues feel included, engaged and most of all, safe when coming to work. The top team is working hard on visible leadership – getting out to stores and DCs and ramping up initiatives that connect the brand so powerfully to the communities it serves – food waste, child poverty, supporting the Marcus Rashford campaign.

To land change even faster, the business has become more collaborative – creating cross functional teams who are empowered to act and drive innovation. She touches base regularly to lend encouragement and provide resource.

Jo understands that many forced to stay at home – whether shielding or protecting elderly relatives – miss the human interaction, so wellbeing and mental health are now high on the agenda and ‘it’s ok not to be ok’. She also connects with stores to keep information flowing but is careful not to overload colleagues:

The last thing they need is another video from the CEO!

Dixons Carphone trialled ShopLive with great success during the first lockdown and CEO Alex Baldock says they are well prepared for this second enforced closure.

Already strong online, the business is continuing to drive a true omnichannel model, using colleagues in store to demonstrate product features via a web link and operating a click and collect service whereby the customer doesn’t even have to leave the car - just pop the boot and the order is placed inside.

In a strong message of confidence, no store staff have been furloughed – all are engaged in helping customers online or by phone, collating orders and delivering the C&C service.

Alex also espouses visible leadership – going out with delivery drivers and visiting depots and stores to ensure there is no feeling of ‘them and us’ between management, working from home and field based staff putting themselves at risk.

He rightly says that a sense of purpose has never been more important – a common goal that goes way beyond the business to create a positive impact on society. He is using storytelling to show how technology is enriching people’s lives, from installing a new cooker for an old lady to rush delivering laptops to a GP surgery, so the practice could keep working. ‘These are the things that bring our proposition to life and have meaning for our colleagues’.

And while the front line works hard to keep everyone safe and help customers, Alex and the Executive team are continuing to drive a consistent, strategic direction and not be derailed by short term operational issues – ‘Raise your Gaze’ is the business mantra.

Like many fashion retailers, Jo Jenkins at White Stuff is angry at the mixed messages about who can trade and why. But she’s preparing the business for an online Christmas and has pulled a lot of stock back to the DC to fulfil eCommerce orders.

Her message to the team is all about customer centricity – ‘How can we make it easy and be helpful?’ By setting up virtual appointments instore, free home delivery, no quibble extended returns and even curated drop offs for valued customers.

As a leader, Jo recognises that her colleagues have been on an emotional journey – fatigued by endless Zoom meetings and then bouncing back with new found energy and enthusiasm. Weekly town halls, lots of listening groups and flexible communication all help to excite and motivate and she’s not shied away from opening up about how the pandemic has affected her personally. The BRC calls and camaraderie from the industry have kept her going.

The message is clear:

Be visible, communicate and tell the truth – a more inclusive style of leadership gets us through this together.


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Clarity is an International Board Advisory and Executive Search firm specialising in the Retail, Consumer, Hospitality and Leisure sectors.
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