Five leadership learnings from retail CEOs

Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski once said that ‘leadership is an ever-evolving position’. For those currently holding leadership positions in retail amid the Covid-19 pandemic, this statement will sound very relevant. From dealing with the closure of non-essential stores and expanding eCommerce capacities to drive revenue during the lockdown, to now managing the reopening stores in accordance with new safety guidelines, it is hard to think of a time when those at the top of retail have had to deal with so many challenges in such a short space of time. This is without even mentioning the extra challenges of managing a workforce at this time, including responding to mental and physical health needs brought about by crisis, and sadly in some cases, making gut-wrenching decisions regarding redundancies.

Understanding what it takes to be an effective leader in retail has therefore never been more important. In a recent Essential Retail webinar, hosted by our editor Caroline Baldwin, three CEOs from the retail sector provide insights and advice to those aspiring to reach this position. These are Miriam Lahage, currently co-founder of Aequip and formerly CEO of online fashion brand Figleaves; Andrew Walker, former CEO of Eat; and Timo Boldt, CEO and founder of food box delivery firm Gousto.

Here are five tips from the trio about becoming a successful CEO in the retail industry:

1. Seek out a range of experiences

The panellists agreed about the need to experience a wide range of roles and scenarios in your career to prepare yourself for trials and tribulations of leading an organisation. Lahage deliberately took up challenging posts in the earlier part of her career so she could learn and develop quickly. This included heading up a TK Maxx store in crisis, in which the previous managers had been caught stealing from the shop. “Never take a job you know you can do. Even though it can make you vulnerable to not being perfect, don’t protect yourself to avoid coming out of your comfort zone, that’s how you grow and that actually propelled my career,” she advises.

Walker believes that, particularly in the early part of your career, you should endeavour to work for many different companies to broaden your horizons. He says: “My biggest mistake was staying too long in one company; I think you can get blinkered that there’s only one way of doing things and it’s really important to get jobs in other companies; to see different cultures and different ways of doing things.”

2. Lifelong learning

It is clearly a big mistake to assume that reaching the top of a company means you no longer need to learn new skills; quite the reverse in fact. All three CEOs emphasise that education is a continual process. One effective method of learning how to be a CEO is to regularly pick the brains of those who have experienced this type of role.

Boldt, who worked in the finance sector before founding Gousto, reveals he is on the boards of two other companies in order to experience the approaches of organisations outside his own. “Every CEO or entrepreneur you meet has rich learnings, so I think the faster you can absorb them, and you develop a growth mindset, you can learn from failure,” he says.

Similarly, Lahage advises reaching out for advice from those in top positions. “Even famous accomplished, and scary people can be generous with their time and advice to people looking for help,” she notes.

All three also agree that peer-learning and practical experience is far more important than achieving formal qualifications, such as university degrees. Boldt outlines: “Being a CEO is about human traits, it’s about empathy, commercial acumen, street smarts, communication, empowering other people, and I don’t think that’s what you learn at age 20 at university.”

Nevertheless, certain qualifications in areas directly linked to the role of CEO can be beneficial. Boldt has studied part-time for an executive MBA, while Walker has found his degree in business studies to be advantageous over the course of his career. “It’s been incredibly helpful because I got to study all sorts of things, whether it was strategy, economics, HR, or marketing. I really recommend that people go down this path if you want to get up to the top of a company because ultimately you’ve got to see the whole part of the business,” he says.

Watch Essential Retail's webinar ‘How to become a Retail CEO: Industry CEOs' top tips for rising to the top’ here

3. Empowering others   

Former GE CEO Jack Welch once said: ‘Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others’. It is after all, impossible for one person to control everything that goes on within an organisation. Effectively empowering those who work for you is therefore arguably the most important prerequisite to success. This involves giving all people in the company a voice and a stake, letting them have the authority to make decisions and think for themselves.

Lahage says: “The only way to make a business happen is to do it through others. Finding a way to make sure that not only everyone is engaged but feel that it is in their gift to make a difference to a business, to share ideas and to speak up, is hugely important.”

Getting recruitment right is the foundation to such a collaborative approach – focusing not only on skills, but also on culture when hiring is critical in building a team you can trust, all of whom are pulling in the same strategic direction. This is an approach that has been vital to the growth of Gousto, according to Boldt: “It’s all about culture, it’s about codifying the principle and what you believe in, and hiring against those values; setting the bar high and never compromising on your high standards.”

4. Diversifying the workforce

Recent years has seen increased discussion on diversity in the workplace, ensuring everyone from all backgrounds, regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, have equal opportunity to succeed, and retail is no exception. It is therefore incumbent upon modern CEOs to establish an environment in which all people can flourish, regardless of their background. Boldt says: “I think as a business you have to figure out ways to accommodate for people, you have to acknowledge people are different and live in different circumstances. And you have to pay extreme importance to hiring – there’s so many biases in hiring, the way you talk, the way you communicate appeals to different people.”

This is no mere box-ticking exercise; it is also very much in the interests of retailers to make sure they are welcoming to people from all backgrounds, as this will give them a variety of experiences and perspectives that will serve to strengthen their organisation. Boldt comments: “I genuinely believe that cognitive diversity makes a business so much better, and as a leader you have an enormous responsibility to create an environment in which people can strive under different circumstances.”

While the situation is undoubtedly improving, there is still much more work to be done. Lahage highlights her experience of being one of the few female CEOs in retail, and how she suffered from ‘imposter syndrome’ as a result, feeling that she did not belong in such a position, with no role models to help her. She therefore now takes the time to mentor other women in growing their careers, helping them understand that they should be able to be themselves, not act how they think they are expected to act by male peers. “We all have an obligation to help those who come after us,” she says.

5. Being a CEO during Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about significant challenges to retail CEOs, of the kind many would never have expected to face. With a large proportion of employees working from home for the first time, as well as the health, social and economic uncertainties at play in the crisis, ensuring staff are happy and motivated has become more difficult, and requires a greater emphasis on staff engagement and wellbeing.

“I think what has really helped us is over-communication,” outlines Boldt. “I’m doing weekly prep talks, they’re very much focused on building up morale; celebrating success, even small successes. And in times of difficulty, you as a CEO need to listen to people even more than before.”

The economic problems caused by the crisis sadly has already, and will continue to, lead to redundancies in retail, as business look to restructure themselves to survive in the new landscape. Managing this type of situation is very difficult, and there are no easy solutions. But being open and transparent about the situation is a must.

Walker says: “The only way to lead through this is through honesty, you have to talk the truth. If you stand in front of your staff and say ‘it’s all going to be fine’ they can see through that, and then you lose all credibility as a leader.”

This may be difficult for many CEOs to do, according to Lahage, who she says are used to exuding confidence and certainty. She observes: “This isn’t the time for that. This is the time to acknowledge that the future is uncertain, that none of us know what is going to happen and that we have principles by which we make decisions, but we’re not in the business of understanding what the future holds in store for any of us.”