Empowering progressive leadership is core to Retail Week’s Diversity Futures conference where retail experts and D&I influencers will come together in person on November 9 to drive change and equality. Be Inspired talked to some of the key speakers to get their advice for retail bosses.

While a number of retailers have recently given statements of solidarity in support of diversity and inclusion, the pressing task now is for businesses to go further and take meaningful action to tackle inequality in all its forms. 

This calls for progressive leadership – but what does this look like and how can retailers be the change the industry needs to see?

On November 9, retail and industry executives – including names from Marks & Spencer, TransFriendly, Dr Martens, Bravissimo, 55/Redefined and Rituals – will join with Retail Week Be Inspired at Diversity Futures to get the answers.

Ahead of the live conference, event speakers M&S group head of inclusion and diversity Cleo Thompson, Transfriendly founder Morgan Howson and Dr Martens global head of diversity, equity and inclusion Geoffrey Williams shared what is required of retail leaders to use their power to enact real change – not just in their own organisations but the wider sector too.

How can retail bosses become true progressive leaders?



Cleo Thompson, Marks & Spencer

1. Actively seek to challenge the status quo

“I view progressive leadership as being willing and able to look beyond the usually accepted ways of working or leading and instead actively seeking to challenge the status quo – being a disruptor and focusing on solutions rather than the way it’s always been done in the past,” says Thompson.

Howson agrees and says: “I think the real key to being a progressive leader is considering the opportunities your business could have outside of your immediate goals and objectives. How can you push the envelope, take a stand and do more than simply what’s expected to truly diversify your business?”

“Push the envelope, take a stand and do more than what’s expected”

Morgan Howson, founder, TransFriendly

“Progressive leadership is an act of duty – not everyone has the platform to lead or to create true change and momentum in their organisation or society, so if you do have that power use it wisely, use it well,” adds Thompson.

In the words of Williams: “It’s asking ‘why not?’ when someone says ‘we can’t’.”

“It’s asking ‘why not?’ when someone says ‘we can’t’”

Geoffrey Williams, global head of diversity, equity and inclusion, Dr Martens  


2. Provide clear and affirming policies

Howson believes “the UK is currently gripped by a transgender ‘debate’ that resembles the gay panic of the 1980s”. She says “there are a small number of dangerous but authoritative figures being given the opportunity to demonise a minority group who just want to live their lives”. 

For retail this presents an opportunity for good – “Progressive retail leaders have the opportunity to open their doors, provide clear and affirming policies and demonstrate that they are forward-thinking and committed to truly diverse and proactive best practice,” Howson adds.

“Supporting your people is a part of your legacy”

Geoffrey Williams, global head of diversity, equity and inclusion, Dr Martens


3. See colleagues and staff as individuals 

Williams says that to be truly progressive retail leaders must prioritise the needs of staff and not fall into the trap of grouping people of certain protected characteristics together.

“It’s about seeing your people as individuals and understanding the need to be flexible as the global complexity of our existence gets ever greater,” he says.

“Giving teams the space to learn, grow and be the best version of themselves, and understanding that your people are a reflection of you and so supporting your people is a part of your legacy.”

“Inclusion is something we can all do”

Cleo Thompson, group head of inclusion and diversity, Marks & Spencer 


4.  Shift your thinking around the language of D&I

Thompson recommends retail leaders lead with inclusivity and challenge the language they use.

“At M&S, we increasingly talk about inclusion and diversity rather than the previously heard iteration of ‘diversity and inclusion’. That’s because we know that we can all be inclusive now, today, rather than waiting for an organisation or industry sector to evolve towards having greater diversity. 

“We view that changed use of language as a small, but highly significant, act of progressive leadership: inclusion is always better than no inclusion and it’s something we can all do. If more retail leaders take a similar stance regarding equality, then it becomes better for everyone.”

“Progressive leaders will use their influence to have the conversation and be honest about how they need to continue learning”

Geoffrey Williams, global head of diversity, equity and inclusion, Dr Martens


5.  Embrace open forums and be transparent about missteps

Geoffrey Williams Head shot

Geoffrey Williams, Dr Martens

For changes in D&I to have permanency, retail leaders have to “share what they are learning and seeing in the space of equity”, says Williams.

“If leaders try an approach and it doesn’t work, they should discuss their learnings in open forums. What was the sticking point? What would they do differently? Progressive leaders will use their influence to have the conversation and be honest about their comfort zone, and importantly how they need to continue learning to be their best self,” Williams adds.

“Being progressive is not always easy but it is worth it”

Cleo Thompson, group head of inclusion and diversity, Marks & Spencer

Thompson agrees and notes that retailers have to take action, even if it feels uneasy: “It’s great to have a healthy respect for custom and practice but, to be truly progressive, we must be open to challenges and fresh ideas and solutions.

“Sometimes being progressive is about being uncomfortable and learning to adapt – so it’s not always easy but it is always worth it.”

Helping senior retail leaders make mindful decisions around improving their company culture and purpose is the motivation behind Diversity Futures on November 9. 


With focused sessions covering intersectionality, neurodivergence, support of trans colleagues, helping women through menopause, disability accessibility and more, through to broader discussions on retail’s role in the future of D&I, this is an event not to be missed.

Diversity Futures is for c-suite and senior leaders (director/head of) with a passion for diversity and inclusion and a desire to learn more. Purchase your ticket here today.