As UK retail faces uncertain times, with the sterling devaluation beginning to effect buying calendars and limited growth outside online, what leadership will bring success?
Has command and control had its day? Has the old-school, intuitive merchant prince given way to the data scientist? What type of leadership will work best in the future?
I would highlight three major shifts ahead, but also stress that we need much of the old skillsets as well.
That’s because the whole exam question for leaders now has got a lot harder – no easy market like-for-likes, no quick sourcing wins, and a relentless erosion of sales densities in bricks and mortar mean it looks a lot tougher to lead in the future than it was for me.
Visible, customer- and data-led leadership
First, leaders have to be a lot more transparent and visible – inside and outside the company, through social media in particular.
This means leaders have to be authentic, embody the culture of their company in everything they do and proactively sell the vision of why customers should buy from them and why people should work for them.
“We have to know our customers so well that we could buy them their Christmas presents, and they should love them”
Secondly, leaders need to be more customer-led than product-led. The days when we sold stuff to invisible customers are over, and we now must help our customers find what they want to buy – often when they didn’t know it until they saw it.
We have to know our customers so well that we could buy them their Christmas presents, and they should love them. For Debenhams this is true given how vital Christmas gifting is for us.
Finally, leaders need to be truly data-led rather than gut-led. In understanding our business models we need an Amazon level of detailed P&L by product, size and colour.
That P&L needs to be fully loaded with all the true costs including supply chain, space and head office. It must also reflect the capital tied up by activity, product and customer type.
In particular, that understanding needs to be very detailed, and more interested in outliers than averages that disguise the truth.
The big ‘but’
If all that sounds a bit geek-like, there is a big ‘but’.
We need transparent authentic leaders, but we need effective leaders who get to action. Retail leaders still need to be doers, even if it’s more through people rather than all their own work.
We need customer-led leaders, but we have to be relentlessly commercial. We can’t simply give customers ‘what they want’, because that’s free stuff – for ever.
We need to judge value and have the confidence to charge for the right things such as service, experience and exclusivity.
We need data-led leaders but we need creative leaders, people using data to create new ideas and strategies, ahead of our competitors and just ahead – but not too far ahead – of our customers.
Leaders will always have to lead.