People and strategy are changing across the retail sector. How can directors ensure the process is as smooth as possible?

Retailers are no strangers to change at the top.

If you look closely at the top 20 retailers you’ll see some form of positional change happens in the executive team on average around every 10 months.  

But how this change is dealt with can have a lasting impact on the organisation – from its culture to its people, productivity and ultimately its results. So how do you manage this change for the benefit of all involved?

Staying on top of change

There’s constant transition at the top of retail organisations. For starters, just look at executive-level change in the last few months at Morrisons, Tesco, Kingfisher, Halfords, Majestic Wine, SuperGroup, Jacques Vert… the list goes on.

And when there is significant change in the top team, in particular when the chief executive changes, then the executive team and entire organisation goes through a transitional phase. 

Everything that was relatively certain becomes uncertain, for all in and outside of the organisation – from employees to suppliers, customers and the market.

Change breeds fear

For employees in particular, the uncertainty breeds confusion and anxiety. This flows throughout the organisation, with a particular impact in head office.

During such changes, many questions will arise in people’s minds: what changes will the executive team make? How will they change things? What will it mean to me?

There are three primeval human needs that lie beneath these questions – the need to feel valued, the need to be wanted and the need to remain secure (ie, stay employed). 

And when these needs are not satisfied, or if it is unclear whether they will be satisfied, then fear begins to breed for the individual and across the organisation.

This anxiety is heightened if the business is also underperforming and is exacerbated even more if the new style of the leadership is not people-centred.

The impact

The consequence of anxiety can be severe, resulting in poor organisational behaviour dynamics.

People become more defensive. They develop more of a protect-self silo mentality. They might overwork to prove themselves, they may compete against others, and even blame or manipulate others. All of this behaviour is designed to protect self.

When this happens, the culture suffers and the people become less productive, engagement drops and staff turnover rises. 

Anxiety can soon be rife throughout the organisation including those in the executive team. Key executives remain anxious until they can trust that they’re part of the future plans. 

And with this anxiety the top team will be in limbo and appear disparate. There’s a rebuilding process required; a need to align on a vision and strategic direction, to align on common values and practical ways of working, but most importantly, to build relationship and trust. 

And during the executive team rebuild the rest of the organisation looks on and comments from afar: “Will the top team change further?” “They don’t seem clear about their direction.” “They have different approaches and are giving different messages.” “We see them in meetings with different agendas and are in conflict.” 

There are many elements that need to be put in place to enable the team to be high-performing. And it needs to be done fast. So what steps should you take?

Get your top team in place fast. This means getting the right people in the right places. If you know you want to make change but you do so slowly or indecisively, there’ll be a constant air of suspicion and rumour, which breeds fear. If you’re making change there’s significant advantage to doing it at speed.    

Develop your top team even faster. Get offsite for team development early. You really need to do the following:

  • Get to know each other well as human beings. Break down the facades that people naturally construct. Understand each other’s motives, styles and values. This is critical to building relationship and trust.
  • Align on a common vision and strategic direction that you are deeply inspired by and aligned with
  • Make sure accountabilities and expectations are clear
  • Develop a cohesive team mindset and behaviours. Openly review the past. Set up core shared values for how the team will work.
  • Create a culture of openness – openness to speak up, to challenge, to give and receive feedback    
  • Develop and practice the team’s ability to discuss, debate, have productive conflict, make decisions in a quality way  
  • Work through the practicalities – ensure the team is clear about tactical priorities (aligned with the vision and goals). Ensure team meetings and communication is effective. Openly identify and discuss the key issues, especially the undiscussable ones. 

Get the organisation on board

Actively engage with and involve the second level of leadership fast and then the rest of the organisation. Communicate regularly to reinforce the strategic direction and key messages. This gains their buy-in and builds their trust in the new era.   

  • Keep developing your top team
  • Get offsite for team development often. The team dynamic changes over time, issues occur, some things work and others don’t.
  • Take time out to review not just what you’re working on but also how you’re working on them. Continuing to ensure you’re a well-oiled team will go a long way to enabling you and the organisation to function with the most trust and least fear. 

Remember, by speeding up the transition of the new top team, you reduce fear and you build trust. 

When trust goes up, productivity and results will rise faster too.   

  • Martin Palethorpe is a senior executive coach specialising in retail at The Pragma Group. You can follow him on Twitter @mpalethorpe