As a new breed of data-obsessed chief executive emerges – such as new Dixons Carphone boss Alex Baldock – can workers still move from shopfloor to boardroom?
What makes a great chief executive? Brains? Looks? Charisma? With a recent spate of changes at the top, it is interesting to see who gets the coveted roles within retail.
We are seeing the rise of a new talent – individuals with top degrees, strategic or consultancy stints and a higher level of marketing and analytical capability. But when chairmen, private equity firms and boards are hiring, what do they really look for in their next leader?
“The first characteristic is outstanding leadership skills; you can’t run any size or type of business well without them”
Brian McBride, Asos and Wiggle
“The first characteristic is outstanding leadership skills; you can’t run any size or type of business well without them,” Brian McBride, chairman of Asos and Wiggle explains to me.
He also mentions sectoral skills being helpful, as well as an understanding of what a customer thinks and looks like. These skills seem a solid base within the general retail world – but what else?
As the value sector becomes increasingly competitive, should data geeks be in the hotseat to help these businesses target customers? In emerging markets where access to technology is low, surely a strong “shop runner” is the obvious choice for chief executive?
Furniture vs fashion vs food – there is a plethora of skills a business may need from its chief executive, just as the scale of retailer may demand a certain “fit”.
Diversity of skills
However, what is apparent in our industry is the common view of diversity. Not the usual gender discussion about getting more females to the top table, but the variety of skillsets needed around that big oak desk.
This sentiment is echoed by Stuart Machin, chief executive of Harveys and Bensons for Beds, who describes his key criteria for a successful leader as “gets product, people and is commercial”.
Starting out working on the shopfloor at 16 and joining the Sainsbury’s management trainee scheme, he has certainly proved that with hard work and talent someone can move from stores to senior head office roles.
Both individuals proved that their internal knowledge of product and customer made them the best person for the job.
However, the growth of the pureplay may suggest that data analytics is the way forward. With Alex Baldock taking the reins at Dixons Carphone, this suggests its digital agenda is the number-one priority.
“I think even in today’s world you can do anything if you are smart enough. Marc Zuckerberg never finished his bachelor and he has done alright!”
Whichever way you look at it, key hires tend to be based on that business’s impending needs.
“Leadership starts with being able to inspire people and get them to buy into and understand a strategic goal,” Sean Cardinaal, chief operating officer of Poundland’s parent company Pepkor Europe tells me.
I tend to agree. The magic of a great chief executive is not in their ability to create a new digital five-year plan, or to open a host of new-format stores (as helpful as some of these ideas may be to certain retailers), but their talent to galvanise and motivate a team of executives.
There is power in numbers.
There is of course also no substitute for just hard graft. As one chief executive shares: “I think even in today’s world you can do anything if you are smart enough. Marc Zuckerberg never finished his bachelor and he has done alright!”
In this modern day of retailing, which demands more from its executives, one size certainly does not fit all.