Topshop tycoon Sir Philip Green has once again found himself a pariah.
After his reputation took a battering following the collapse of BHS, he now finds himself at the centre of a storm over alleged sexual harassment and racism – claims which he rejects.
Green maintains that he is not guilty of “unlawful sexual or racist behaviour”, while admitting engaging in what he has termed “banter”.
In some ways there is no reason to doubt that’s what he thinks – the aggressive style for which he is known means that his definition of what constitutes banter would not be shared by most.
“At the heart of company success today is frequently the wider culture”
That domineering and often expletive-laden manner may put him in a league of his own, but nevertheless he is, taken to the extreme, symbolic of traits that have sometimes characterised retail and other business leaders of the past – turbo-charged, charismatic, powerful personalities whose word was law.
That should never be allowed to spill over into bullying, as has been claimed in Green’s case.
At the heart of company success today is frequently the wider culture, that hazy term that can encompass everything and nothing, but which affects everything from resonance with consumers to the ability to attract the best business talent.
In the same week that Green was making headlines for all the wrong reasons, Pablo Isla, chief executive of Zara owner Inditex, was named the best-performing chief executive for the second year in a row by Harvard Business Review.
The ranking measures not just performance for the entirety of a chief executive’s tenure as well as shareholder returns, but also takes account of factors such as corporate governance and social responsibility.
Inditex’s culture is very different from that alleged at Arcadia. Inditex’s annual report lists eight corporate values. Number two, behind strong customer focus and well ahead of innovation, is modesty.
That’s not a word that pops up very often in retail, but perhaps it should.
The sort of behaviour that some powerful people once got away with is no longer tolerated, as epitomised by uprisings such as #metoo.
With a bit more humility, Green would perhaps not have found himself at such odds with the spirit of the times – a place where no retailer can afford to be.
“Retail leaders can never allow the trappings of success or their track records to divorce them from reality”
In a similar way that those who are out of touch with society’s norms jeopardise their personal fortunes, a lack of connection to the everyday and inability to update in response can cast doubt on continued commercial success.
Respect for and the ability to listen to others has long been a retail industry strength – identifying with consumers and understanding their aspirations is the foundation of its success.
It also allows retailers to draw in the new employees they need to ensure relevance to successive generations of shoppers.
The success of Inditex speaks for itself. It has stores from Manchester to Mumbai and last year generated record sales of €25.34bn. And that is supported by a sense of common endeavour.
As Isla said in a Harvard Business Review interview: “The strength of our company is the combination of everybody, much more than of any single person. And I can tell you that as a company, we try to be a low-profile company, being humble, of course being very ambitious, but being humble.”
That doesn’t mean great leadership doesn’t remain essential in retail, but increasingly it will have a more inclusive style that keeps people well-grounded.
Retail leaders can never allow the trappings of success or their track records to divorce them from reality.
You need to look out the window to know what matters to your customers, what’s on their minds, what they’re thinking – and what they think of you.