“The war for talent is over – and the talent won.” No doubt you’ve heard this, but have you really thought through the implications?

Various factors have conspired to bring us to a point where top retail talent – especially in buying and merchandising – has never been scarcer.

With the high penetration of private equity in retail, some of our best executives are locked in and well incentivised to see the business through to exit (which is now probably delayed). And previous recessions (or should I call them corrections or slowdowns?), rising operating costs and price deflation have all taken their toll on recruitment, training and development budgets to the point where, if a top chief executive or buying and merchandising director leaves, there is unlikely to be a suitable successor waiting in the wings.

A client at one of the world’s largest department store groups said to me last week: “If X was to go under a bus tomorrow I don’t know what we’d do.” Do you find yourself in a similar position?

Retail organisations today are so lean and horizons so short term that there is often no room for good succession planning, but to meet the challenges of an increasingly global market we need to nurture inside talent, as well as attract fresh blood from outside the organisation.

Getting this balance right is key. A company that only relies on home-grown talent becomes insular and closed to fresh ideas. Look at Marks & Spencer before Sir Stuart Rose returned to shake things up. But, crucially, he didn’t just bring in new talent, such as Kate Bostock and Carl Leaver, he also promoted and redeployed long-standing executives such as Guy Farrant, reinvigorating them with fresh challenges.

Kingfisher has just confirmed Ian Cheshire as chief executive, endorsing an executive with 10 years’ experience, across both the international and domestic businesses. It will be interesting to see who he now appoints to the top job at B&Q – and the City certainly expects an external hire.

However, internal succession is relatively rare in high-profile, quoted retailers, with Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, WHSmith, HMV and DSGi all going outside for talent that, so far, has yielded pretty impressive results.

One thing that’s certain is that business tomorrow will be different from today or yesterday. Whether that means more online, more international, or both, it is vital to think through the people implications and plan accordingly.

I would urge you to look at broadening the experience of your second-line managers. Encourage them to gain more international exposure, set them projects that force them to think beyond the end of this quarter and prepare them for the challenges of the global market.

Fran Minogue, managing partner, consumer and global retail practice, Heidrick & Struggles

Topics