I’ve been talking to a lot of retail leaders recently, and many are facing very similar challenges. Retail is one of the UK’s fastest-moving and most unpredictable sectors. The pace of change and rate of competition continues to intensify. A retailer’s brand is incredibly important in this competitive environment – and of increasing importance is how well employees can bring the uniqueness of a brand to life and engage customers with it. Some retailers struggle with trust issues in a world where customers, employees and other stakeholders are increasingly savvy and demanding. Expectations of openness and transparency are high. Social media and digital communications enable customers to provide instant feedback – and they anticipate an instant response. And of course digital is changing the way we shop – the British do more online shopping than any other nation.
All of this is backed up by Kantar Retail’s recent ‘Winning the Retail Battle in 2015’ report, which lists customer insight, technological innovation, multichannel shopping and personalising the shopping experience amongst the key retail priorities for 2015.
There is huge pressure on leaders to focus on these priorities and excel in a competitive and often unpredictable marketplace. We’ve seen high-profile heads roll at major retailers including Tesco and Morrisons in recent months. And while the leaders at the top of an organisation continue to play a pivotal role, the most successful retailers are moving away from the old style of command-and-control leadership towards a more connected style of leadership. They are ensuring that employees across the organisation are involved in decision making and building more collaborative cultures. The days of the ‘hero’ leader, where one person at the top of the organisation made most of the decisions, are gone.
‘Connected’ leaders not only devolve decision making and encourage collaboration. They set a very clear direction and purpose which others can buy into, and which provides a framework for that shared decision making so that others can feel confident the decisions they make are helping to achieve strategic goals. They are also values-led and authentic, which helps to build trust. And particularly important in the retail sector, they are agile – they can respond swiftly to change.
Sharing decision making across the organisation also helps ensure that decisions are made close to the customer – where they matter most.
A great example of a ‘connected’ leader is Asda CEO Andy Clarke. Asda is responding to the challenges in the retail industry by streamlining its management team. Clarke believes that this will enable Asda to prosper in an increasingly competitive market, “by enabling faster decisions through streamlined structures where colleagues are empowered under the leadership of fewer, bigger leadership roles.” Clarke is openly recognising the value of pace and agility. This is a great example of connected leadership, where decision-making responsibility is becoming more devolved across the organisation, and collaboration is encouraged.
The big challenge for British retailers is how quickly and effectively they can respond to change and reinvent themselves as necessary. Massive changes such as the shift to multichannel retailing and the rise of the quality discounters are challenging the business models of many retailers. Leaders are being forced to change.
Change does of course bring opportunities as well as threats. How best can leaders focus on opportunities? By setting a clear direction, being agile, focusing on core values, involving others in shared decision making, and collaborating widely. These are the factors of connected leadership that can lead to sustainable success.
By Andrew Shapiro, Client Partner, Cirrus