Big Interview: Lucy Crowther, Director of Learning, BRC

BRC learning director Lucy Crowther explains how the industry group has supported UK retail since the start of the March lockdown, and how the recent launch of its Changing Leadership Landscape programme is aimed at challenging retail leaders amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Lucy Crowther BRC director of learning leadership covid-19 pandemic
Lucy Crowther, Director of Learning, BRC.

Lucy Crowther, the director of learning at the British Retail Consortium, leads a team of learning professionals to bring “fresh and creative” content to retail businesses large and small based on their need.

On September 23, Crowther was part of a team that helped launch the BRC’s on-demand programme The Changing Leadership Landscape, which aims to “inspire and challenge” the retail leadership community, particularly as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to create uncertainty.

Speaking to Retail Gazette, Crowther said the purpose of BRC Learning is to be the go-to organisation for professional development for the UK retail sector.

“Our focus since the start of the March lockdown has been to support our recovering sector with meaningful programmes,” she said.

“Last year, BRC bought OSS Retail (formerly Oxford Summer School) and so those programmes that have been so loved by so many are now in our care.

“Our leadership programmes are based on retailers learning and collaborating with other retailers. There are some businesses that look internally and don’t necessarily look outside for inspiration, innovation and new learning.

“So one of the key features of our leadership programmes is they’ll always be open, so you are talking to people from other retail businesses.

“It disrupts your thinking, it helps you understand, if you’re in a large retailer, and you’re working with someone who’s just got one shop, or who’s an entrepreneur, it just gives you a different perspective.

“Our leadership programmes are based on retailers collaborating with other retailers”

“We will encourage all our delegates to mingle and mix and bring fresh ideas.”

The series opened with a live keynote event and businesses and delegates received a facilitation pack that included access to a further seven on-demand sessions containing insight on Building Effective Teams, Coaching for Change, Wellbeing, Financial Management, Personal Financial Wellbeing, Data & Insights, and Trading in Uncertain Times.

“We’ve designed a virtual programme, which is aimed at emerging experienced leaders to help them understand how to be agile, resilient, and good leaders for their teams going into what is going to be the most extraordinary Christmas,” Crowther reflected.

She said the programme is also useful for small business owners.

“Coming into Christmas, we’re going to probably ask more from people than we’ve ever asked before.

“Retail is a sector that is phenomenally diverse. You can be an accountant, solicitor, designer, software developer – all in retail.

“And so if you’re on the shop floor, and you want to do something different in your further career, then just ask about how you can do that within retail.”

“Be curious about what you can learn,” she added.

“Watch what’s going on around you take every opportunity to learn and volunteer. If you have to do four additional tasks that you haven’t done before, then be curious.

As a former HR director, Crowther said she felt “very connected” to what’s going on in terms of recent job cuts across the retail sector.

“We’re really delighted that we’ll probably have 60 to 70 places for people who’ve been made redundant on the programme to help in any way we can,” she said.

“I’ve been in retail a very long time, and I’ve never witnessed anything like this.

“The Changing Leadership Landscape focuses on strengthening leadership and how best to trade during this unprecedented Christmas period.

“Our industry is heading into the most unpredictable Christmas that many retailers will have experienced. Leadership is critical to the future of our sector.”

Crowther explained that leaders need to be role models to provide some clarity, particularly as the pandemic has put additional challenges on staff by forcing them to work remotely, while shop floor workers are still on the frontline, complete with perspex screens and face masks.

“What makes a good role model is someone who is there for their team and really listens, especially now as you can’t have those usual face-to-face meetings,” she said.

“Now you need to show you’re listening through a 15 inch screen.

“People have struggled mentally and physically with lockdown and being shut away from their teams, and as a good leader, you have to notice every single nuance.

“I’ve been in retail a very long time and I’ve never witnessed anything like this”

“The retail sector is still reliant on office workers going back to their jobs, so it is a tough time for most of the sector, and it’s irrevocably changed.

“Now, a lot of people are choosing to shop online. It’s unavoidable that retail will change shape and size as a sector.

“More people have learnt to shop online through the pandemic. Will they go back out to shops? It’s probably unlikely given the news we’ve had recently about a potential second spike.

“Businesses will look to embrace artificial intelligence, and will depend on machine learning and bots to do routine tasks.

“But we should also look to the more positive side of retail, and that is, continuing to try and fill the funnel with great young people coming out of school and college, looking for apprenticeships as an alternative to university.”

Crowther also believes UK retail needs the right levy, which brings new people with new skills into the sector, and re-skill some of the people that might otherwise be losing their jobs.

“While I don’t necessarily want to talk about our programmes, there is something key about how you use data to drive performance. And that is the heartland of the BRC, the retail data that we produce,” she said.

Crowther concluded that UK retail can continuously reinvent itself.

“People will always want to shop,” she said.

“This is why I’m so keen on professionalising the sector. So people say, ‘I’m a retailer’, with the same pride as someone who says, ‘I’m a lawyer’, ‘I’m an accountant’.

“Part of my purpose is to help people feel proud about this sector that I’ve worked in for so long.”

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