Spring this year brought a flurry of thought-provoking senior executive-level hires in the retail industry. Some appeared to be primarily shrewd marketing and influencer-gathering moves — the appointment of Kim Kardashian as chief taste consultant by Beyond Meat, or Hilary Duff as chief mom officer of Carter’s. Others look like early bets on a still-unknown future; both Crate and Barrel and Disney, for example, have recently appointed senior vice presidents of the metaverse.
Still, there’s a strong sense that the world of retailing has changed in some fundamental ways over the past two years, and that the role of the people working in the industry — and running it — need to change as well.
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Agility and innovation
Penelope Sur is vice president of talent for Dick’s Sporting Goods Store, which means she is responsible for making sure her company has the 50,000 employees it needs, and that they are the right people for the job. Which raises a question, as she points out: What kind of people do we need to be attracting to the retail industry?
“We need people who are customer focused, first of all,” Sur says. “They need to be quick and agile learners, open to changing duties within their roles — people who can evolve quickly and work in a fast-paced environment. They need also to be innovators — those willing to speak up, share ideas and motivate others. We need people who want to test and learn new ideas, people who want to collaborate and work toward the common good.”
She adds that retailers can and should, while they’re recruiting, look for people who have learned to develop teams in a completely different setting. Sur applies this not only to entry-level employees but to candidates at the leadership and corporate levels as well. “As an industry, we need to continue to have an even stronger focus on hiring diverse candidates at the leadership and corporate levels,” she says, “to make sure we are all reflecting the communities we serve.”
In recent years, says Sur — over perhaps the last decade — there has been a shift in the type of talent needed by retailers. “Ten years ago,” she says, “when making decisions, strong retail talent relied heavily on intuition, trends and the relationships they had within the industry. While all three remain important, there’s been a rapid shift to talented people with strong strategy and problem-solving skills — and not just for top leaders. At Dick’s Sporting Goods, critical thinking and analytical skills are required for all our positions, as we empower all our employees to make the best decision for their business.”
That’s a relatively new change. “Careers in retail are no longer defined by vertical: I’m a buyer or a stores guru,” Sur says. In the past, retailers relied heavily on recruiting professionals that had done the same job elsewhere. With the rapidly changing needs of the industry, we’ve shifted to focusing our recruitment efforts on candidates that are fast learners, adaptable and able to take on a broad set of challenges.
Sur says they look for people with experience in hospitality because they have customer service experience, and also recruit from manufacturing, consumer goods, ecommerce, product development, finance, strategy, technology and more.
“Many of our leaders have worked in a variety of verticals,” she says. “Our chief human resources officer comes from Ford Motor Company. I used to work in cosmetics. If they’re smart and have good people skills and are good at solving problems, we probably want to talk to them.”
Looking for leaders
Throughout the pandemic, the retail industry grappled with how to support both remote corporate employees meeting virtually and front-line workers who had no option to work remotely.
“At the most basic level, retailers are choosing from among three primary options for returning to the workplace,” says Caitlin MacNamara, who co-leads the omnichannel retail team for leadership advisor Russell Reynolds Associates.
Retailers are “calling everyone back to the office, developing a hybrid model or implementing a fully remote working structure. There are nuances, however — hybrid and flexibility mean different things to different people. Figuring out the right working model is top of mind for executive teams and boards.”
Determining that mode, she notes, can involve the need to confront some deeply rooted assumptions. “CEOs didn’t expect to change the way they led, which ultimately forced many to wrestle with their longstanding beliefs about ‘how to work.’ There has been a lot of discussion about generational views of work, and how many CEOs and other top leaders have had to confront their belief that to be effective you have to be present and in person.”
There can be benefits from such a struggle, she points out. “In some instances, the physical distance from their teams forced them to be more strategic and less hands-on. Instead of spending time in the office going from one tactical meeting to another, one CEO noted that he had more time to take external meetings, meet with stakeholders and holistically think about the business and its growth from a more strategic vantage point.”
What all this boils down to, MacNamara suggests, is that changing some basic physical facts of the workplace — where people are, how they communicate with one another — has changed some deep-rooted assumptions about the work.
Research from consulting firm PwC has found that fewer than one in five executives want to return to the shared workplace as it existed before the pandemic. “There are two key points that leaders should keep in mind,” she says. “One, norms are still evolving, and organizations should keep innovating their approach. Two, employees’ lives and attitudes have changed substantially.”
Hiring for a career
What’s urgent, both experts suggest, is that whatever is done should be done intentionally. “I think it is important to highlight that we are hiring people for a career at Dick’s Sporting Goods, not for a ‘job,’” Sur says. “We are making huge strides to develop our talent internally, providing executive education from the best schools in the country, mentoring and coaching all our employees to help them achieve their dreams. We are investing a lot in making our managers better leaders of the business, but more importantly, good people leaders.”
It's essential to remember that the demand for talent far outstrips the supply, and that retailers are competing for good leaders not just with each other but with the world.
“To be successful in the war for talent, leaders should lead with empathy and embrace a test-and-learn approach across technology and tools, development and learning, on-boarding and mentoring, and building culture,” MacNamara says. “Organizations that embraced this early on are now spending their time innovating and iterating, instead of setting and resetting new dates for the return to the office.”