Whilst the Christmas and new year break offer most of us a chance for reflection the same cannot be said for the retail sector. The sector itself is defined by trends and fashion, and as a result is always looking forward to the next season and the next big thing. Perhaps it’s the sectors predictive nature that makes it such a strong VUCA casualty – affected by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

Collingwood's Consulting arm frequently reference the VUCA landscape during the diagnostic phase of their consultancy work with clients; the challenges it presents and how future leaders will need to deal with far more change and disruption than their predecessors. This is also something we emphasise when recruiting senior leadership positions. Those at the top must possess the right leadership capabilities and behaviours to respond to these challenges ahead. As a result, we’ve been reflecting on how leaders should respond to the disruptive nature of change and plan for the year ahead:


Retail is a fast-paced environment, which often is its appeal to many individuals who thrive in that type of culture. However, the need for agility and the ability to respond quickly to customer needs in fast paced, a change-hungry environment is stronger than ever before. This has created a faster decision-making need for leadership and a case for streamlining management to empower individuals under the leadership of fewer, bigger roles. This allows for decision-making responsibility to be more devolved across the organisation but relies on a collaborative culture, awareness of collective bias and a high degree of trust and competency. Leaders must be able to navigate the dichotomy of a collaborative culture with a new level of simplicity.


Retail has been characterised by a high degree of sustained turnover at the top. Fifty-nine percent of retail companies studied experienced a change in CEO leadership during a five-year period and almost a third left the role within 3 years (Russell Reynolds.) Added to this, retail companies seeking a new CEO tend to seek a successor from a circle of immediate competitors rather than casting a wider net. This means that, as CEOs retire, the net is getting smaller and smaller and not enough retail companies are investing in proactive succession planning. Combine this with the consolidation of fewer, bigger leadership roles as well as the shrinking high street and the opportunities for the planned development of successors become smaller. Early identification of high potentials, with clear career plans, development and exposure to a multitude of roles will help to retain the talent needed to lead in the future.


From our experience in retail, leader behaviour tends to favour the more traditional rousing motivational style which is effective particularly in groups. High preferences are shown to be colourful, passionate, fun personalities. This is needed when dealing with store and area teams and cascading messages from the top in a traditional hierarchical structure. However, there are blind spots and development needs when it comes down to treating individuals differently and maximising their individual strengths. The preference is to ‘tell’ rather than to ‘ask’ and unlock the power of the group through creating the environment where ideas are generated and creativity is encouraged. The opportunity here is to build on the innate strengths of the leadership community and to develop on a group and personal level their ability to coach, to adapt their style to the situation and the individual while still keeping pace with the environment.


In 2016 the British Retail Consortium warned that the move to internet shopping is putting hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk. Customer needs are changing. Digital and multi-channel solutions will mean that store presence is reduced, diversified or altered in coming years. This presents leadership challenges in terms of keeping productivity and morale high during such significant change, as well as keeping ahead of the game in terms of making their inventory visible across channels with an integrated fulfilment strategy. The customer now wants multiple delivery choices, short lead times, and convenience with a consistent brand experience and a consistent returns policy, all with cross-border repeatability. It’s not an easy journey. The mix of transformation and innovation needed will be a test for all retail leaders.

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