March 27, 2016 – As a partner at an executive search firm who specializes in retail, Catherine Lepard has seen the sector rocked by the rise of e-commerce and the emergence of customers who want to choose how they shop, get purchases faster than ever and still get a good deal.
That might make it a tough time to be a retailer, but it’s also exciting, said Lepard, who helps companies choose and develop leaders who can respond to those changes as the head of Heidrick & Struggles’ Americas Retail Practice. The firm is the fourth-largest executive search company by revenue worldwide, according to industry tracking firm Hunt Scanlon Media.
Executive search wasn’t a career she planned on. Lepard, who got her start in management consulting after graduating from the University of Toronto, said she “fell into” executive search after returning from an overseas consulting assignment, and never looked back.
She joined Heidrick & Struggles’ Toronto office in 2005 and came to Chicago four years ago to help expand the firm’s retail practice beyond the luxury companies it had been working with.
Lepard recently sat down with the Tribune to talk about changes in retail and executive search. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: If you had to pick a couple of big challenges retailers are coming to you to address, what would those be?
A: As you think about operating in an omnichannel world, it’s really, how do we create that seamless experience and integrate our technology capabilities with our marketing capabilities with our supply chain capabilities to deliver an integrated experience? That’s probably the biggest challenge that we’re seeing our clients grapple with.
There are two other things I would throw in there. One is big data. You really have to know what you want to stand for and who the consumer is and build that one-on-one relationship with the customer. It’s all about data analytics. It’s not mass advertising anymore, it’s me as a retailer talking to you as an individual. And I think the third thing that is really top of mind for retail clients, which we’ve seen very publicly in the last couple of years, is how do we protect our customers — their financial information, their privacy, their security.
Q: Do many companies have those skills in-house or are they looking outside the traditional retail world?
A: More and more we’re seeing retailers look outside the traditional retail industry. To the point where one of the major clients that I work with, where we’re working on succession planning and developing the team of the future, they basically said to us, “Don’t even bother to look at other retailers because” — and this is going to sound a little egotistical — “we think our team is actually better than everyone else there.” We’re finding that for that organization and for others like them, we’re having to look in other industry buckets to find that talent, depending on what industry does things best. It’s looking at who develops great leaders out there and how do we bring more of that talent into retail.
Q: Are those people interested in retail?
A: That’s our job. It’s a bit of an education process depending on how far afield the industry is. You just get into a dialogue with people, you appeal to their intellectual curiosity. And then you sell them on the culture of the organization. That’s one thing I think a lot of retailers have going for them, they’ve always invested in people.
Q: In responding to new challenges, have you seen any trends in companies introducing nontraditional executive roles?
A: What we’re seeing is, more and more, the rise of things like the chief data officer. I think a lot of organizations in the consumer sector are thinking about how do we get better and smarter and faster about managing our data. I think another role that you are seeing become more common is the chief experience officer. The chief experience officer is becoming the consumer advocate, I would say.
Q: Do you see organizations thinking about diversity in the people they’re hiring?
A: It’s huge from the board level down. What our clients have been finding is that diversity really breeds change. Because of the accelerated pace of change in today’s market, you need leaders with learning agility, who are innovative, who are adaptable to different cultures and so the more types of experiences they can bring to the table, the better. So that means diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and age. From a leadership perspective it’s also diversity in terms of how they’ve grown up and spent their time.
Q: And it’s a genuine interest, not just ticking boxes? It seems like there’s a perception not a lot has changed.
Let’s be honest, I think it probably started as a ticking-boxes exercise. But I think we’re starting to see now that boards that have embraced at least ticking the boxes are seeing effects around the boardroom table. They’re saying, “Hey, this is a much more engaged and interesting dialogue.” I think now the proof is in the pudding, you’re seeing people become believers.
Q: Is there anything you’re particularly excited about in the retail space in the next few years, or warning your clients to think about?
A: I don’t have a crystal ball 10 years out, and neither do our clients. One thing we talk about is what should the leader of the future look like, because we don’t know what retail is going to look like when we come out the other end of this. So if we can’t predict where the future’s going, what is the type of leader that we need to hire that will get us there? What we’d like to get to as we think about that talent for the future is increasingly get more predictive about utilizing data. Based on our experience, how will that leader, with that particular leadership style and cultural fit, perform in that environment? So when our clients make a hire, they’re making a hire with even more conviction, based on science. I think that’s where we see our services evolving to, and that’s something we’re working hard on.
Q: So you’re working on big data too?
A: We all are. We’re all competing for the same talent pool.
Q: Are you ever tempted to keep someone for yourselves?
A: It’s funny you should ask. We were interviewing someone the other day, but clients first, of course.
Chicago Tribune, by Lauren Zumbach