May 19, 2021 – These are revolutionary times for retail with COVID-19 having accelerated some fundamental trends across the sector. This has in turn created a fertile environment for the most able executives to set themselves apart and chart a course for a successful, digitally focused future, according to a new report by Melissa Reed, a consumer and retail partner lead with H.I. Executive Consulting (HIEC). “The past year has certainly rocked the retail boat and the ramifications are being felt widely, including a realization that the crisis has created great opportunities as well as challenges,’ she said. “These are right now being grasped by the sector’s most capable leaders and so in order for companies to take full advantage of the new retail landscape they must seek to invest in these sorts of individuals.”
There is no escaping the fact that it has been a tough time for retail, but some CEOs have also highlighted how invigorating it has been. “They have been able to think differently and to push through change at rapid pace,” said Ms. Reed. “They’ve also been able to initiate these changes without necessarily seeking board approval. Such actions have arguably been swept under the COVID-19 carpet.”
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All retailers that have survived face challenges. Leaders have to accept the fact they might well be running an organization that is simply too big, with too many people employed across declining sales channels. “There are question marks over the futures of senior store-based and head office staff who have been on extended furlough,” said Ms. Reed. “Digital has replaced much of their revenues.”
The New Drivers
The spotlight has instead shined particularly brightly on chief digital officers and the leaders of E-commerce departments. They’ve been important historically, of course, but this past year has elevated them to positions whereby they are now heading up the primary engines of retailers.
This dramatic shift in the focus of channels means some tough decisions have to be made by senior executives. How do they square increasing the headcount in one area while at the same time losing people in other departments?
“There is certainly no playbook for a pandemic,” said Ms. Reed. “COVID-19 has been a great leveler – from the chair to junior team members. We’ve heard from boards and HR leaders about how much they have learned about people, with plenty of surprises on both the positive and negative side. People have fallen back on their intuition, resilience, agility, and their ability to pivot business models.”
“Pivoting, as well as dramatically pushing forward pre-COVID-19 plans, has been of great significance this past year and has marked out those progressive firms with bold leaders from the timid, also-rans,” she added. “We’ve seen the emergence of new DTC (direct-to-consumer) and platform/marketplace models.”
Ready to Move On
Against this backdrop of great change and unpredictability, many employees have been reluctant to leave for other possibilities. “But this was very much a feature of 2020 and we expect this to change this year to reflect the pent-up appetite for making a move,” said Ms. Reed.
Lockdowns have started to fracture even the strongest of cultures and retention should be at the top of any business agenda. “Adding to this dynamic is the myriad companies that are now questioning if they have the right people in the right places,” she said. “This will be further fueled by the inevitable raft of restructurings that will be a feature of the retail sector over the forthcoming months.”
Many companies will find they do not have the necessary talent internally and will have to go into the open market to secure the relevant skills and the resources to win in today’s new digitally led environment. “Critically, they need to get their timing right,” she added. “Great care has to be taken when investing in people to ensure the right leadership and capability is in place to be able to seize the opportunities that will come with recovery. But this must be balanced with the optics of hiring when furlough, redundancies and closed stores are affecting others in your organization.”
“Despite the harsh backdrop as we entered 2021, there is no doubt that this year represents a period of great possibility,” concluded the HIEC report. “Fundamental to this will be investment in talent because only those businesses that have bold and forward-thinking senior people in place will be able to maximize this tremendous opportunity.”
H.I. Executive Consulting is a global executive search firm focused on hiring board, CEO, and senior-level executives. HIEC was established by several senior partners from leading global search firms to disrupt the traditional approach to executive search by placing a premium focus on hiring transformational leaders across the sectors its serves – digital and technology, financial services, and real estate, industrial and automotive, consumer, retail and leisure, and business and professional services.
The firm operates across 13 offices in North America, Europe, Middle East and Asia-Pacific.
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media