With the retail industry clearly needing to invest more in employee development, companies desiring to groom executive talent should consider taking a page from the past and emulate the cross-training management training programs once used by major department stores, advised Lloyd A. Lippman, CEO of Career Management, a retail, direct mail and e-commerce executive search firm with offices here and in Manhattan.
Lippman, who also serves an adjunct professor at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, where he teaches a course on Retail Leadership Skills, emphasized that whether natural-born or trainable, leaders must be educated if they are to contribute to the bolstering of a retailer’s bottom line. Nowhere is this more critical than on the merchant side, where up-and-coming, fast-track merchants who can take the reins are in short supply.
“Retailers don’t pay as much attention to merchant skills development as they used to,” he observed. “It would be to their advantage to try to train merchants to be merchants—to be able to look at a product and know what it should sell for, who will buy it and how it should sell.”
Under the rotational programs used by major department stores, employees were cross-trained to work in stores, as merchants and sometimes in the marketing department before embarking on a formal career path. “Merchants today rarely ever come into contact with customers, so it is difficult for them to know who a retailer’s audience is and what they want,” Lippman said. “This makes it harder for them to be effective leaders. Putting these prospective executives in the stores for extended periods allows them to truly understand the needs of the business.”
Retailers might also consider attracting “the best of the best” with slightly higher salaries. “One well-known retailer used to pay more for candidates with extremely high grade point averages,” Lippman recalled. “It was an effective strategy.”
Nurturing, too, is important, he noted. Leaders should be nurtured by first building their trust through consistency, fairness, reliability and accountability. Additional training sessions, regular meetings, visits and evaluations should be conducted to provide the motivation to achieve, Lippman said. Setting goals that are appropriate, attainable, clear, measurable and challenging is an equally important part of the process, as they are the building blocks for guidance and a sense of direction.
However the nurturing process doesn’t necessarily have to extend to paying for employees to earn an MBA degree, he said. Nor should an MBA be a requirement for recruiting young or more established retail executives. “An MBA is a nice distinction to have, but it does not necessarily make a person smarter and it isn’t a guarantee that the individual is going to want to learn and grow within a retail organization, which is critical no matter what degree they have,” Lippman stated.
While ‘home-grown’ talent is always preferred, Lippman acknowledged that today’s retailers are commonly compelled to look outside their organizations to fill certain top leadership positions. “This is a very viable strategy if a position is in the area of finance, human resources, information technology, marketing or logistics, because the best and the brightest can easily apply their skills and talent to a variety of retail environments,” he said.
However, positions in merchandising are ideally filled internally. “People in the top merchandising positions should really come from a retailer’s own merchant ranks,” Lippman insisted. “Merchants are a different breed, and there is a learning curve about every retailer that you don’t see in disciplines like human resources or logistics. If a retailer absolutely needs to look outside its own ranks for high-caliber merchant talent, it should at least stick with the same vertical market. Every retail segment has its nuances, and retailers can’t afford to wait for people to learn the subtleties of the business.”
In general, Lippman urges retailers to make associate development a top priority. “This not only helps retailers attract exceptional new talent; it encourages existing employees to strive for accomplishment,” he concluded
About Career Management
Founded in 1978, Career Management specializes in executive recruitment for all segments of the retail, catalog and e-commerce industries. With offices in East Brunswick, N.J. and New York City, the firm assists a wide variety of clients across the country, fulfilling talent needs at many levels, ranging from corporate senior management to field and store management. All associates at the firm have prior hands-on experience in the retail industry. For more information, visit, www.careers4retail.com
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