Why Retail’s Best Digital Brains Are Circling The Drain

The retail industry is failing some of its best digital minds by overlooking them for the top jobs.

I was recently interviewed by Gemma Goldfingle of Retail Week about an alarming observation the magazine made on the back of its list of future chief executives that it published last month, namely the lack of digital leaders in the running for retail’s top jobs. Only five years ago, these very same digital experts were achieving great things and were largely perceived as shoo-ins for the big C-suite positions, but that just hasn’t happened.

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The article, which you can read here, builds a very good case for why yesterday’s digital gurus have failed to hit today’s corporate heights: it’s the economy! In the lean times of the business cycle, the retail industry tends to revert to type, reining in risk-taking and battening down the proverbial hatches. In real terms, this means appointing candidates from product, ops or finance. Installing a digital person as a CEO is still unanimously viewed as risky a move as appointing a creative.

The irony of course is that creative and digital expertise are absolutely essential as companies look to differentiate their offer and acquire new customers (code name: future revenue stream).

Digital experts are not product kings or queens or are they finance chiefs. Their expertise however is an essential part in the ‘tactical’ driving of sales (in a -4-5% footfall market) and strategically understanding and potentially addressing the how a company gets to grips with Amazon and the pureplays. There is an argument therefore that as an industry we may be betraying the promise of people that are most likely to protect revenue and impact most in the strategic development of the business….

So, what can the digital guys and girls do about this?

For one, they need to demonstrate that insight can impact not just on revenue figures but also on wider strategic decisions. For example, demonstrating how new customer experience journeys will increase multichannel sales or extracting and highlighting the data that could help the BMD team improve trend forecasts, and range planning.

Secondly, they can try to shake the “data centric” label and try to move into roles within retail where they can “cross-pollinate” their skillsets growing a more holistic commercial understanding. If this is not possible in retail, then they need to look outside to roles that will bring breadth and personal development. The good news is that other industries welcome retail talent.

Of course, if you’ve been in business long enough, you’ll know that the old adage “when one door closes another one opens” often rings true, and so while the top positions may not be forthcoming to today’s digital leaders, we’re currently seeing excellent opportunities for them in non-executive roles.

If you have questions about your digital personnel strategy, or you are a digital leader for whom this article sounds familiar, please get in touch for a confidential chat to see how ORESA may help you. Email orlando@oresa.co.uk or call +44 (0) 203 675 1459.