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Talking business: The next generation of retail CEO

Retail is changing fast – and so is the leadership profile of the next generation retail chief executive. 

In contrast to the “merchant princes” who built the great retail businesses of the past century, the next-generation CEO will need to be a skilled team builder who can create a culture of motivated collaboration. As the digital world and social media give individuals an ever greater choice and voice, the core role of this new CEO will be to create a network of “advocates” for their brand and their business – not only among customers, but also employees, suppliers, external partners, shareholders and communities.

This is the insight we at Egon Zehnder gained from our survey of more than 40 retail leaders from around the world, including many chief executives and managing directors from the clothing sector.

The core role of this new CEO will be to create a network of “advocates” for their brand and their business

The rapid rise of etailing and social media, and their impact on consumer expectations have been widely chronicled. For most fashion retailers, the necessity to surprise and delight customers has always been understood, but the means of achieving this has undergone seismic changes in this digital age. To win in this environment, this new CEO will need to be highly skilled at influencing people and working across silos to source experts from many areas, including IT, product development, external suppliers, technology providers and even competitors.

The retailers of the future will therefore need employees dispersed across the business to play a much greater role in building brands, accelerating product innovation and delivering outstanding, differentiated customer experiences. Leaders will need to focus on creating flexible organisations that can think and act with agility to adjust to consumer needs and trends.

Companies can nurture this next generation leadership talent by exposing high-potential managers to as many parts of the business as possible, including external networks. For instance, creating a digital advisory board that includes leaders of successful start-ups and technology experts would enable successors to look well beyond their own organisation – and even industry – to detect new patterns in consumer behaviour.

As a result, we are convinced that the role of mobilising a network of advocates will be the heart of retail leadership in the years ahead.

Sophie Hanson is co-leader of the retail, apparel and luxury practice group at executive search firm Egon Zehnder

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