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Turn your staff into top-flight talent

If employees are to get the most out of their jobs and employers get the best out of their workforce, businesses must help staff develop their skills.

With low staff retention rates and a sometimes poor reputation, it’s no wonder retail had only six representatives listed in the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For 2010 survey. And only three of those - lingerie retailer Bravissimo, luxury etailer Net-a-Porter and lifestyle retailer White Stuff - are in the fashion sector.
Each has a strong identity that permeates the business. Perhaps just as important is the belief among their staff that the businesses are willing to invest in them by developing their skills and enabling their career progression.

One of the key business tools for retaining staff is training - or learning and development (L&D) as it’s now more often called. When people see that a business is investing in them and that the outcomes are positive, they are more likely to stay with the business.

Motivated and engaged

Louise Crampton, HR manager at recruitment firm Fashion & Retail Personnel, says job hunters often cite training and development as one of their key considerations when looking at new opportunities.

“For many, it is as important as their remuneration package,” Crampton says. “If an employer can offer great training programmes, they will become an attractive choice. Once you’ve hired, you stand a better chance of hanging on to staff for longer if they are receiving professional development in-house. Employees are more likely to be motivated and engaged in the workplace - and thus more productive.”

Crampton advises that training “should fit wider business goals” and that those responsible for training should ensure they are aware of the business’ s strategy.
Each fashion retailer has its own L&D culture, of course. One that has received plaudits is White Stuff, where the L&D programme is holistic and based around the vision - “By being different, and making a difference, we’ll make the world a little happier” - and its stated values of Happy, Idiosyncratic, Unstuffy, Detailed and Fair.
Jessica Taylor, head of people and development at White Stuff, says that every element of training fits into the vision and values. With staff turnover under 30% a year across its business, compared with a sector norm more like 40%, it is obviously doing something right.

At the same time, White Stuff is conscious that it needs to work harder at gaining buy-in from staff at shopfloor level and is reviewing its retail staff training package, called People Rock. The three-stage programme - with pay rate rises for each level achieved - is for all retail staff, including those on the minimum four-hour part-time contract.

Maximum buy-in

White Stuff has launched two major programmes across the business called Being White Stuff and Living White Stuff. These sit alongside what Taylor describes as the technical training elements - product knowledge, sales techniques, head office disciplines, NVQs in distribution and so on. The programmes are designed to get the maximum buy-in to the business.

Taylor says: “Employee engagement is key to a successful business. We listen to what people think and then we help make White Stuff a better place in which to work.”

So far, 400 of the retailer’s 1,300 staff have been through the system. The programmes look at what each individual wants to achieve and how the business can help them do it. It helps people develop outside interests that can be linked back to the business. For example, one employee was supported to pursue a professional fitness qualification; he will be running classes for colleagues.

“Your boss has an immense impact on your happiness,” says Taylor. “So we focus on how our line managers can get the best out of people.”

The kind of “buy-in” described by White Stuff’s Taylor is important. Crampton says: “For training to be effective it must be held in esteem by the management team and not seen as an add-on. If training is embraced enthusiastically in business communications, business plans and strategy, and in individual performance goals, employees will know it is taken seriously and that there is a link between training and development and business goals,” she says.
Quality of line management is also on the agenda at Marks & Spencer, where the scope and scale of L&D is considered exemplary. Last year, it launched Managing for Success and Leading with Impact, a programme designed for its 2,000 line managers.

With close to 70,000 employees in the UK and Republic of Ireland, Nigel Jeremy, head of learning, recruitment and organisation development at M&S, says providing
meaningful dev­elopment opportunities is critical to the retailer’s talent strategy. Its programmes include courses, e-learning, line manager coaching and shadowing.
Jeremy says: “We encourage job shadowing where it is relevant and operationally possible. We’ve found that the more employees know about how other colleagues’ jobs across the business function, the better informed they are in doing their own work and seeing how it fits into the bigger picture.

“Shadowing promotes teamwork and can help individuals make better decisions, as it provides insight into where they might like to work as their career progresses,” Jeremy says.

This year, M&S reviewed its head office induction programme and since February all new joiners complete a week’s store attachment with the aim of providing insight into the business.

Training at M&S

Among the schemes M&S runs are Your M&S Career Path, comprising training programmes for employees across the business; Lead to Succeed, which aims to develop a pipeline of talent; and two-year graduate schemes, which fast-track candidates to management. This year’s scheme attracted more than 9,300 applicants for 165 places.

In addition, M&S takes work experience students from schools, universities and from the Fashion Retail Academy in London, and also has a special scheme for disabled people, lone parents and young unemployed people.

Jeremy says: “In M&S we subscribe to the belief that if you get the ‘how’

right, the ‘what’ will usually follow. We provide a lot of development but individuals are not rewarded for undertaking learning activity, they are rewarded for good execution of the learning, which in turn delivers good business results.” l


Good training

Top tips on L&D from Fashion & Retail Personnel HR manager Louise Crampton

  • Ensure your training supports the wider business goals. Training should help staff improve both technical skills and interpersonal skills
  • Conduct regular training needs analyses
  • Get buy-in from the top. For training to be effective it needs to be held in esteem by the management team
  • Keep training sessions in short, bite-size chunks. This is especially relevant for small businesses. Keep sessions interactive, fun and memorable. Use online resources and be prepared to outsource where there is a need to do so

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