Today’s rising stars are tomorrow’s leaders. Finding fresh talent is the first challenge - after that, it’s the company’s job to make sure they blossom.
Whether it is recruiting the best graduates straight from college or identifying people already in the business who have the makings of the next generation of leaders, discovering and nurturing talent within a business is key to its future.
There is no single route to finding the next generation of fashion’s leaders. It can be through formal training schemes for graduates, internships, ‘introduce a friend’ schemes or even work experience placements for students - there is no boundary on where the next talented designers, store managers, merchandisers or, indeed, chief executives may come from. But businesses must work out what is the best route for them.
At young fashion etailer Asos, young talent is taken seriously across the business, where a management role specifically centred on developing staff exists: Faye McLean has the job title of talent manager.
The business has just launched its Next Generation programme, a one-year paid intern scheme for young people from “an array of different universities and backgrounds”, according to McLean.
“It’s really important to take the time to find the right people for the right roles, and working closely with a number of universities gives us access to a diverse group of students.”
She adds: “I wouldn’t want to say there’s one particular university that’s better than another. We encourage diversity so it’s good to have different backgrounds in the programme, with varied skills and knowledge. It creates our Asos DNA.”
Another route for finding new talent at Asos is via existing staff. McLean explains: “Sometimes we surprise ourselves. Our people are great at recommending new talent; they know what we are looking for and what it takes to succeed at Asos.”
And like most forward-looking retailers and brands, Asos is using social networking to identify people outside of the business. “Social networking is becoming increasing popular in finding exciting, up-and-coming talent,” says McLean.
Passion for people
Once in the business, Asos is conscious that it has to keep its young talent engaged. “We are passionate about our people. We recognise they are hungry, can handle a fast-paced environment and have a big appetite to develop,” says McLean.
“We maintain engagement with on-the-job development from day one. Investment in our people is key to our success, ensuring that any development they receive is relevant at helping them unlock their potential, which ultimately delivers great results for the business. We listen to our people, value their feedback and, more importantly, respond to it.”
However, this attitude is not always employed by all businesses within the fashion industry, according to Helen Taylor, associate director at recruitment agency Fashion & Retail Personnel. Taylor says some businesses “shy away from developing new talent. They feel they are too busy, that margins are too tight, and they want a fast contribution to the bottom line.”
Nurturing talent is taken more seriously, she says, among the major retailers and their key suppliers, but smaller brands need to realise the potential of nurturing young talent. Luckily, says Taylor, more brands are realising that “you can’t always have ready-made people”.
Keep it real
Taylor is also convinced that the UK education system creates unrealistic expectations among some new graduates about the level of job they are likely to achieve. Those whose courses include work placements are in a better position to pick up training roles. She also believes colleges do not always supply their fashion students with enough knowledge of business skills and the supply chain.
At young fashion brand Lipsy, rapid expansion following its purchase by Next in 2008 has meant new processes are being put in place to support people development and succession planning. And it aims to improve retention, particularly at retail level, as a result.
Lipsy HR manager Melanie Ryder has just delivered the Lipsy Training Academy, a progressive workbook-based training scheme for its retail teams. Ryder says: “Too many people ‘fall’ into fashion retailing in store level and in head office. We want to make sure we know who the bright people are, and that we keep them. The new workbook system will help us do that.”
Lipsy identifies people at store level who have the talent to move into head office positions. For example, for a role such as a junior allocator, it looks first in retail operations to see if there is a potential candidate, before looking outside the business, says Ryder.
“At retail many people start on zero to 16-hour contracts, and don’t look at their role as a the first step in a career. But you can soon identify the people who really love it, and get drawn into it. We always look to the stores first, and move people up through the business in that way.”
Lipsy partners with the industry-backed Fashion Retail Academy (FRA) for work placements at its stores.
And it is expanding the scheme in line with the growth of the business - for the first time in November it is bringing FRA students into Lipsy for work placements with its visual merchandising team.
“The brand is growing and it’s an exciting time - and we are making sure we are investing in the future,” Ryder says.
Mary Anderson-Ford, director for retail at recruitment firm Whitepeak Group, says: “Both in the UK and internationally the size of the market is escalating much faster than we are able to create the workforce, so if a business can create its leaders in-house, so much the better.”
Anderson-Ford advocates a presence at graduate employment fairs, and of holding careers forums. “When you are out in the market you are able to identify those who are actively seeking a career in retailing.
“You can quickly get to those who have a degree - in whichever disciplines you are looking at - and those who also have shopfloor experience and therefore an existing understanding of retailing,” she says.
But nurturing talent is as important as recruiting raw talent. “It is important to factor in progression when recruiting young talent. It is no good for the business if talented people feel they must leave in order to progress,” Anderson-Ford says. “There have to be clear objectives to be achieved in order to move to the next level.”
Asos’ s McLean is conscious that it is competitive finding the next generation of talent. She concurs with Anderson-Ford: “We remember that we are only as good as our last initiative, and as great as our next.”
Top tips for nurturing young talent from Mary Anderson-Ford, director for retail, Whitepeak Group
- Invest in new graduates - today’s students are tomorrow’s industry leaders
- Set clear objectives for progression - make the rungs on the career ladder clearly visible
- Fix salaries at or above the market rate to retain your best people
- Hold ‘away days’ so various departments can bond. People feel involved and communication flow contributes to success
- Offer quirky benefits - domestic cleaners, hairdressers and early finish Fridays are all winners