A leader’s departure is a pivotal moment for any business. This is even truer for leading retail companies, where those at the top are often well-known figureheads who embody the company culture for employees. Major changes, like the recent departures at Net-a-Porter, will be keenly felt internally, at all levels.
The focus after such an exit can be on pacifying shareholders and customers, rather than engaging those who are the real driving force of any successful retail organisation: its people.
The company was already experiencing a period of upheaval, having recently merged with Yoox. Last week’s sudden exit of a president and a managing director of two of its major fashion brands needs to be handled especially carefully by its new and interim leaders over the coming days and weeks. After any merger, employees may feel uncertain and fearful about the future, even experiencing a loss of identity, so the departure of well-established senior leaders could reinforce such feelings further. The risk is that some of the company’s workforce could lose the loyalty and emotional attachment they feel for the brand, leading to a talent exodus.
Net-a-Porter’s inspiring founder Natalie Massenet left in September, undoubtedly leaving a void not just in the company’s board but in its corporate story. What the high-end fashion portal needs now is a clear vision for the future – a strong message of pride, purpose, intent and ambition – and precise clarity on how to get there.
Every hour that goes by after such significant changes without providing a clear narrative and engaging people in it is an opportunity for employees to make up their own minds on how things are shaping up – a potentially dangerous situation. To prevent these changes being alien and threatening, staff need to feel they’ve individually contributed to the journey the business is on.
A company in this situation must remind its employees why they have invested their time and energy in it, show that their personal contribution is valued and that their work will fuel its future success. This must be communicated clearly and in an inspiring way to everyone, and its senior leaders need to be aligned and on message.
Mergers and leadership changes can have a significant impact on morale and engagement, but if all these steps are taken, the chances of success increase strikingly as the cumulative power of employees can carry the company forward on its new journey.
Alison Esse is co-founder and director of culture change consultancy The Storytellers