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Fashion’s got talent

A new starter’s potential may be staring an employer in the face, or may need a little more help to blossom. So how can you tell if they have the talent to become your next head of design? Recruiters and bosses reveal how they identify and nurture their staff.

If good people are the backbone of a good company then it follows that if you have the right people working for you, your business will thrive.

Employing and retaining talented staff may seem an obvious thing to do to drive a company’s performance, but for many businesses, managing this process is easier said than done.

Moira Benigson, managing partner at executive search company The MBS Group, says it is vital that fashion businesses have clear criteria of what they are looking for in new recruits. These criteria should not be static but need to be adapted to fit with the company’s evolving culture and ambitions.

“You have to constantly refer back to [the criteria]. Every six months you should appraise staff to make sure they still measure up and to help manage them going forward,” says Benigson.

Stephen Selby, managing director of recruitment firm Success Appointments, says over the past 10 years there has been a move away from formal training courses and appraisals.

“All companies used to have a budget for training and developing people but now it tends to be more ad hoc within each department. If [members of staff] are lucky, they have a good manager who can act as a mentor but, if not, they end up losing the development.”

Jonny Hewlett, who joined Diesel as UK managing director two years ago, has revamped the denim brand’s appraisal system by using principles he learned at his previous employer, consumer products firm Procter & Gamble.

“We’ve improved the quality to make it more of a two-way process. We identify a person’s strengths and look at how we can build on them,” he says.

If someone is considered to be a high performer and wants to develop their career at Diesel, Hewlett will sit down with them and their line manager to discuss short and medium-term opportunities.

“Every manager puts coaching programmes in place for their top talent. They are also given projects to develop their skills,” he adds.

Positive feedback from all levels of the business is also important to pinpoint if an employee is ripe for promotion, according to Mary Anderson-Ford, director of retail at recruitment firm Whitepeak Group.

“If they can form relationships across the business - from nurturing new recruits to working as part of a team and liaising with their superiors - they are likely to be a real star.”

Both Peter Gerrard, managing director of recruitment firm Michael Page Retail, and Anderson-Ford advocate the use of personality tests like the Myers-Briggs typology indicator to assess a person’s strengths and how their talent is best deployed within the business. Along with individual coaching, these kinds of tests also help bosses extract the skills of those who aren’t so great at demonstrating what they can do.

The real person

However, the process has to start with bringing the right people through the door in the first place. As well as ensuring candidates’ CVs are up to scratch, bosses need to hone their interview technique to bring out the “real person”. Anderson-Ford says: “There are people who do badly at the interview but are brilliant at the job and there are others who can blag their way through an interview but don’t have a passion for the job.”

Marks & Spencer head of lingerie design Soozie Jenkinson says she looks for candidates with a great design portfolio, who have researched M&S thoroughly. “Raw design talent has to be balanced with a realistic perception of the role, a commercial awareness and strong communication skills.”

About 170 graduates joined M&S through its graduate schemes in 2010, an increase of more than 20% on 2009. The retailer’s head of recruitment, Kay Jones-Wolsey, says: “Regular line manager appraisals help us pinpoint the needs of individual employees and create development programmes that allow high potential employees to really flourish. The key is to create an environment where each employee feels valued - where their views are listened to and their needs recognised,” she adds.

Get involved

To bring out the best in their staff, managers need to keep their eyes and ears to the ground. When times are tough it is easy to get so caught up in the day-to-day running of the business that you fail to spot the potential in your new team members.

Benigson says: “You have to inspire people to get the best out of them. It doesn’t just happen.”

She urges managers to trust their staff by giving them responsibility and getting them involved in the more exciting aspects of the business. “Don’t play your cards too close to your chest, listen to your staff and share information with them.”

Selby agrees: “Young people are often very enthusiastic and it is important they feel their ideas are valued.”

Having an open dialogue with staff is also key when it comes to retention. If you have a new recruit who seems destined for the boardroom, the last thing you want is to lose them to a rival.

Gerrard says: “The most common RFLs (reasons for leaving) are that staff see no progression or don’t understand where the role is going.”

According to Anderson-Ford, a business is more likely to retain talent if it has levels in place that offer a clear career path. For example, it is easier for an assistant merchandiser to set his or her sights on becoming a senior assistant merchandiser than a merchandiser.

She believes businesses should publicly celebrate success: “If people know the reason why someone was promoted it stops them feeling resentful and gives them something to pitch themselves towards.”

John Lewis has a structured development programme in place to nurture talent across its 30-store portfolio. This includes individual coaching and group sessions as well as head office based training and online courses.

Making progress

Graduates who join through its retail management scheme undergo a six-week induction before becoming section managers heading up a team within their department. New recruits can expect to be managing their own department within 12 to 18 months.

John Lewis manager of talent and succession Sally-Ann Castle says: “When we identify talent we do that across the whole business. It is a fully transparent process where we discuss every partner. We also have tools in place to help managers identify future talent, such as a framework of leadership behaviour that we measure people against.”

Susan Baxter, fashion operations manager at its Kingston upon Thames store, joined John Lewis as a graduate and has experienced its talent management from both ends of the spectrum.

She looks for new recruits with “energy, self-motivation and courage to counter opinion”. In addition, they should have great people skills that allow them to connect both with the customer and their colleagues.

As well as regular one-to-one sessions with their line manager, John Lewis offers a mentoring scheme for partners who want to progress their career. “[The mentors] might be people who are on the same level or a manager who is at the level that partner is working towards,” says Baxter.

Investing time and money in identifying and nurturing talent is essential when you consider that replacing a member of staff can cost as much as £10,000. Selby says as well as the cost involved in recruiting and training a replacement, there is also the loss in productivity due to the time it takes for them to be an effective member of staff.

Hewlett agrees: “If you can focus your time and effort on growing people from within as opposed to bringing in talent from the outside, it makes for a much more efficient organisation. It is 120% worth it.”

Talent spotting

Six steps to identifying and nurturing talent:

1. Have a clear idea of what you are looking for in new recruits

2. Work on your interview technique and consider using assessment centres and/or personality tests

3. Be an open and approachable boss

4. Have regular appraisals

5. Set clear and achievable goals for each employee

6. Celebrate achievements publicly within the company

Clambering up the ladder

Fiona Jackson’s career at Diesel took a giant step forward when she was promoted to the new position of senior key account manager in November 2009.

Having joined Diesel in 2002 as sales manager for kidswear, Jackson is now responsible for some of the brand’s most important UK accounts such as Asos, House of Fraser and John Lewis.

Diesel UK managing director Jonny Hewlett says Jackson was one of the people he spotted as having development potential when he joined the denim brand.

“She has superb analytical and people skills, and understands what a customer needs to drive their consumption.”

A big believer in key account management, Hewlett personally coached her into the new role.

Since the appointment, Jackson has produced tailored business plans for each account, which have increased their forward order sales at a much faster rate than other accounts.

“This has led to seven customers being managed in this way by me, from the three originally assigned to me,” she says.

Hewlett says the next step is to increase the number of accounts Jackson manages and to build a team of key account managers that report to her.

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