Female Voices: How Retail Leadership Is Evolving With Changing Times

By Melanie Vala, Chief Commercial Officer, Splitit

2020 took all industries by surprise, but especially the retail community.  From the accelerated shift to digital commerce to supply chain breakdowns to teams going remote, retail leaders faced unprecedented levels of change on all fronts.  As the retail playbook continues to be re-written, leaders will need to stay connected to new trends, remain agile, embrace human challenges and keep teams engaged and motivated in 2021 and beyond.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, I had the opportunity to moderate the discussion, “Retail Leadership Perspective: Strategy and Leadership in Unpredictable Times,” featuring valuable perspectives and advice from three dynamic female retail leaders: Jennifer DiPasquale, President & Co-Founder of Women in Retail/Total Retail, Dawn Robertson, CEO of On-Campus Marketing, and Vanessa LeFebvre, SVP of Commercial, Adidas.  These are the five biggest takeaways from our discussion, including important insights on how leadership has evolved and how the lessons will be applied in the future:

The consumer is in charge

In retail, the consumer has always been important, but now the consumer is fully in charge.  Connected shoppers are buying however and whenever they want.  And they’re a mere screen tap away from finding retailers who can satisfy their changing buying preferences.  In addition, consumers are increasingly interested in supporting brands with purpose.  As a result, one of the biggest silver linings of the past year is that brands are becoming more socially conscious, focusing on issues like sustainability.  Moving forward, however, the retail industry evolves, meeting the broad spectrum of customer wants and needs will remain central to success.

Unlearning is just as important as learning

Retail leaders are increasingly recognizing that what needs to be unlearned can be just as important as what needs to be learned.  With just about everything in retail turned upside down, leaders need to reprioritize and determine what remains important, oftentimes unlearning what was done traditionally in favor of new mandates like profitability, digitization and omnichannel practices.  This requires figuring out what to let go of to move forward and embracing new ways to fuel business growth and professional development.

Vulnerability equals relatability

In times of massive change and unpredictability, showing vulnerabilities as a leader is especially important.  By allowing yourself to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers, that you may be having an “off day,” or that you don’t have a crystal ball for the future, you’re showing your humanity and giving your team permission to show theirs.  By asking your team for help, you’re also building a critical network of support that will help work through issues and uncover solutions together.

Flexibility is key to staying nimble

As leaders in times of change, it’s especially critical to embrace the fact that not everything will turn out perfectly.  The more flexible we can be, the more comfortable we can be when plans go awry or expectations aren’t perfectly met.  With nearly 3 million American women have left the labor force over the past year, meeting individuals’ needs wherever they have never been more pressing.  For working mothers with children at home, for example, building flex time throughout the day can go a long way in fostering a healthy balance between work and home demands.  So is thinking about your organization’s social contract to create the space and permission for individuals to take a step back to do a wellness check or take a short walk.  Similarly, listening sessions provide teams the chance to ask questions and have their voices heard.

Celebrate employee success

Positivity can be just as contagious as negativity.  Acknowledging people for their contributions– whether big or small– helps keep teams engaged and feeling good about their work.  One idea is to create “visibility buddies,” partnering people up to serve as one another’s champion.  When employees receive praise, they are much more likely to feel that they are contributing real value.

While the future of retail remains unclear, there’s no denying that more changes are on the horizon.  By accepting that things won’t go back to how they were before the pandemic, retail leaders can stay agile and ready to meet the needs of both customers and employees.  And by continuing to lead with humanity, empathy and inclusivity, leaders can create a supportive and uplifting environment for all.

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