Discovering Retails Next Generation Leaders

When identifying any group of potential future leaders, naturally, it is the conventional organisational and commercial needs that dominate, as do the particular sector or functional requirements of the role. Given that most would accept we are experiencing a period of very rapid and accelerating change, many also track the parallel social and employment practice changes happening too.

A selection of conclusions from a recent review of future retail leadership requirements suggested the following skills as being necessary in the next generation of retail leaders:*

  • Ease in adapting to new business models and knowing how to navigate the retail industry of the future
  • Knowing how to build next generation teams in a very flat hierarchy, which forces leaders to create dynamic, independent organisations
  • Being tech-savvy and having skills in understanding data, knowing how to read it, apply it and think about it in the context of the customer, ideally, hard-wired to understand customers’ behaviour and mindset
  • An ability to recognise that not only do they not know all the answers, they probably don’t know all the questions
  • A blend of functional experience and being comfortable operating in a big data, multi-channel and international business culture
  • Skills in making a personal transition. Whilst many of the skills required in senior leadership are clearly transferable leaders can be great in one context and fail miserably in another
  • A capacity to develop new skills to stay ahead and to find new ways to inspire the workforce
  • Comfort in engaging with younger generations who respond to a more human approach, including being much more visible and accessible to employees and consumers and using technology to connect with them in real time.

Most view these illustrations with a critical eye and question what, if anything, is any different about the next generation of future leaders in 2019 compared to previous generations? Furthermore, beyond anecdotal observations, is there reliable evidence to show there are any trends that shape the context for identifying, selecting, deploying and developing the next generation of leaders?

The prevailing evidence suggests six underlying trends that will colour how the next generation of leaders is identified, developed and motivated. Compared to other generations there is more of a focus on personal development, fit with prevailing organisational culture, greater awareness of diversity, employers who demonstrate progressive thinking and an eclectic approach to enhanced communication and knowledge sharing. Digitalisation and technological developments are likely to expand exponentially over the next few years. However, it is well established that the driving factors here are people related (such as cultural predisposition, digital awareness, digital curiosity, preparedness to innovate etc.).

The focus within personal development has changed. Development opportunities are likely to be seen as more valuable by the next generation of leaders. They are more likely to take advantage of coaching and mentoring compared to previous generations seeing it as an effective way to learn new skills as well as benefiting from their mentor’s individual experiences. Additionally, much more and varied information is available to these next generation leaders compared to their predecessors. In fact, already one cannot help but see lists such as listing news and worldwide updates, e-training and development courses, working online etc., as all rather passé.

The next generation of leaders are more likely to have greater cultural awareness and sensitivity to their own and others’ fit. This can include attitudes to minorities/workplace diversity, promotion or growth opportunities, feeling valued and work-life balance. There is convincing evidence emerging that it is these (rather than other traditional promotion related reasons) that encapsulate the reasons why current future leaders are leaving taking their talent with them.

It is well known that running a low cost airline is about much more than just stopping free inflight catering. It requires a fundamental shift in the way the business is run and very different relationships with suppliers, producers, distribution and supply chain all the way through to the travelling public. In a similar vein, most would agree that the antecedents to the clear trends in consumer behaviour and retail have been talked about for years. The next generation of leaders is an attractive prospect to forward thinking businesses looking at introducing new technologies, strategies, concepts and products. This can be seen not only in the number of successful start-ups but also in how innovative companies seem to attract the most talent. There are many new companies that are now making more effective products which in turn, are able to be used to create solutions that are vastly different from those that might have been produced a generation ago.  It is currently hard to avoid media focus on self-steering cars or robotised automated payment systems -products that require sophisticated software that was not available in previous years (and which is still developing).

Finally, there is effective communication, which has become a big topic in recent years. Again, technology again is the driving factor. Traditional skills such as influencing persuading and networking (i.e. the traditional human factors) are no less important. However, most would agree that being connected on a global basis 24/7 like no other generation makes the nature of getting things done qualitatively very different. Developing next generational leaders will mean getting this mix right in ways that as yet, may not be clear and which may well change with time.

Technological advances, changes, developing social and trends and the cut and thrust of commercial life are nothing new. However, it does look like we at something of crossroads in the pace direction and form of current and future developments. Re-imagining and to some extent reinventing retail in the UK, along with the changing expectations of the current and next generation of emerging leaders means a different emphasis and approach are necessary if we are to harness the potential we think we currently see in them.


Church, A. (2018). The Future of C-Suite Potential in the Age of Robotics. People & Strategy41(1), 48-50.

Hickman, C. R., & Silva, M. A. (2018). Creating excellence: Managing corporate culture, strategy, and change in the new age. Routledge.

*EMILY SUTHERLAND “What skills do retail leaders need today?” Drapers Sept. 2018