Can one person change fortunes?

This months column looks at why decisive leadership is crucial to retail transformation success. 

Strong leadership is crucial in all walks of life. Leading through continued success takes one type of person. Pulling people up, making them believe and giving them hope and motivation during bleak times takes quite another.

While I often like to focus on the importance of teamwork in retail, it would be almost negligent to overlook the importance of that one person at the top – with a clear vision, focus and determination – in delivering success.

One such example is departing Burberry boss Christopher Bailey. This visionary leader delivered his last London Fashion Week show recently, and deserves to be applauded for his revolutionary work with the brand. Since joining as CEO in 2014, he has turned Burberry’s fortunes around, making it Britain’s biggest luxury brand.

Using several innovations, he has arguably taken the brand to new levels – it was the first to 3D live-stream catwalks and advertise on Snapchat, plus it famously combined men’s and women’s fashion into one show.

The brand’s new chief creative officer is Riccardo Tisci. He may have been somewhat of a surprise appointment to those anticipating a British designer to be named, but Tisci, already credited with turning around the fortunes of Givenchy, could prove, once again, to be another inspiring appointment by Burberry.

Being the prominent figurehead of a brand is not without its challenges though. Once a leading light in every respect, Sir Philip Green’s reputation since the downfall of BHS – and the accompanying pensions debate – has been somewhat tarnished. Rumblings of a sale of his Arcadia empire to the Chinese abound – as his ageing brands Dorothy Perkins, Wallis and Evans are overshadowed by more contemporary players such as boohoo and Missguided. With Green denying the deal, we can only speculate upon the future of this battle-bruised leader.

Green is perhaps a good example of not allowing complacency to sneak in. It is a reality that sometimes established retailers can become too big, too lumbering, too bureaucratic. And when this happens, an injection of fresh blood is often the only way to reverse the fading fortunes.

One brand that is currently seeking a revival of fortunes under new leadership is fashion giant New Look. The retailer is one of several fast-fashion brands which has had to battle a barrage of negative media headlines in recent months. It’s at times like these that strong, confident and bullish leadership is called for – the ability to deliver quick, decisive change in the face of adversity really can be the difference.

Perhaps here I can reference another classic film, The Godfather – in which Michael Corleone tells Tom Hagen, ‘You’re not a wartime consigliere, Tom.’ Solid, dependable, loyal… yet what the family needed at that given time was someone with fire in their belly and passion in their blood. And in a similar vein, New Look recently brought back its own ‘wartime consigliere’ in the shape of Alistair McGeorge, to lead a turnaround of the retailer’s fortunes. Since his return, he has spoken with fiercely assured rhetoric about this being a brand that knows what has to be done, and intent on making it happen.

Transforming a retail giant’s fortunes in today’s tough economic climate, let alone in the face of endless doom-mongers, takes steely resolve, unswerving determination and complete, unshakeable faith in your decision making.

For these strong leaders, there is no room for sitting on the fence, prevaricating or muddled visions. Sharen Jester Turney, during her time as president and CEO at Victoria’s Secret, turned the brand into a global powerhouse, with strong, solid sales and an international reputation. Sir Stuart Rose performed similar feats, resuscitating Marks & Spencer during his time at the helm there.

During 2018, there could be any number of retailers that may have to look to their respective leaders to deliver similar decisive action, clear thinking and dynamic, dogged determination. H&M has warned of a difficult 2018 and will be looking to Karl-Johan Persson to steer it through. Debenhams is pinning its hopes on Sergio Bucher to boost its straggling sales. And after a disappointing Christmas for House of Fraser, all eyes will surely be on how Alex Williamson plans to lead the retailer out of its slump.

It’s true that success is delivered through strong retail teams. But this success can only be driven from the top. The broad shoulders of a business leader are designed to carry a business, a brand, as they strive mercilessly, endlessly, for better. This is no time for mere fighting talk. It’s time for dynamic, inspiring leadership that packs a punch from all angles.