Published by Rob Husband on Monday, 02 Feb 2015
I started working in the retail sector when I was 17 years old, which is 33 years ago now. I began in a music shop selling instruments, and I learnt quickly that I enjoyed trading. It was not necessarily the cut and thrust of business, the thrill of chasing a sale or the figures for items sold and takings banked that I loved. It was more the opportunity to form, build and maintain relationships with the customers that excited me. It is true that the reason for these relationships was to make transactions, but I saw that as a shared purpose between me and the patrons. They wanted to buy, I wanted to sell, and we could achieve our aims together.
I became a manager of individual shops and then groups of shops. I had never had any training in retail, so I often felt like I had been thrown in at the deep end and was flying by the seat of my pants. But things worked out. I remember being at the company Christmas party and people telling me that they had noticed how the staff in our shops related to one another differently – in a more positive way.
Ten years later, I left the retail business and went to work with young people. Ever since, the focus of what I do has been on people development and helping leaders. I sometimes come across people who have been skilled technicians or experts in certain products and, on that basis, have been promoted into leadership or management positions. All of a sudden, the development of people and relationships becomes a central part of the new role, but these ‘softer’ skills have been suppressed during the person’s technical years so it can be a struggle to adapt. Help is needed.
This is why, each year, I am excited by a piece of work that unites my leadership development skills and my love of retailing. I write the Oxford Summer School Foundation’s programme for retail managers. The aim is to help retail managers gain more self-awareness and understanding of how they relate to others to better enable them to influence, engage and develop their teams. It’s a fascinating process because I am preparing material which will be delivered by ten group directors, so I have to account for different styles, personalities and preferences – which is exactly what the programme encourages in others, so it is a good opportunity for me to practise what I am promoting. Then I have to let go and allow the directors the freedom to stamp their own marks on the content. I can’t be too precious over it and, I must acknowledge that the programme is richer because of the diversity of characters involved. Again, just like a good retailing team.
My preparation of the programme has reminded me that when we make the effort to nurture strong relationships – with staff, customers and suppliers – we create a much more stable, robust and sustainable business. Shopping is such a big part of people’s everyday life that we should aim for it to be a pleasurable, life-enhancing experience, rather than simply what, at times, may be a possible chore. I, for one, believe it is possible. Do you?