I’ve been working in retail recruitment in Australia for a little over three years now servicing roles in almost every state and capital city across the country. With the clock ticking over into my fourth year, and after spending a little time reflecting on my experience, I wanted to answer the most common question I’m asked. After many a Bonnie Tyler-esque call from clients, here’s my take on the question…

“Where have all the good men retail managers gone?”

I’ll preface this piece by stating there are many, many great retail managers in Australia. There just aren’t nearly enough of them!

As an article in the SMH earlier this year highlighted: ‘More than half the senior executive roles at leading national retail chains are now held by overseas-born retailers’.

This is no coincidence.

Let’s be honest, retail can be a tough gig. I used to be in retail and the complexities of the operations that take place to land that nice new sweater on the hanger are largely underestimated by the general public. But it’s also an incredibly rewarding one. You find yourself leading incredibly large teams in an ever changing environment and I genuinely believe it can be one of the most rewarding careers available. And that word is key. Career.

It was interesting coming from UK retail and speaking to so many people in Australian retail. When I first joined PageGroup and started meeting senior retailers, I used to flip the question on to them, why is there such a shortage of good retailers? And the most common response…

“Retail isn’t seen as a career in Australia”

Now this confused me. Why?!

I was fortunate enough to be accepted on to the Marks & Spencer graduate scheme, one of the most highly regarded in the industry. I actually turned down a graduate scheme with BAE Systems, partly based on my dad’s affirmation of what an opportunity a career at M&S would be. These schemes weren’t just offered by M&S – John Lewis, Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Arcadia, Debenhams…even Greggs! (UK equivalent of Pie Face). They all run them. It’s common practice. And being accepted on to one of these schemes, as my dad’s response is testament to, is equally well regarded as being accepted on to the graduate scheme of a bank or any other industry. Yet for high potential Aussie grads eagerly searching the internet looking to start their retail career…their options are limited. There are certainly a few out there, but if you are a major retailer and do not have a graduate scheme you are missing the Houdini of tricks!

And outside of graduate schemes there seems to be a real lack of high potential internal development schemes in place. I completed my year’s training with M&S after my second year at university as part of my course, went back to uni for the third year and then returned to M&S. Six months later I was pulled into one of the senior manager’s offices who explained they would like me to take on an interim store manager role for four months. A small-medium sized store by M&S standards, but it was still a $20m+, 100+ staff store…I was 21 years old. Not that age should be a factor, but to be honest, I lacked the emotional intelligence and leadership that was really required to run such an operation, but they took the risk on me. Why?

In the words of my then manager “because you could be a future director and we want you to fail fast and learn quickly”. 

I can tell you that experience was the steepest learning curve of my life. There were plenty of things that went wrong, but the store was still standing and we actually posted some pretty good results. That was down to the support I received from the senior management around the region and the strong team of department managers in the store.

Retailers in Australia need to take greater risks with their high potential managers.

There are certainly some retailers out there with some very good internal development schemes, but again there are not nearly enough.

Now as a Pommy in Australia I’m conscious of this coming across as brash. I don’t want it to be. I assure you this post has been created with the best intentions and I hope this sparks some debate about how we can create/improve development programs within retail in Australia.

We, as the retail HR and talent community in Australia, have a duty to attract high potential candidates to the industry and give them the best training possible.

As HR leaders I would encourage you to spend some time reviewing the development schemes on offer in your business. If you don’t have them, should you? And if you do have them, do they allow high potential individuals to “fail fast and learn quickly?”

So in answer to the question:

“There are plenty of potentially great retail managers… we just need to develop them.

Think you’ve already got what it takes to be named as Australia’s most innovative retail executive? Apply to the Michael Page Retail Executive Award now.

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