“It’s not just about us: it’s about the people in our teams and in our stores.” Launching the Role Models for Inclusion in Retail Index

I spend my days interviewing candidates. As you can imagine, I have my standard questions to really get under the skin of a candidate. What have they actually personally achieved in each role? How robust is their early training? What is their leadership style? How much future potential do they have? How collaborative are they?

However, I have three questions that I find most revealing:

Question one: who have been your mentors? Who have you learnt the most from over the course of your career? Who has taken time out of their precious schedule to support and develop you? It is no surprise that the best candidates were often mentored in their early careers by individuals who themselves went onto achieve great things.

Question two: who have been your sponsors? Which leaders have constantly pushed for you to be promoted ahead of your peers? Who has seen something special in you, given you development opportunities – or taken a risk by pushing for your promotion in a role or function you are unproven in? Again, it’s often the case that strong candidates have had exceptional sponsors.

However, when I come onto question three – who have been your role models? Who are the people you model yourself against in a professional context? – I am often met with a long silence. Particularly, I should add, among female or diverse candidates who perhaps don’t see role models in their own image, or don’t see leaders in the hierarchy above them who have the same value set or working practices they themselves want to emulate.

This lack of role models feels particularly acute in the retail sector. Our research last year with the BRC and PwC showed that one in five UK retailers have all-male Boards, and 15% have no women on their executive committees – and just 4.3% of Chairs, 9.6% of CEOs, and 11.4% of CFOs are women. Likewise, 68% of retailers have all-white executive committees.

I am, however, encouraged that gradually things are changing. Today, our dynamic sector is full of a growing number of diverse role models who are proving what’s possible and advocating for positive change. By highlighting and celebrating these role models, we can drive progress and make the retail sector a more inclusive place.

It was therefore a real pleasure to launch the inaugural Role Models for Inclusion in Retail Index this week. Produced in partnership with Diversity in Retail, the report shines a spotlight on those in our industry who are advocating for diversity and inclusion in their organisations and communities.

The picture shows a double page spread from the role models for inclusion in retail index, highlighting Manju Malhotra, CEO at Harvey Nichols

Joined by retail colleagues from right across the sector, and some of our industry’s most influential leaders – including Simon Roberts, CEO at Sainsbury’s, who gave the keynote speech – we gathered on the 31st floor of the ‘walkie talkie’ building in the City to mark the occasion. After more than two years of virtual gatherings, it was exciting to be back at an in-person event and feel the buzz of an industry coming together towards a shared goal.

As Tea Colaianni, founder and Chair at Diversity in Retail, put so powerfully in her remarks to the group: “Together we are changing things. We are changing the industry and changing lives – not just for ourselves but for others. We are paving the way for a world in which everybody can truly be themselves at work.”

Reflecting on the power of these sorts of publications, there are four key reasons why I feel this Index is critical.

Firstly, role models inspire great talent to enter and progress through the sector. The mantra “you can’t be what you can’t see” is often cited in conversations around representation, and for good reason. Without visible role models – who look, act and think like you – it can be difficult to imagine yourself in a certain sector, company or position. As a retail sector, we know we have an issue attracting diverse talent – particularly Black and disabled colleagues. This Index not only highlights how varied, rewarding and supportive a career in retail can be, but showcases the number of diverse leaders in the sector who can themselves act as role models for the next generation of colleagues. As Simon Roberts, CEO at Sainsbury’s, commented: “Celebrating the trailblazers who are doing such amazing work across the retail industry goes a long way in driving long-lasting and widespread movement, creating a better, more inclusive future for everyone.”

“Celebrating the trailblazers who are doing such amazing work across the retail industry goes a long way in driving long-lasting and widespread movement, creating a better, more inclusive future for everyone.” – Simon Roberts, CEO at Sainsbury’s 

Indeed, it was incredibly inspiring to hear from Anu Chopra from Watches of Switzerland, one of the role models featured in the Index, who spoke first-hand about her experience in the retail sector. “During my fourteen years in retail,” she told the audience, “I’ve noticed that the more senior my roles become, the fewer role models there are who look like me or represent me.” Through her selection in this Index and her involvement in DiR’s Ethnic Minority Future Leaders Programme, Anu explained that she has been able to act as a role model for others in her organisation, and give underrepresented people a voice. “Remember,” she reflected, “it’s not just about us: it’s about the people in our teams and in our stores. We are changing things for them. We’ve got a long way to go, and this is just the start of the journey.”

Photos from the Role Models for Inclusion launch event, showing people standing up disucssing and smiling at the camera
Speakers included Elliott Goldstein, Managing Partner at The MBS Group, Tea Colaianni, founder and Chair at DiR, Simon Roberts, CEO at Sainsbury’s and Anu Chopra, Deputy Manager at Watches of Switzerland.

Secondly, highlighting senior role models encourages action from other retail leaders. The report highlights a number of serving retail CEOs who have put the D&I agenda central to their leadership mandate. They are setting an example of how to take the D&I agenda seriously – and to ensure it is a top corporate priority. Celebrating these leaders will no doubt inspire other retail CEOs to lead with D&I at front of mind.

Thirdly, this Index provides an excellent opportunity to share best practice. In this report you can find countless practical examples of the ways in which businesses are doubling down on D&I. From employee resource groups to partnerships with schools and local councils, there are dozens of ideas that should be shared across the industry to help businesses recruit with diversity in mind, encourage a culture of inclusion and keep employees engaged in the power of diversity. When we share best practice through the eyes of individual role models, some of the tools and methodologies used throughout our sector really come to life – and we can all learn from them.

“It’s not just about us: it’s about the people in our teams and in our stores. We are changing things for them. We’ve got a long way to go, and this is just the start of the journey.” – Anu Chopra, Role Model for Inclusion in Retail and Deputy Manager, Watches of Switzerland  

Lastly, this index reminds us of the importance of authentic leadership. These pages are full of genuine stories of challenges, mistakes and lessons learnt. Taking the time to reflect on role models allows for these experiences to be unearthed, and for us to celebrate the humanity of the people driving progress forward in our industry.

I’d like to congratulate every role model included in this year’s Index, and thank them for taking the time to share their stories. Hopefully, highlighting these role models will drive critical conversations about the importance of diversity, and amplify the efforts leaders going above and beyond to drive positive change in their organisation.  Retail is one of the biggest employers in the UK, and our actions in the sector can pave the way for more inclusive society.

You can read the full report here.

Elliott.goldstein@thembsgroup.co.uk | @TheMBSGroup