It has been a challenging time for retail in the last 6 months. Stores have been shifting dramatically towards ecommerce, with the latest news from Retail Week showing warehouse rentals hitting a record high to respond to the demand. Creating a connected experience for customers and understanding their needs is challenging, and a challenging time requires new skills from the industry’s leaders. 

In our recent webinar, in partnership with Retail Week, we spoke to Nicky Moffat CBE, leadership coach and previously the highest ranking woman in the British Army, alongside Seb James, Managing Director of Boots UK and ROI on their top leadership tips. 


For the army, crisis is the normal

The British Army’s default operating mode is adversity. Working with limited resources, in high pressure situations with national or international importance, Nicky opened the webinar by explaining that there’s a parallel between how the army operates every day, and the COVID-19 pandemic. In these conditions, effective leadership is critical. Effective leadership is a ‘force multiplier’- that is, it is a critical success factor that can increase results without increasing costs. Nicky identifies what she learned during her tenure. 


People are important

In the army, it’s important to know your people, your enemy, and your stakeholders.

One of the first tips Nicky shared with the audience is that people react in different ways to adversity. The way in which people react is not the same as the way you react, or even the same as you would expect from their normal mode of operation. It is important to get ‘in the trenches’ with your people and listen to their thoughts, ideas, motivations and foster a personal connection with your team.

Nicky stressed: ‘Leadership surveys aren’t enough. You need to find out people’s aggravations and motivations by listening to them’. She also emphasised how times of crisis emphasis what’s important to people- usually their family. Socially distanced and running businesses during the pandemic is difficult to create real connection and empathy, but it’s imperative. 


A sense of purpose

During a time of intense stress, it’s important to provide your people with ‘handrails’. You don’t have to have all of the answers, all of the time, but giving people a direction of travel and the understanding that their work is contributing to something meaningful is important.

Nicky also emphasised the importance of reducing unnecessary, cumbersome tasks as much as possible, and challenged the audience to look at ways to reduce business reporting to support employees. 

Quoting George Bernard Shaw, Nicky stated “the biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it’s taken place”. She emphasised how you should focus on providing clarity on an overarching goal, and then empower people to work their own way to deliver it. Ask people what they want to know: “you’d be surprised”, and communicate consistently to create a better organisation. 


Agents for change

One of the key themes that came out of the webinar is that you need to look for your trailblazers. Described by Nicky as ‘agents for change’, and found at all levels of the organisation, these optimists are further along the change curve and will help bring along the others. 

Seb James, the Managing Director of Boots UK and ROI, told stories of how in-store staff had supported their communities during the pandemic, continuing to provide medicine, cheering up patients with virtual quizzes, and how his crisis team have gone above and beyond. 

This responsiveness to change applied to the Boots leadership team too. Seb reflected on how one of the positive things that has come out of 2020 for his team is the agility. His team went from once-weekly management meetings to twice-daily standups to make quick decisions and execute quickly. 


Boots become front-line response

Seb took his slot on the webinar to talk about the questions his leadership team had to ask themselves on a daily basis. From keeping staff safe, to supporting their ecommerce store, and making decisions on whether or not to continue to sell ‘non-essential’ products, including beauty. He said: “the load on the website was like Black Friday every day. We’re used to doing it for a day, not every day for 6 months”.

Boots made a conscious decision to lean in to their corporate responsibility. Seb stated that keeping stores open, particularly for pharmacy services “was the right thing to do. People had nowhere else to go”. This decision led to a 12% increase in trust for Boots as a brand, and they hope to “cement themselves at the heart of the UK economy”. 

The in-store teams were given a huge thank you from Seb, with a small number choosing to isolate from vulnerable family members, stepping up for the first time to answer 111 calls and supporting their local communities.

Seb also commented on communication and agility. From a weekly video blog, to prioritising agile marketing channels like PR and social media, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a shift in how the team works together. It also resulted in increased flexibility for delivery, such as creating in-store pick, supporting busienss growth. 


What’s the future?

As Seb wrapped up the webinar, he talked about how the company is looking to the future. He can see that some consumer behaviour has shifted for good- a sentiment echoed in our recent Shopping Index report- and there’s going to be a widespread acceptance of digital health. The company hopes to ‘keep hold of their agility, keep the treacle out’, and that the country keeps their new found respect for front-line workers that have kept the country going throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watch the full webinar with Retail Week here: An audience with Nicky Moffat OBE, and Seb James, President and Managing Director at Boots.