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How much does relevant industry experience count in a hiring process?

With the recent news that John Lewis (JL) Chair Sharon White will be stepping down in February 2025, there has been hot debate over whether her lack of retail experience and industry know-how was a contributing factor.

◾️ When JL hired an Exec Chair from outside the retail sector, their focus would have been on a successful track record of change and bringing fresh perspectives.

◾️JL was facing huge structural challenges: the decline of the department store, price competition in the grocery space and the exponential rise of e-commerce. New thinking was required.

◾️White joining in February 2020, just prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, compounded the shift away from physical retailing to digital that JL was grappling with

With all this going on, perhaps any exec would have struggled.

But would prior retail experience have helped? What does relevant industry experience provide over hiring a leader from outside your sector?

◾️ As a new leader, getting the buy-in of your people is fundamental to change management. You need to bring your people on the journey.

◾️ A prior, successful track record in a particular sector can certainly help. But it’s not always essential.

◾️ I’m certain that if JL could have identified someone of Ms White’s calibre with prior retail experience then they would have hired them.

◾️ The pace and complexity of change in the retail sector means traditional approaches are no longer as effective so I can understand the desire (and need) to try something different.

◾️ Marks & Spencer’s turnaround has taken a long time but they appear to be back on the up. However, the fact that Chairman (and industry veteran) Archie Norman has said that the situation is fragile reinforces the challenges retailers are facing.

◾️ The success of any CEO has as much to do with the people they appoint around them but instinct and intuition from years spent in the same sector can be hugely advantageous. If you can find it during your search

Whoever steps into this role, I’m sure they will have retail experience as JL can’t afford reputationally to take further risks on their next Chair appointment. The backlash from the media and retail analysts has been severe but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

It will need a strong leader as JL Chair who doesn’t underestimate the task in hand at to turn things around. Emphasis on retail experience, cost reduction, digitisation and strategy must be topping the list for this role.

What are your thoughts?

How much emphasis do you place on relevant industry knowledge when hiring?

About BartonRock: BartonRock is the executive search partner for high-growth consumer and retail businesses

We manage the careers of executives whose know-how and commercial acumen steer the strategic direction for companies to thrive.

Our assignments search for executives who understand how to operate in dynamic and entrepreneurial environments.

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