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A Shift in Leadership Qualities During a Pandemic

By Joshua Williams


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The Covid-19 pandemic has tested the mettle of fashion executives worldwide. They have had to adapt quickly, shifting retail operations primarily online, reimagining their distribution and production, and moving their workforce to remote offices. In more dire cases, they have furloughed or fired employees, cancelled orders and closed stores.

The ripple effect across the supply chain is visible. According to the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, confidence in the fashion business has dropped more than 8% since 2019 and 95% of brands expect sales revenue decreases for the 2020 fiscal year.

On top of this, civil unrest in the US and worldwide, has laid bare issues of systemic racism and gender pay inequality. And younger customers are quick to “cancel” brands that are not responding transparently with actionable change.

In short, fashion executives have had to be more visible as consumers demand more transparency, in many ways changing the role of brand leadership and shifting how companies hire. According to Meghan Houle, a Senior Executive Recruiter at The Bowerman Group, fashion companies are taking this moment to be very picky in hiring new executives. She notes the old saying, “‘Your past can come back to haunt you’ emphasizing, “It is all about reputation.”

Further, Meghan points out that there is a relatively small talent pool in fashion leadership, so companies are now seeking non-fashion backgrounds, candidates without a direct retail luxury or consumer brand history, but who have “gravitas and a much needed new perspective.” She remarks that more and more “you will see executives getting hired because of who they are, not the titles they’ve held, or the competitive brands they have worked with before. I truly believe brands are looking for a fresh perspective. As things will continue to evolve, to be able to attract top talent, bring top talent to the organization there absolutely needs to be some changes.” And this doesn’t mean that fashion veterans don’t play a role, especially those that she says are “very innovative and agile,” adding “gone are the old-school retail ways.”

When it comes to leadership qualities needed during a crisis such as this, it’s all about “honesty, empathy and approachability. Honest with your communication strategies, empathetic to all situations, and approachable—creating environments where people feel seen, heard and valued.”

When it comes to companies seeking new employees, Meghan suggests the most important questions that will be asked are: “How have people led in previous roles? What were they known for? What would some former colleagues and coworkers say about them? What impact do they make on the business for the greater good and really looking to lead with love and not ‘significance’ with their teams. What do they do to acknowledge the social issues that are going on right now and affecting their team population? And really, how are they proactive about what the business is doing to really communicate their stance?”

As fashion companies head into the fourth quarter and plan their budgets for 2021, they will be prioritizing key roles to ensure ongoing agility and the ability to pivot. So, what does this mean for job seekers? Meghan says, “expect a slow, but steady, hiring pace, prioritizing key roles. Offers may not come through until maybe early January 2021, unless it really is a critical position needed for the business to sustain and get through the season. She highlights the fact that brick and mortar store leadership has seen an acceleration in hiring, or in adapting current workforces. Meghan also points out that hiring processes might be intense and take a lot of vetting and the potential employees should be thoroughly prepared at any level. She recommends that candidates “make yourself visible, be authentic, know your why, know your value, know what you can bring to an organization; a confident, but not cocky approach.”

Work in Fashion