How do you solve luxury’s talent conundrum? By Shefaly Yogendra

Like many other industries being redefined by technology and the warp speed of the web, the luxury sector too is facing a talent shaped challenge. The sector however remains quite conservative in where it sources talent, privileging industry embeddedness over attracting outsiders. These outsiders may come in and ask uncomfortable questions, but they also have the ability and aptitude to shape the future of the industry. The need for luxury sector leadership to shake up their thinking on talent is apparent.

But how do they go about it? Consider this. Over the past eighteen months, luxury has faced some significant headwinds which have partly led to many well-documented changes of creative and business leaders. The departed soon find their way into new roles within rival labels and the begin a new process of trying to increase market share within an increasingly crowded space. Some succeed, but increasingly tenures are getting shorter and shorter. For every high profile vacancy created, there is a flurry of speculation over who will be the replacement with the same names cropping up time and time again – But by recruiting the same people, will brands just get the same result?

Is it time for a new perspective? When Gucci Group hired Robert Polet in 2004 as CEO from Unilever, replacing Domenico De Sole, it was considered a game-changing hire. Luxury was changing fast and Polet’s reputation as man who challenged convention saw him lead the brand into a post Tom Ford era. Despite enormous scepticism, Polet’s time at Gucci Group which lasted seven years, was largely considered successful – certainly in terms of brand growth, which exceeded all expectations.

Is it now time for more innovative hiring strategies within the luxury sector? Pretty much every other industry has had to learn, some grudgingly, others more willingly, ways to reach out to active and passive talent and to make their brands more relevant. As more and more houses generate sales of €1billion plus, should they not be looking outside of the sector for broader leadership skills within businesses of such scale? Apple famously hired Angela Ahrendts from Burberry and Paul Deneve from Yves Saint Laurent – Why is it not happening the other way around?

Do brands hire on the basis of what an individual has the potential to do, or for what they have already achieved in their careers? Is what they have achieved even relevant sometimes?

This is trickier than it looks at first pass. Research suggests men are often hired for potential while women have to have proven it before. The luxury sector overwhelmingly sells to women, who have increasing economic power as well as alertness to governance issues in companies they buy from. The hiring-for-potential-or-proof challenge is exacerbated when companies are hiring for a future that is undefined and is unfurling as we watch.

If you are seeking to acquire skills that are themselves nascent, consider that those skills may well have been acquired and demonstrated outside formal employment. As the boundaries between work and non-work areas of life dissolve, it is worth remembering that we bring our whole selves to wherever we go. At a lower level of the corporate hierarchy, hiring conversations need to evolve from the curriculum vitae to exploring the passions of the individual’s life. This will have to become normal as people pursue and build many careers within their professional lives.

Before even seeking new talent, businesses now consider how to retain people, once they are hired. The adage that “employees do not leave a company, they leave a manager” needs modification. Employees leave in pursuit of fresh challenges, knowing well that having several careers in a lifetime is now common and that they are responsible for shaping their own work life. Monetary and non-monetary incentives are the hygiene factors. Retention is about giving them something to believe in, something that lifts the game daily from mundane transactions to an opportunity to make a meaningful difference in a company with purpose.

This is a crucial skill as a luxury maison’s success in attracting, hiring and retaining talent now depends on how well the leadership articulates their vision of the future and demonstrates that it is in line with the future emerging before our eyes. This industry whose mainstay is heritage and craftsmanship is up against rapid technological and socio-political change. Something’s got to give for it to remain relevant and thrive. Talent is where the solution to that conundrum lies.

Shefaly Yogendra, PhD is a former cofounder and creative director of a fine jewellery venture. She is a board director and a senior advisor on decision making, risk, technology and branding to boards and CEOs. The FTSE Female Board Report 2016 has nominated her among the 100 Women To Watch. She can be found on Twitter: @Shefaly.

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