Remarkable Retail

The Search for Transformative Leadership with Spencer Stuart's Sally Elliott

Episode Summary

We kick off a series of episodes recorded live in our pop-up studio at the World Retail Congress in Barcelona with Sally Elliott, Co-leader of the Global Retail Practice at Spencer Stuart, one of the world's leading executive search firms.

Episode Notes

We kick off a series of episodes recorded live in our pop-up studio at the World Retail Congress in Barcelona with Sally Elliott, Co-leader of the Global Retail Practice at Spencer Stuart, one of the world's leading executive search firms. 

Sally shares key lessons from her vast experience working with top retail Boards and teams around the globe on critical issues of succession planning and what it takes to drives successful transformation. We also get her perspectives on what the new super powers of leadership are and how they've evolved in this new era of constant disruption. Lastly, we learn why empathy, vulnerability, humility, and collaboration are so critical for today's retail leaders.

First up, however, are our hot-takes on the week in retail news, including parsing the implications from the latest interest rate hikes, earnings from Crocs (remarkable), Apple and Starbucks (solid), and Peloton (yikes). We also dissect Nordstrom's shocking decision to close its full-line and Rack store in San Francisco and explore why and how Bed, Bath & Beyond shuttered stores are being scooped up,


About Sally

Sally Elliott is a specialist in CEO and Board succession across the global retail sector. She is passionate about helping retail boards make the best people leadership decisions for their organisations.  Based in London, Sally is the co-leader of Spencer Stuart’s Global Retail Practice. She partners with privately and publicly owned retailers and retail brands to support their strategic objectives through board and leadership renewal, as well as advisory work. Most of Sally’s experience in executive search and leadership advisory, spanning over two decades, has been focused on CEO and non-executive board projects for retailers around the world. Sally is an advisory board member of the World Retail Congress, the leading global forum for the retail sector, where she serves alongside CEOs of some of the world’s most recognised and innovative retailers. Sally is a frequent writer about retail leadership topics, and she also speaks regularly at various consumer forums and events.


About Us

Steve Dennis is an advisor, keynote speaker and author on strategic growth and business innovation. You can learn more about Steve on his       website.    The expanded and revised edition of his bestselling book  Remarkable Retail: How To Win & Keep Customers in the Age of Disruption is now available at  Amazon or just about anywhere else books are sold. Steve regularly shares his insights in his role as a      Forbes senior contributor and on       Twitter and       LinkedIn. You can also check out his speaker "sizzle" reel      here.

Michael LeBlanc  is the Founder & President of M.E. LeBlanc & Company Inc and a Senior Advisor to Retail Council of Canada as part of his advisory and consulting practice.   He brings 25+ years of brand/retail/marketing & eCommerce leadership experience, and has been on the front lines of retail industry change for his entire career.  Michael is the producer and host of a network of leading podcasts including Canada’s top retail industry podcast,       The Voice of Retail, plus  Global eCommerce Leaders podcast, and The Food Professor  with Dr. Sylvain Charlebois.    You can learn more about Michael   here  or on     LinkedIn. 

Be sure and check out Michael's latest venture for fun and influencer riches - Last Request Barbecue,  his YouTube BBQ cooking channel!

Episode Transcription

Michael LeBlanc  00:05

Welcome to the Remarkable Retail podcast, Season 6, Episode 17, presented by MarketDial. I'm Michael LeBlanc.

Steve Dennis  00:12

And I'm Steve Dennis. 

Michael LeBlanc  00:13

In this episode, our first interview of several recorded live in our pop-up studio, Barcelona at the World Retail Congress, our very special guest is Sally Elliot, Co-leader of the Global Retail Practice at Spencer Stuart.

Steve Dennis  00:26

Yeah, so great to have Sally on, you know, I was thinking that we've had, I don't know, 40 or 50, CEOs, probably on the podcast across the 140 or so episodes and we pretty much always talk about leadership, but it really comes from their personal perspective, which is great, but with Sally, we really get this broad view, what boards are looking for what board should be comprised of and, you know, and a global perspective as well, which I think is really interesting just to speak about how she sees things and how things have evolved.

Michael LeBlanc  01:02

Yeah, we had a great discussion as well around succession, both the show and, and that's a big part of their practice, too. Right is working with existing leaders on succession. So, it's a really interesting interview, we'll get to that after the news. So, you're still in Barcelona and I think next week, you're at Shoptalk Europe, so Barcelona, so please say hi to me, for all our Rethink Retail friends and colleagues and the many people we ran into, both at World Retail Congress and Ken Pilot, for example, I think is going to be there. So alright, let's get to the news, US Fed raises interest rate, we got a bit of a basket of economic news here, take us through what, what did you observe, you now have the lens of looking at it from a European perspective, I guess. What do you think of the news from back home?

Steve Dennis  01:43

It is interesting, just as an aside, to see how some of these things are covered by the European press, obviously spend most of the time listening to the US press, which can be good, but also sometimes a little bit limited. 

Well, so yeah, the Federal Reserve raised their benchmark rate, another 25 basis points, I think it's 10 times that the rate has risen. So, we're up to 5% and this was not really a surprise that, that, to me, is not so much the news, because I think everybody was really anticipating that the Fed was going to do this. I think the couple of interesting things is that they changed their language, and everybody listens very, or reads, very carefully, their statement and then when Jay Powell does his news conference, everybody tries to really, you know, be like, blinks one way or whatever. Angel gets his wings, or I don't know, I mean, it's a lot of TV reading anyway, but there was a change in tone in the, in the language that signal that perhaps this would be the last hike, that they would do. So that was interesting, and generally speaking the market like that. 

Steve Dennis  02:54

But the other thing that he talked about was that inflation, while it's obviously improved, in most places, not everywhere, I realize but, in the US, it's improved quite a bit. He basically said that it's likely to take a while before inflation would come down much more, which I think is not too surprising, really, but anyway, the other thing that I thought was, was interesting, and it's kind of a mixed picture. On the one hand, the number of job openings, which has been extremely high, like two for every person looking for a job has hit its lowest rate in two years, but the morning that we're recording this, the unemployment rate ticked down another 10th of a point, because of all the jobs that were added, this is a picture that is still of, you know, a job market is really, really strong and so maybe, maybe that interest rate outlook is not necessarily going to be the way it plays out. The other thing, which is not also not news, per se, but the thing I was really reflecting on when I was looking at some of these interest rates charged, because that's what I do on vacation, apparently.

Michael LeBlanc  04:04

You're a fun guy to vacation with, huh, I'll talk to your daughters about that.

Steve Dennis  04:08

It is so fun, but, you know, just reflecting on the, the 10 times that the interest rates have, have been taken up. If you look at the chart of where we were, with interest rates over the last several years, you know, for the most part until this last year, money was almost free, you know, the cost of capital was quite, quite low. Obviously, you know, not to get into financial theory here, but depending on the risk associated with equity, you know, those are different things, but, but borrowing money was extremely low. Now, here we are, you know, on average, about 5% higher, it's going to be interesting, particularly since I think most economists expect interest rates to stay more or less in this range for at least the next year, perhaps longer. That really changes the equation in terms of investment and obviously that's part of what the federal Reserve and the other banks around the world are trying to do is cool the economy down.

Steve Dennis  05:04

But if you think about retailers investing in technology, investing in distribution centers, investing in new stores, the cost of capital has gone up a lot. So that's gonna make it a lot harder to approve some of those, you know, well approve projects in general, but in particular things that might have gotten approved, you know, 18 months ago, probably are not going to get approved, the next 18 months or so.

Michael LeBlanc  05:27

Yeah, or would get a hard second look for sure. 

Steve Dennis  05:29


Michael LeBlanc  05:30

Let's talk about earnings. So, a bunch of companies put out some earnings, including some folks who've been on the pod. What do we got, Apple, Starbucks, and Crocs. take it from the top. 

Steve Dennis  05:37

Well, I don't want to spend too much time going deep. I guess the thing that's so interesting, and we're really going to see how this plays out in about a month when most of the big retailers will report their earnings, but we've got a few folks that are on the calendar year, not the January 31, April 30 ending that reported, and I think we're gonna see this really mixed picture. So Apple and Starbucks both reported very solid earnings, there was some concern because the general slowdown in consumer electronics, that Apple might not do all that well, and they didn't really knock the cover off the ball, so to speak with their sales, but the profitability was really strong their services, part of their business continues to grow really, really nicely. So that was a strong report. For Starbucks.

Michael LeBlanc  06:21

Did you see it for Apple, they've opened, which is the first, kind of surprised me a little bit, that they weren't already there. They opened up their first two stores in India, one in Mumbai and one in Delhi, so.

Steve Dennis  06:30

Yeah, I was actually, I was actually in Delhi and had my, my Mac meltdown. This is about four years ago, and I was like, well, where's the Apple store, no Apple Stores, like oh, crap, but there are like Apple official service, authorized dealers or things like that, but yes, no Apple Stores until now. So that, yeah, that's interesting and then Starbucks, you know, going around, been in Madrid and Barcelona, and there are so many Starbucks here. It's quite remarkable and of course, that's probably most people's experience around the globe and just when you think a company is pretty mature, they continue to put up good sales and earnings numbers. Now a lot of this is coming from price increases and so people apparently are willing to pay, you know, 5, 6, 7, you know, eventually $30 for a latte, but anyway.

Steve Dennis  07:17

And then crocs you know, we had Michelle Poole on the podcast not too long ago, at the time we spoke to her, they were just killing it with their numbers. They reported another pretty amazing quarter, when you think about a brand that in some respects is kind of niche, but their revenue was up 34%.

Michael LeBlanc  07:36

Wow, wowza. 

Steve Dennis  07:37

Yeah, both very strong wholesale business as well as very strong direct to consumer, which they've been investing. Now, at the other end of the spectrum, and I don't think we need to play our wobbly unicorn music. [Inaudible]. I'll try to make this quick and it's just one wobbly unicorn but Peloton, you know, which has just been, I think it's their ninth quarter in a row, because it actually did manage to turn a profit during the early part of COVID, but now ninth quarter in a row with a net loss and their net loss was on the one hand, kind of on the one hand, kind of day for me, but, you know, on the one hand, they've, they've cut their losses quite a bit, but they're still losing close to $300 million in one quarter and their revenue declined over 20% from a year ago, and a big part of that was driven by a reduction in subscriptions. 

Steve Dennis  08:34

So, lots of problems are still there, despite all their restructuring. I think this is a business you know, one of the things I had in my predictions, is that Peloton would get sold and you know, things have got to start to turn around pretty quickly here or they're really going to find themselves in, in trouble. Needing to either run into somebody's arms or raising more capital or something. So, it's a pretty, continuing to be kind of a bleak picture.

Michael LeBlanc  09:02

All right, well keep an eye on that. Speaking of Bleak pictures, I've been I've been reading what's been going on in in San Francisco and there's some great articles actually in New York Times about why and what's going on in the city itself but there's uh you know, Whole Foods You know, open a flagship store last year closed it. I read they had like five hundred 9-1-1 calls. Just chaos now Nordstroms leaving too. Like, there's a whole bunch of stores that are leaving San Francisco is this, is this society, kind of, pulling itself apart a little bit like it's funny, right, because I'll throw you another statistic, in Toronto here, the, the food bank had a record 270,000 visits in the month of March like worse than COVID. So it's a real contradiction must be intriguing, I guess I could say for you as an economist by training, because on the one hand, you've got full employment on the other hand, you've got people who are fully employed, standing in line of food banks, like what do you make of, I guess, the Nordstrom decision and the whole foods decision and what do you think's going on?

Steve Dennis  09:59

Well, I wish I could give you a crisp answer. I definitely think there's obviously lots of issues in San Francisco and some other cities with all sorts of things, you know, inflation and you're right. I mean, even though there is essentially what we normally consider full employment, a lot of those jobs do not pay extremely well, and we've had a ton of inflation. So, you know, we've also had people leave the workforce because they want or need to take care of their kids. So, I think there's a lot of pressure on a lot of people in terms of being able to put food on the table. So, I think that's definitely a contributor. There's more mental illness as a result of COVID. I think, you know, we've seen a lot of issues with, with homelessness, and just general disarray and crime that's related to mental illness. So the, you know, the, you know, you could probably get into some other things in terms of whether, you know, policing has gotten less aggressive.

Michael LeBlanc  11:00

Or they're tied up with other things, I mean, they are kind of-

Steve Dennis  11:02

They're tied up with other things. 

Michael LeBlanc  11:03

Busy looking at the headlines and, you know, CNN or, you know, the other thing, I guess, I wouldn't say a positive note, but a structural note is, is work from home, right. I think there's a real interesting, I think that's what one of the things that tipped over San Francisco is they kind of made a bet as many cities did, that the downtown will thrive because people will work downtown and, you know, I saw the, the statistics from the US swipe cards, and we're still not even at 50% of occupancy, compared to prior that's gonna, that's gonna lead,

Steve Dennis 11:32

Yeah, yeah. So, I think it's a complicated issue, but yeah, for Nordstrom, to, you know and Nordstroms business is, is definitely struggling a little bit. They've, they've, you know, obviously exited Canada, they've announced some more layoffs and their technology area, but to exit San Francisco. So the news, just to be specific about it, they announced they're closing their full line store, which is in the Westfield Mall on Market Street, I believe in San Francisco, and then a Nordstrom Rack store as well and I gotta think that, that I mean, I'm familiar with some numbers of some other flagship stores in San Francisco and I gotta think that's a pretty high volume store, which in normal circumstances would be a good contributor. So, for them to leave, I think is really a, you know, as you mentioned, Whole Foods and some others. 

Michael LeBlanc  12:19


Steve Dennis  12:20

I was really, really kind of, I think, a wakeup call. Frankly, I imagined that other companies that might be looking at the situation when they see Nordstrom, and Whole Foods leave. You know, it could be a little bit of just kind of the tip of the iceberg.

Michael LeBlanc  12:33

Speaking of troubled circumstances, but on the positive side, as you as you know, and the listeners might know, Bed Bath and Beyond is long gone from Canada, but their locations are now being scooped up. So, in Canada, Canadian Tire friends, Canadian Tire just scooped up 10 locations, and a real entrepreneur named Doug Putman who actually bought the, the Toys R Us business in Canada, and he actually bought, and runs HMV he's launching an Oxford Street HMV if you remember that, he bought, I think 21 locations, and He's launching a whole new concept store. So, you know, this is this week, as we keep reminding people that as stores go away, other people see opportunity and, you know, you got to do the math, right store closures, store openings.

Steve Dennis  13:14

Well, you know, it's sort of the circle of life of retail, like, because they're always concepts, or at least historically, there have been concepts that are growing quickly, and they have been operated well, and they're in great position to scoop up, you know, that portion of the fleet that has attractive locations and fits their size of model, and, you know, in a lot of cases that can pick them up at really attractive prices. 

Michael LeBlanc  13:40


Steve Dennis  13:40

So yeah, it is, it is really interesting. I think, you know, part of the problem, whether you're, we're talking about Bed, Bath and Beyond, or you know, talking about Toys'R'Us a few years ago, when you get that negative momentum, a lot of things really start to hurt, you know, consumers aren't as interested in you anymore,

Michael LeBlanc  13:56

Or they're worried about their gift cards, like the, you know, which is not a none of wrong worry, right? Will the gift card even work for me.

Steve Dennis  14:02

Even frankly, you know, returns, you know returns, you know, consumers have gotten so used to returning stuff that you start to think, well, if I buy this, am I going to be able to return it.

Michael LeBlanc  14:11

I had a Nordstrom thing that I bought in Canada, and they wouldn't take returns anymore because they're being, so I actually brought it to Vegas to return it. 

Steve Dennis  14:19

Yeah, there's just a lot of things that start to go wrong from a consumer from a landlord from a financing vendor community doesn't want to ship to you. So, but yeah, it's, it's been interesting, the degree to which there seems to be quite a lot of appetite for at least a substantial percentage of these old Bed Bath and Beyond locations.

Michael LeBlanc  14:39

All right. Well, just before we get to a great interview with Sally Elliot, Global Search at Spencer Stuart, let's hear from our presenting sponsor. 

Michael LeBlanc  14:48

If you're a retailer hungry for a better way to gain useful insight on the impacts of your store layout, design and strategic initiatives, you need to know MarketDial. MarketDial is an easy-to-use testing platform that emboldens great decisions leading to reliable, scalable results. With MarketDial you can be confident in the outcome of your in-store pilot initiatives before rolling them out across your fleet. Validate your remarkable ideas with MarkeDial in-store testing solution. The proof is in the testing, learn more at That's

Steve Dennis  15:20

Well, Sally Elliott, welcome to the podcast. We're excited to have you here. You're our first interview in Barcelona. So how are you doing today?

Sally Elliot  15:28

Oh, well, thank you, Steve. Thank you, Michael. Very good to see you both and be here with you in person. Thank you for having me on Remarkable Retail and Barcelona is great.

Steve Dennis  15:38

Yeah. Well, we're glad to have you here. So, we just generally like to start off by getting to know our guests a little bit better. So could you just tell us a little bit about your personal professional journey, who you are, what you do for a living, those kinds of things?

Sally Elliot  15:51

Sure. So, my name is Sally Elliot. I'm the Co-leader of Spencer Stuart's Global Retail Practice. I'm based in London, and I work with boards of retail companies around the world to help them appoint CEOs, chairs, non-executive board directors. I've been doing this for over 20 years now and before Spencer Stuart, I worked with PepsiCo, very fortunate to have had that experience because it really gave me great insight into how having the best leaders and the right talent and a strong culture can make all the difference between an average company and a really great company and then I just got completely hooked on what makes a leader fit a particular situation. So that's my journey.

Steve Dennis  16:36

Excellent. Now, I imagine many of our listeners will, will know the name Spencer Stuart, but some may not, or some may not. They may know the name, but not appreciate the scope and scale of the business. So, can you just kind of paint a picture for what Spencer Stuart is about how many offices the kind of different things you do your firm does globally?

Sally Elliot  16:55

Yeah, so Spencer Stuart was founded as a search firm in 1956. In Chicago, so nearly 70 years ago, it was one of the founding companies of the search industry, and has always focused very exclusively on working with clients on the most senior leadership appointments, usually the CEO and non-executive board roles and top level recruitment is still a very important part of our business but we now advise boards on all aspects of leadership and we help our clients to make great decisions, the best possible decisions about who they hire, but also who they develop, who they promote, how they develop them to be even better leaders, and how they can improve the performance of their board and their top team. We're a private partnership. We have 450 consultants around the world, and who all have different specialisms at 70 offices, and we operate out of 30 different markets.

Michael LeBlanc  17:52

People, people waving hello here. We're busy. We're right on the, we're right on the floor. I have a quick question for you. Do you watch the, the series, TV series succession?

Sally Elliot  18:01

I do, I do. It's special, isn't it.

Michael LeBlanc  18:05

Okay, tell us what do you think of succession, it's got to be, is that your work life writ large or what is that?

Sally Elliot  18:11

Well, it's I mean, it's like watching your work life but- 

Michael LeBlanc  18:15

I think it's happening right now, at LVMH, isn't it with the-

Sally Elliot  18:19

We couldn't possibly comment on which series they might have based it, who knows.

Steve Dennis  18:24

Right, no, we're gonna have a different podcast, different podcast. So let's, let's get into some of the things that are going on in retail. My impression is there seems like there's, I don't know, retail seems like a place where there's a lot of turnovers in general, within the executive ranks, but it seems like the pace of turnover has accelerated. Is that reality, or is that just more in my impression, and if it is actually accelerating, what's behind that?

Sally Elliot  18:52

I wondered if you would ask this because of your excellent 12 Remarkable Retail predictions, if I remember correctly, leadership turnover was, was on the list, right? 

Sally Elliot  19:03

And we are definitely seeing, well, three things happen at the same time. So, one is an expected increase in leadership turnover. That's reality. The second one would be just much more demands on retail leaders and what's expected of them, and we've heard that in the room here in Barcelona and the third thing that we're seeing is not enough focus on succession planning, and therefore, really not enough internal successes coming through for key roles in the future and especially the CEO role. We've actually done some, some research and we were speaking with CHROs and CEOs of retailers globally, and 57% of them think that nearly half the top team are going to change over the next five years. So 57% That's quite a lot, but only six-

Michael LeBlanc  19:54

That's like turnover in their stores. 

Sally Elliot  19:55

Yeah. Not far off.

Michael LeBlanc  19:58

The lifecycle of an associate's like the lifecycle of a CEO now.

Sally Elliot  20:02

In fairness, it is over five years, but nevertheless, we argue that succession planning takes, takes a while.

Steve Dennis  20:07

So, that's bad for retailers, but great for the search business on the one hand.

Sally Elliot  20:12

Do you know what, we're always here to help.

Steve Dennis  20:16

That's a very good political answer.

Sally Elliot  20:19

But no, the other thing that came out is that only 16% are very confident about finding their CEO from within the business. So, if you think 16%, think the CEO will come from within, if you look at who's in the CEO role today, in the top retailers globally, and just for the sake of our discussion, now, let's take that as the, the retailers that generate over 20 billion in turnover, there's just over 50 of them, nearly 70% of them were promoted from within. So, think of the gap there between the 16% versus the nearly 70%.

Steve Dennis  20:56

And why it's interesting, I hadn't thought so much about the succession planning piece of that, why it has that emerged as I mean, it seems like succession planning, like that's not a new concept, for any company to have, I remember when back in my corporate roles sitting in all sorts of leadership planning, succession planning kinds of meetings. So, it's not like that, as a discipline, not something that people have known about. Has something gotten awry in the planning there, or the process that's being used?

Sally Elliot  21:25

Well, maybe in recent times. I mean, the pandemic really meant that there was a focus on the here and now.

Steve Dennis  21:32


Sally Elliot  21:33

And it's also an incredibly tough time for retail and there are so many competing priorities that boards have needed to focus on and, I mean, you said it as well to, you know, tough times really expose weaknesses in leadership. This is a, this is a really tough time for, for retail, and it's harder to get that sustainable performance and to achieve growth. 

Sally Elliot  21:55

We're also seeing tough times leading to ownership change in some cases, and usually, not always, but sometimes that can then result in leadership change and there's still a bit of a post COVID bounce as well, where, during COVID, I think, I think a lot of leaders felt almost a moral obligation to stay where they were because they needed to, to see it through and do the right things by the company, and by the employees, and their customers, and so on and so forth and, and at that point, boards wanted to have continuity, but then now there's a sort of pent up demand, both on the board side, the company side, but also on the on the part of the executive, some of whom are, frankly, a bit worn out and ready for a new challenge.

Michael LeBlanc  22:41

Let's talk about when you are briefed to find these roles. What are the three key things boards and leaders and owners are looking for in their leadership? Can you, if you boil it down to those, I need these three things and without them, there won't be a fit?

Sally Elliot  22:56

Only three? 

Michael LeBlanc  22:57

Only three.

Sally Elliot  22:57

Only three. Okay. 

Michael LeBlanc  22:58

And there's probably I mean, it's our podcasts, our rules.

Sally Elliot  23:01

Okay, here we go. So, I would say, the three superpowers that Chief Executives need, and leaders need today that have to be much more developed than they were previously, let's say 10, 20 years ago, would be one: ability to handle complexity, much greater complexity. Second thing would be the ability to really handle a faster pace, much greater agility and the third thing would be the ability to lead in a collaborative way from the top and like, do you want me to expand a little bit on those points? 

Michael LeBlanc  23:35

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course.

Sally Elliot  23:36

So, so first of all, you know why, why, why the need to be able to handle complexity in a, in a better way. I think we've seen retail move from the focus being on having well priced products and a good assortment and executing well in stores and a lot of people who at that point came just through the product route, or just through the operations route. And instead, there's now all these, all these competing demands. So, it's really about managing customer relationships that involves data. There's the digital side, the technology side, you know, who knew that cybersecurity was something that CEOs would need to be managing, but it seems to be very important.

Michael LeBlanc  24:18

And very actively, right. 

Sally Elliot  24:19

Hugely so.

Michael LeBlanc  24:20

We had a cyber, we have, we've had a couple of cyber incidents in Canada lately that have completely shut down retailers. So, it's been, it's quite, it's quite traumatic.

Sally Elliot  24:28

It's a huge issue and it could come out of nowhere and it's something that boards are very, very focused on, but then you've got the supply chain aspect, the sustainability access aspect. So, so, they're, they're having to face all of these questions that may not have come up before. So how do they ensure continuity of supply in very unusual geopolitical circumstances, how many stores should they have, how should they pace the and prioritize investments in online versus offline, how should they use artificial intelligence, what's the right pace, to not get ahead of the customer, but just go at the right, at the right pace for their business and then they have to have a much wider worldview. So, it used to be about focusing on their business performance and most of the energy was on how do they optimize for their business and now, they need to have a view on ESG. How do they make their business part of a better world, they have to have a point of view on the geopolitical environment, more stakeholders to manage, more focus on, on the role of business within society. 

Michael LeBlanc  25:30

It's like, I like, I like what you said, stakeholder management, because I've heard you know, it used to be shareholder management, or, you know, and now, it's a much broader canvas of stakeholders that you have to pay attention to and in every decision, I mean, we see these small decisions just explode very rapidly, positively or, or negatively. Picking up on a lot of the work that Steve does around transformation, he talks about, you know, the necessary need for transformation and everybody talks about transformation, it's probably in more of your briefs than it used to be in it's probably in it, but we see fairly little of it actually happen. What do you think is the delta there, what do you think's the difference in leadership in organizations?

Sally Elliot  26:09

So transformation, for sure, is a really important aspects and when we're meeting with, with people and discussing their fit to a particular role, of course, we would delve deep into well, what did they inherit and then what was their track record of weighing up the different options in front of them and then how did they go about taking people with them and how did they generate a good commercial outcome. All of that is important, but we would say the more important, the most important and interesting thing to look at when you're evaluating is somebody or right, the right CEO, whether or not is actually the future potential piece. 

Sally Elliot  26:45

So, it's the ability to handle as yet unknown, ambiguous situat-, complex situations that they will not have faced previously. That is the new retail playbook, there isn't a playback book they can refer back to, it's about having that ability to adjust in the moment to make sense of lots of complex information, land on a vision and a strategy, explain it really clearly to other people and take other people with them and then constantly have this sort of self-awareness and humility, to adjust their perspective, in light of all of this new information. It's a lot.

Michael LeBlanc  27:21

In, mixed in all of that, is there questions around propensity to take risks because, you know, again, picking up Steve's great work, you know, you need to probably move bolder, move faster, and take bigger, more calculated risks that one of, I don't know how your interviews go at this level, but it's like, tell me one time where you took a risk and it worked out or didn't work out, is that is that a bit of a discussion for you guys?

Sally Elliot  27:43

So yeah, evaluating risk, I think is a, is an important thing to do. It's probably just one lens that you would look at in the context of the leader overall because there are other elements that are super important. So, we would say that the ability to drive a collaborative leadership approach from the top, in an environment that is changing so quickly, is as important as any hard skills or specifically contextual skills that somebody could bring to bear. You know, again, going back to what we were talking about, you know, what was it like 10 years ago versus today and into the future, I think we saw a generation of CEOs who were almost, almost like expert soloists, very strong, very decisive, brilliant at top down leadership, I hesitate to say command and control because, you know, we may be going a little bit too far.

Michael LeBlanc  28:36

Michael Dell model, or the Steve Jobs model, or whatever they.

Sally Elliot  28:40

But today, I think it's the conductor of the orchestra that's needed, because you cannot possibly have all of those answers for yourself and so what you can do is create the organizing principles, and the framework for other people to be successful and to give the best of themselves to the organization. If you model yourself with authentic, humble leadership, if you're leading with empathy, you show your vulnerable side, that was very important during COVID, even when all of the answers weren't there and creating an inclusive culture, all of, all of these things are incredibly important today.

Steve Dennis  29:17

Yeah, I'm smiling. That, that's very much part of what I'm working on in my new book and what I shared on the stage earlier and it strikes me that this idea of, but I do feel like the profile that I was encouraged to follow and many of the people I worked for was very much this you know, I alone can fix it. I've got this never let them see you sweat. Don't ask for help.

Sally Elliot  29:43


Steve Dennis  29:44

And, and so, so hearing, number one, it's just affirming. Like it’s one of the things I've been working on but it's not about me.

Michael LeBlanc  29:51

Personal affirmation here.

Steve Dennis  29:54

Because I need to write smart this afternoon but anyway, let's get let's get back on task here, but, but to me, I guess what's interesting about that is that, that does seem, not maybe too much to say, it's a 180 degree change in profile, but it is pretty different, right, then the sort of person you might have looked at for some of these senior roles a decade ago, right?

Sally Elliot  30:17

So, we are seeing different types of leaders come through in terms of the functional background that they have, but also in terms of the style and approach that they bring. In terms of functional background, I think it's a much broader cross functional skill set that retail CEOs need to have today. All of those different pieces we mentioned before, data, digital cybersecurity sourcing supply chain, those would not have been so, so important 10, 20 years ago for CEOs coming through. So that would be the sort of hard skill side, but on the soft skill side, arguably even more important in today's context. It's that empathetic, collaborative, leap, humble, authentic leadership style that characterizes what the next generation of employees expect to see from their leaders. The style and approach that a myriad different stakeholders want to see and somebody who is not just leading a business but playing a role in society at large.

Steve Dennis  31:18

Sure. So, let's maybe take that to what's going on with, with boards of directors, lot we could probably talk about there, maybe I'm coming at it from a glass half empty point of view is, you know, there's been a lot of pretty spectacular failures in retail, over the last decade or so, and makes me often wonder some of which I've had a bit of a front row seat to, but it kind of makes me wonder, you know, what were the boards doing when some of this was going on? 

Steve Dennis  31:50

I'm not trying to get you so much to name names or anything like that. 

Michael LeBlanc  31:54

But we would like it if you could though. 

Steve Dennis  31:56

We'll take, we'll, we'll take some but, but you know, are boards, you know, is what's being expected of boards changing, has the, what would appear to be, dereliction of duty and some, I'm not thinking about shareholder lawsuits kinds of things, but just in general, kind of being asleep at the wheel watching the last 20 years happen to them kind of outcomes on the part of boards, is that really causing a shift in the way boards are performed or we're still kind of seeing the traditional approach to board leadership, with maybe just more focus on DE&I kinds of things.

Sally Elliot  32:31

Well, we talked about some of the new demands on the CEO role, but you're absolutely right, that boards too, are facing new pressures and I think the most important, arguably the most important role that the board has is to hire or exit a CEO. So we are seeing that boards are becoming even more aware of that aspect of their role of managing risk, and specifically risk around not having the right leaders in the top roles and of course, we encourage people to take action to mitigate that risk and, you know, the ways that that we recommend they do that is by not, not waiting to run a recruitment process that you know, 6 months, 12 months before you need somebody is not the right time, it really good succession planning is something that can take 5, 10, even, even 15 years.

Sally Elliot  33:24

Retail, retail tends not to, not to run on 15 year succession planning cycles, but there are other industries that certainly do, and it serves them really well and then I think what succession planning also enables boards to do is starting to identify leaders with potential really deep down the organization because if you're thinking, who's my next CEO in 15 years’ time, that enables you to draw on a much broader talent pool, and then create the conditions for those people to develop and be successful and it also enables you to have a much more diverse talent base and again, waiting until 6 to 12 months before you, before you need the answer is probably not going to generate the kind of diversity in your candidate pool that you might desire and probably just one of the point to add would be that yes, we are seeing board's focus a whole lot more as you'd expect on ESG, and diversity and inclusion and we certainly see that reflected in the types of profiles that were being asked to find and we're starting to see committees specifically with a focus on, on ESG and sustainability and indeed board directors who bring that specific experience.

Steve Dennis  34:33

Sure, sure. Well, that feels like progress, I guess. So, I know we're coming up on our time. One thing I've, you know, we felt like we wanted to try to make sure we got from you. You know, we're here at the World Retail Congress and you're very involved, I know, with them and as a member of the Advisory Board, been here a couple of days, just kind of curious, any particular things that we haven't covered that you wanted to mention or maybe anything you've heard in the halls that, that's kind of new information that you think our listeners might find, find to be interesting?

Sally Elliot  35:04

Well, it seems what I've taken away from the Congress so far is that constant transformation is here to stay and I think our, our main message would be, to boards, would be to make sure that they get on with their succession planning and really invest early in their in their leaders and those organizations that are doing that well are going to be the best place to succeed but World Retail Congress, I mean, it is the leading global gathering of the most senior leaders in retail, like, we sort of think of it as a DevOps for retail, in some ways. It's a very concentrated, intense opportunity to learn about what other retailers are doing and to connect. So, we've been very pleased to work with World Retail Congress,

Michael LeBlanc  35:49

Good forum for you, it's a good place for you to be in.

Sally Elliot  35:51

Definitely, definitely, you know, we've helped to build the advisory board this year and we've been part of a number of different sessions and our, our main message, as I say, is to invest now in the next generation of retail leaders, because otherwise there will be a gap.

Michael LeBlanc  36:07

Let's, just want to pivot on that, the next generation. So, for those listening to the pod, who may aspire to the big roles in the big offices, maybe to the CEO level, or even to the board, what's your advice on, on how to get there? I mean, you know, you've obviously got to put numbers up on the board, right, there's no one who's not going to say you, you know, performance is not connected to your potential, but what steps I guess what I'm trying to get his what steps can you advise the listeners to take if they want to seek board participation, or that CEO level is there some concrete things you say, do these things. Now, in addition to putting numbers on the board, and you might have a shot,

Sally Elliot  36:47

I would suggest two specific pieces of advice. One relates to the hard skills, and one relates to the soft skills so in terms of the type of experience and roles that you might try to have in order to be as prepared as possible, I would say, keep it as broad as you possibly can. Don't confine your experience to one or two functions as might have been entirely plausible, previously, we're not really seeing leaders with single, single functional experience getting into the CEO role in the same way. And I think just taking on as many challenges and opportunities that take you out of your comfort zone, work overseas, embrace uncertainty, work with mentors, find coaches, or you know, all of these things are a really good way to develop and be as broad as possible.

Michael LeBlanc  37:35

Are you okay, when you look at resumes with a fair bit of movement between different retail enterprises for leaders, in other words, I, maybe 20 years ago, you've been with one company for 20 years and now you might say, oh, you've been there for 20 years, but is that part that are nested in your expectations around diverse experiences that you've moved to a few different retailers or even outside or retail?

Sally Elliot  37:58

Well, there are lots of different things that you would look at in in evaluating somebody's profile and fit to a company and certainly the previous experience and track record is interesting, but there's probably a bit less emphasis on that. 

Michael LeBlanc  38:12

So, you wouldn't look sideways at another, spoke, ask differently if you start five or seven different companies they work for, you wouldn't say, you would look sideways at that. You'd be that's, that's fine, you, you'd get past that pretty quick.

Sally Elliot  38:24

I think it depends on how well you can explain what you inherited what you did, going back to the, you know, the previous points, but, but no, you know, answering the question in a very straight way, we are seeing probably less lifer type profiles where somebody has just worked within one company for the whole of their career, that is still a perfectly valid route to get to the top of an organization, but the more breadth you have in terms of cross functional experience, and indeed experience of other categories, models, segments, the retail leaders don't know what's going to come next. So, the more different types of situations and scenarios you've been exposed to the better prepared you will be.

Michael LeBlanc  39:05

Right on. Well, I have to think one of the keys to success is knowing you and your organization. So, are you a LinkedIn person, how do people get in touch and learn more about Spencer Stuart and what you guys do?

Sally Elliot  39:15

I am on LinkedIn and I would of course, welcome to hear from anybody who would like to get in touch. We love hearing from great high-quality leaders who want to continue and develop their careers. So that's definitely something we would proactively encourage, and we will be pleased to hear from any of your listeners.

Michael LeBlanc  39:32

Fantastic. Well, listen, Sally, thanks so much for joining Steve and I here at the World Retail Congress in Barcelona. It was a real treat to chat with you and get to know you and have you on the pod. So, thanks again for making the time for us.

Sally Elliot  39:44

Thank you for having me. I've really enjoyed the discussion. 

Michael LeBlanc  39:47

If you like what you heard, please follow us on Apple, Spotify, your favorite podcast platform so you can catch up with all our great interviews including Judith McKenna, President International, Walmart. New episodes of Season 6, presented by our friends at MarketDial will show up each and every Tuesday and be sure to tell your friends and colleagues in the retail industry all about us.

Steve Dennis  40:07

And I'm Steve Dennis, author of the bestselling book, ‘Remarkable Retail: How to Win & Keep Customers in the Age of Disruption’. You can learn more about me, my consulting, and keynote speaking at

Michael LeBlanc  40:21

And I'm Michael LeBlanc, consumer retail growth consultant, keynote speaker and producer and host of a series of retail trade podcasts including this one. You can learn even more about me on LinkedIn. 

And you can catch up with Steve in person and onstage at Shoptalk Europe in Barcelona, May 9th to 11th. You can catch up with me on stage at Store conference in Toronto, May 31 and you can see both of us at the lead innovation summit in July, live on stage in New York with our friend of the pod, Simeon Segal from BMO. 

Until then, safe travels everyone!


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