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Successfully succeeding

Once a leader is established in your company, it can feel as if they were always there. However, the path to leadership isn’t always smooth, especially if you’re walking in a pair of big shoes. Courtney Devereux profiles three companies who handled the appointment of successors in different ways.

By Courtney Devereux | August 23, 2018 | News

Generational succession: Scarpa

The beginning of 2018 saw the three-store Scarpa shoe retail company passed down from owners John and Barbara Savage, who launched the company in 1991, to their two daughters Liz Savage and Pip Larner. Both women worked within the store with their parents for over 15 years before the takeover earlier this year.
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“It’s been a gradual process really,” says Larner. “We’ve been making sure that is everyone is in the right role as we go through a slight rebrand. Every part of management we have now taken over, as well as becoming the face of the brand, as opposed to behind the scenes. [Since taking over] we’ve been having a lot more meetings with our team – just so we can really align ourselves with what is happening.”
 

Both women share a combined love for quality fashion, as well as inside knowledge achieved only after years within the industry.
 

“Pip and I have been learning more about how the business runs in the background,” agrees Savage. “Everything mum and dad did, as well as thinking of the big picture in the future. Everything that we’re learning, mum and dad have had in the back of their heads for 26 years. So, everything that comes second nature to them is what we are having to learn. All the little things you don’t even consider we have now had to step up to do.”
 

Heavily family and fashion orientated, Savage and Larner came into the position with fresh ideas, as well as a desire to pay homage to the solid foundations their parents had set out before them.
 

“We have definitely been changing things up,” says Larner. “Between our new Teed St location and our bigger focus on ecommerce. But we’ve just been freshening up and putting our own touches on the current business model.”
 

Yet Savage agrees that the efforts their parents made the last 26 years resulted in a great business, one that the women have been able to continue while including their own influences.
 

“Our own touches make it feel more personal, it isn’t just mum and dad’s business anymore it’s our business. But we’d be foolish to rock a solid foundation, so we will keep that going.”
 

Like any generational succession, the women acknowledge there is heightened expectations from consumers, parents and more so what they put on themselves.
 

“There is a lot more pressure when stepping into a next-generation role,” says Savage. “The expectations are set. And I think a lot of these expectations come from us. We want to prove that we can make it work to the best of its abilities.”
 

“I think they’re still getting used to us running it,” says Larner. “Because for them it was their baby and this is a big change for them after all this time.”
 

Both parents have stayed slightly involved in the business, offering advice and services where needed but letting the women handle the bulk of responsibilities with buying and management. Both women have grown up selling within the store, and Savage says they will continue that path.
 

“Morphing into a hands-on role was easy as I guess we have always kind of done it,” says Savage. “We’ve always been hands-on, our roles are in the shop, selling shoes and making our customers feel the best they can. It’s old school but that’s what has worked. We’re often in the shop selling as we have never really had that hierarchal approach to business.”
 

With a growing ecommerce section and a new high street store, it is clear that both ladies are taking the new position in their Italian-leather stride. They’re now working with stylists and including new, more frequent, training sessions with staff to improve the overall experience.
 

“We have a really great team,” says Larner. “We’re now having weekly meetings and bringing in monthly training sessions for the staff as well.”
 

“We’ve always had great customer service,” agrees Savage. “But now there is more emphasis on pushing ourselves to be better all the time, it’s survival of the fittest out there. We’re including sales training and product knowledge, as well as styling tips.”
 

Although they are still involved with smaller runnings of the business, Savage highlights that their parents have passed on the store with a ‘figure it out’ mentality.
 

“I’m sure it would have been more of a challenge if they had stepped away completely. But in a way, they have kind of said ‘figure it out’. They have never mollycoddled us, in fact probably more the opposite. Which I think was better, we work better from the deep end.”
 

Yet a generational hand-down does not come sans challenges. Both women agree that you need to keep learning and listening to the market, even after 26 years in the industry.

“You got to keep pushing with the market, you can’t become complacent because it’s easier,” says Savage. “Talk to mentors and people you respect, people love sharing advice. But you must be passionate about what you do and the product that you’re selling, otherwise it won’t come through. In New Zealand you can’t be fake, our culture is to be genuine in what you do, and have that passion to do what you love.”

“New Zealanders are very good lie detectors, customers have so much choice out there now so they will go with what is a genuine and authentic experience,” agrees Larner.



Promoted from within: Vend

Taking over from Vaughan Rowsell in 2016, Alex Fala stepped up as CEO of Vend after spending some time within the company as VP of Strategy and CFO. We talked to Fala about the expectations that come from being promoted within, and how personal ambition keeps him motivated in a high-pressure environment.

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How has it been stepping up from VP of Strategy and CFO to CEO, has the transition been what you expected?

I’d worked closely with a lot of different CEOs throughout my career, and been exposed to their different styles and ways of managing people and businesses, so I thought I was ready. But nothing could have prepared me for the feeling of being ultimately responsible for the aspirations of our customers, our team, and our shareholders.

For me, that’s become a deeply personal commitment and is what makes the role both challenging and rewarding.

Were you able to come into the position with a fresh take, or were you influenced by Vaughan Rowsell's own take on the role?

Vaughan built Vend from the ground up, and there were a lot of great things about the company that I wanted to keep - particularly our unique culture and genuine care for retailers and our people. But I also wanted to bring all of myself to the role - my exposure to what ‘world class’ looks like from McKinsey and Oxford, and my passion for bringing that to life in business; what I learned about building teams from playing sports; and the unique influences of my upbringing and Samoan culture.

I’ve tried to build on the foundations that Vaughan built, but also continue to evolve the company and step up our game.

Is there any achievement within Vend you are particularly proud of since your appointment into the role?

We’ve had amazing growth and improved a lot of our metrics but the really special things are always about people. I’m extremely proud of the talent that we’ve convinced to join us on this crazy mission, and how we’ve been able to make our culture even better as we’ve grown.

At a more personal level, I get tons of satisfaction from seeing people grow in their journey at Vend - for example, our customer support team lead in London who’s only 23 and recently stepped into his first management role.

Personally, were there any trepidations you had starting when moving to the new position?

I’m confident in my own ability and there’s nothing specific that scared me. But I had spent years dreaming of being part of the team that builds a successful global company from New Zealand - and maybe even having the opportunity to lead it. So now that I’ve got that opportunity, and it’s part of a lifelong dream, there’s definitely some personal pressure to make it a big success.

Do you think having experience within the company has helped you in your current role, how?

Starting out at Vend as VP of Strategy and then CFO was helpful in terms of giving me a really good understanding of the business, and more importantly a deep feel for the culture at Vend. But on the flipside, having that understanding can make it harder to make big changes when they’re needed because you care deeply about how they affect each individual person.

You’re now heading a company in a great role, what are some of your ambitions going forward?

I’m trying to grow Vend into a company that people write books about. That means we need to be commercially successful, genuinely make life and business better for our independent retailers who bring such value and spirit to their local high streets, and create career-defining experiences for the people on our team. If we achieve that, I’ll feel like I’ve made my small contribution to the world and my communities.

What advice would you give others stepping into a high role from inside the same company, is there anything you wish someone had told you?

My advice is to be bold and to be yourself. Lots of people will have an opinion on what’s best for the business and you should absolutely listen to those. But every successful business has something unique and special about it. It’s up to you to work out what that is and then make it happen, even if it involves making tough choices. That always starts with having the right people onboard, and you need to do that fast so you can keep momentum. That sort of approach is obvious to someone who comes into a C-level role from the outside and is there to be a change-agent. But as an insider making that step up you have to be just as bold, and try to maintain a bit of that outside perspective to spot the gaps and the opportunities so you can take the company forward.

Stepping in after a shock: Cotton On

Stepping up into a role from inside the same company has its merits, such as a foreknowledge of company culture and cemented relationships. But promotions aren’t always caused by positive inner shifts in company structure – sometimes, that empty seat in the corner office is caused by a tragedy.
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After the sudden passing of Cotton On’s Mark Singleton in 2017, Kerry Ashford stepped up into the position of New Zealand country manager. She quickly had to transition into a high-pressure role and balance her own ambitions with the desire to continue Singleton’s work.

“I have been within the business for five years now, and I think that helped the transition. Often it can take you a while to settle in; you’re trying to learn and it is just an information overload. Then on top of that, every business has a unique culture you’re trying to fit in with also. So for me none of that stuff was new, and being a really close-knit team with a great culture made it all easier than I was expecting.”

Ashford says the support network offered by Cotton On has meant her transition went smoothly. Since stepping up, she has been able to carry on Singleton’s legacy while bringing in new achievements.

“Mark Singleton left an incredible legacy here in New Zealand, he had a great rapport with the team and with me. We knew each other really well. We started in the business around the same time when it was a lot smaller. I think because we are a small team we had a shared vision and shared goals, so we are carrying on the work that we all started together. He had a really strong vision, which was awesome.”

Ashford says her succession plan was always cemented within the company, one which has clear goals around succession and development of all employee roles.

“As a mother of three, it was a big role to get my head around. But it was absolutely part of my succession plan and something that Mark had been really open with me about. We were working together towards it, so while the timing was perhaps not what I expected, I always knew what the business vision and what Mark’s vision was for me and my career. So, I think that also helped as well, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the role and what I would like to achieve in the role and what I could bring to it.”

Since her succession in August last year, Ashford has managed to bring a lot to the Cotton On table, including the brand's new ‘Perks’ loyalty programme which was rolled out in New Zealand first.

“That was really exciting for us, and something that our customer had been asking for a long time. We were the first ones to roll it out to the team for the launch over here, and it was a brand-new concept for us. It was a really proud moment for me and the team to see it achieve fantastic results.”

Ashford acknowledges that being promoted within means you have supportive relationships set up already, but says it is equally important your values also line up with the company.

“I think it’s essential that your values line up with the business. I think it helps and there are so many of the groups' values that line up with my own. Fun is an important value for me, your workplace should always be fun. We’re a high-performance business, but still definitely value fun within the workplace.”

High-pressure environments are becoming more focused on employees’ mental and physical health, and Cotton On Group is no exception, says Ashford.

“We actively encourage people to live full lives and follow other interests outside of work. We’ve got a great health and well-being programme, and that was really important to me.”

Progressing within a company should be a time in an employee’s role that is anticipated, but a sudden passing can often mean added expectations on yourself to carry on someone’s work while driving your own ambitions.

Ashford’s advice for those who may find themselves within a similar circumstance is just to take each day as it comes, while also leaning on those around you for support.

“You really just have to take it day by day. Make sure you throw yourself into it 100 percent. From an internal perspective just really leverage off the relationships that you have to guide you.”

How to make succession work for your company

Between outside influences, inner restructuring and one’s own expectations, succession doesn’t always follow a clear route.

Everything from unclear plans to a more sudden move than expected can knock a succession path off-centre, says Juanita Neville-Te Rito, founder of Retail X and retail strategy director. She says the biggest challenges can come from a lack of planning.

“Internally, companies need to make the time to recognise that you need formalised support for succession. It’s good to recognise the people that can move up into those roles, but some places are not necessarily giving them the support so they develop the skills and capabilities to move into those roles.”

But stepping up into a higher role has a lot of misconceptions, one of which Neville-Te Rito says can come from thinking your peers will limit your growth by way of lack of respect as you progress.

“When you do [step up] there is a little bit of that sort of storming, forming, norming, performing that goes on, because you've been peers with people and now you're shifting up into a leadership role. Part of being a leader is that you don’t necessarily have to be their buddies, and we get that fine line where we need to teach people those skills around that. There is a misconception that if you step into a new role those people won’t respect you, but it’s just about proving yourself from the day you step up.”

Neville-Te Rito says her advice would be to continuously be asking questions; before, during and after your succession.

“A lot of people think when they step up into a high role that they shouldn’t ask questions. But some of the best leaders or people are the ones who say, I don't know about this, why don’t you tell me? How can we learn? And that shows them as being authentic.”

Constant questioning can allow those in the succession pipeline to know what their opportunities are and what they can be doing to get there in proper form. Neville-Te Rito echoes the advice of Cotton On’s Kerry Ashford in advising successors to utilise existing relationships when changing positions.

“It can help to find someone else in the organisation that is senior that you can bounce off. Other people who have a different lens. Not so much a mentor, but someone you become friendly with and you can bounce ideas off them as well as getting a different point of view.”

Neville-Te Rito says unless companies formalise a programme dedicated to figuring out what people need to move up, and what they need in ways of support, it won’t happen.

"Succession plans in a company are an important way to show people that they have career opportunities within that place.”

Inevitably, circumstances within a business will change, and those involved will need to have a clear plan surrounding succession for things to operate as smoothly as possible. Whether it’s generational, after a sudden event or you run-of-the-mill inner promotions, moving up within a business requires good planning, a leverage of inside knowledge and strong relationships to make the transitions beneficial to both the company and the individual.

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