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Women Who Win CEO Series: Leading Through Change

“There are unprecedented levels of change and uncertainty in the fashion industry right now"

said Kim Wylie, Global People Director at Farfetch, at our recent Women Who Win CEO event.

“So how can we help others navigate this, when we ourselves aren’t even sure what’s going to happen from one day to the next?”
HVO Search Women Who Win: Leading Through Change

Women Who Win

Having placed many bold and talented women in senior roles, we wanted to harness their success – and as such created the “Women Who Win” series. Its aim is to give senior female leaders access to opportunities to discuss industry challenges and brand journeys with their female peers.

Our belief at HVO Search is that you’re a leader first and foremost; and a woman second.

HVO Search hosts Zia Paul-Birabi (left) and Maria Hvorostovsky (right), with speaker Kim Wylie, Farfetch (centre)

While the topics in the series are not female focused per se, we bring together a female only audience, as we find this alters the dynamic of the conversation. The topic of our latest Women Who Win event was Leading Through Change.

CEO Challenges

On 17th July 2019, HVO Search hosted CEOs and MDs from Amanda Wakeley, Roksanda, Mario Testino, Peter Dundas, Browzzin, Coco de Mer, Hugo Boss, Faith Connexion and Lanvin to identify current challenges, and how to lead through change, by applying research findings from neuroscience and psychology.

Brand differences aside, there were some common leadership challenges identified by the group:

  1. Managing millennials – While it was acknowledged that millennials are highly skilled, their lack of experience and ambitious career goals appear to be incompatible with the amount of time they are willing to invest in achieving that success - leading to higher turnover. It was also discussed that many were facing challenges in recruiting retail staff; possibly millennial's aren't interested in this type of work.

  2. Big vs. small brand reality – The reality for small brands is that they have limited resources, infrastructure and, for the CEO at least, tend to be a 24/7 labour of love. Larger organisations benefit from additional resources and financial protection, although can be slower and harder to adapt than smaller, more agile organisations.

  3. Hiring – It was universally acknowledged by the group that when you hire someone they must be a good cultural fit, and fully appreciate where the brand’s trying to get to. It’s no good hiring someone with the right skills and experience, if they can’t hack the pace or degree of ambiguity within the organisation.

  4. Shifting shopping habits – The varied shopping habits of different demographics have never been more pronounced. Not only are they using different platforms, but the ways in which they engage with them and when they engage with them are totally unique. Similarly, the rise of e-commerce has seen the purpose of the physical store shift dramatically, with an immersive ‘experience’ the new priority.

  5. From ad-hoc change, to permanent reality – A decade ago a brand might have launched a change initiative, ring-fenced their budget, implemented the change and reported on its success. But, today, as Lanita Layton, former MD, Hugo Boss, pointed out:

"The industry is a continuous, non-stop barrage of moving parts, with tensions between investor wants, brand values, customer expectations and employee needs."

Lanita Layton and Isabelle Cheron

Leading Through Change

With turnover of CEOs at the world’s 2,500 largest companies at a record high, leaders are afforded less and less time to effect change, and are under more and more pressure to achieve results.

The group acknowledged that the high turnover and pressure to implement immediate changes means CEOs are now akin to 'football managers'.

Our speaker, Kim Wylie, Global People Director at Farfetch, was recently recognised by Drapers as one of the most influential HR Directors in Fashion.

Kim Wylie (centre) and Carmela Acampora (right)

Kim said:

“Regardless of the change you’re trying to implement, people will typically react in one of four ways:
  • Approximately 25% will be ‘critics’ – opposed to the change. Their resistance can be challenging to deal with but they can highlight important things to be considered in making the change land successfully, and the good thing is that they have passion for the topic. They can become your strongest advocates for the change once they understand why it needs to happen and what's in it for them.

  • Approximately 25% will be ‘navigators’ – empowered to work under changing circumstances. These are the people you want to identify and make your ‘heroes’ and ‘change champions’.

  • Approximately 50% fall into the middle and will be a combination of ‘victims’ or ‘bystanders’ – who panic and take the change personally, or ignore the change and claim not to know what is going on. Victims can become isolated as they can’t see a way forward. The victim’s contribution can be positive in raising awareness of the feelings and emotions associated with the change, but their disengagement in the process can be counterproductive. In addition, bystanders are also unwilling to get involved. They wait for others to make decisions and take the lead, not moving into the change until they know it’s ‘safe’.

All the above reactions are a natural part of the change process and resistance cannot be avoided. Everyone goes through a change journey, although some take longer than others, and some move back and forth along the curve. The key is for all stakeholders to keep repeating what’s happening and why, in different ways, through a number of different channels."

Neuroscience tells us that our brains are biased towards the negative, so any potential ‘threat’ or loss overrides the potential excitement about the coming change. People often fear losing their identity or competence during a change.

To overcome this, Kim outlined that leaders need to take a very deliberate approach:

  1. Help Employees Become Experts in the New - Give people time, space and support to find their new footing and purpose.

  2. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat - Communicate what is happening to all employees at least 7 times, in different ways, so they have a chance to imbibe it. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

  3. Be Transparent - The consequences of not changing may be worse for the brand and/or individual in the long term. Uncertainty is a worse state for the human brain than the certainty of bad things, so bad news is still better than no news.

  4. Consult - Where possible, try to consult early on with as many people as possible to make them feel ownership and part of the decision-making process.

  5. Celebrate Success – Even if progress is slow, any movement towards the end goal should be acknowledged.

  6. Coach – Check-in regularly with your team and direct reports to find out how they’re feeling, what they’re struggling with and where they are on the change curve. Try and coach them to commit to the change by engaging with them on three different levels:

  • Head – Explain the business case, rational for the change, how it ties to the vision/mission of the organisation or team, and finally highlight the risks of not making the change.

  • Heart – Get them to connect emotionally with the change (get them to understand what’s in it for them, and get people involved and shaping what’s happening). It may be tempting to bulldoze the change through but you’re much more likely to get a positive outcome if you take the extra time to get others involved in owning the process.

  • Feet – Connect behaviourally by giving people the knowledge and skills to practically move forward. Take practical action.

The Head/Heart/Feet elements should always be considered if the change is to be successfully implemented. Change should not be seen as a top down only initiative. If the people impacted by the change are not included, or feel overwhelmed by the change and environment, then their ‘threat’ mode will be triggered and the brain will switch to flight or fight mode (known as an 'amygdala hijack') '. This explains why social exclusion activates the same areas of the brain as physical pain.

Freedom within a Framework

The group agreed that, time and time again, how successful people were at navigating change was dependent on the brand's culture and its bench strength i.e. did they have enough competent, flexible and resilient talent to run with the change, and the next, and the next, and the next?

Given the management challenges outlined above, qualities such as comfort dealing with ambiguity, initiative, ability to work at a fast pace, willingness to get their hands dirty and park their ego at the door, were discussed as being some of the most critical attributes needed when hiring talent and successfully leading an organisation big or small.

How do you think CEOs need to respond to today's challenges? We’d love to hear from you.

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