The DNA of the Future Retail CEO

Thursday 14 April, 2016

The World Retail Congress and Green Park in association with TrueStart have created a thought-provoking and comprehensive report, “The DNA of the Future Retail CEO”, mapping out a necessary transition from today’s skill sets amongst senior retailers to those required in the year 2020. 

Our Advisory Committee member and Chairman for Debenhams, Sir Ian Cheshire, introduces the report which can be found here.


I am delighted to be writing these opening remarks to “The DNA of the Future Retail CEO” at a crucial moment for retailers worldwide. The sector is changing rapidly and for those with legacy operating models in particular this means a great deal of change and upheaval, with significant investments required today before revenues, let alone significant profits, come tomorrow. The onus is now on retailers everywhere to be omni-channel, far more brand aware and service driven, against the backcloth of rapid technological change. 

The modern retail CEO is facing a wide-array of challenges, but I believe strongly that with all challenges come opportunities. And with this in mind, “The DNA of the Future Retail CEO” arrives at exactly the right time. A thought-provoking report from Green Park and the World Retail Congress, it maps out the necessary transition from today’s skill sets among senior retailers to those required by the year 2020. It assesses the major challenges facing the retail sector today, benchmarks the suitability of current and future CEOs to meet these challenges and concludes by prioritising, measuring and assessing what ambitious retailers and their boards need to do next to make sure that CEOs will be fit for the future.

The strength of this report lies in the opinions and comments of the highly influential peer group of senior global retailers who cooperated with its conception and delivery. Based on a comprehensive survey and in-depth interviews with over 100 Chairs, CEOs and senior executives from the retail sector across the world, this report seeks to set out what is their vision for the DNA of a perfect modern retail CEO, effectively a “job description” for what the role requires. 

The two main findings from this research could make for uncomfortable reading for many.

Firstly, it is clear from the research that, in the eyes of our global panel, many incumbent CEOs simply don’t match up to their job description. It is clear that many retail CEOs are not seen as “fit-for-purpose”, particularly when it comes to their lack of mastery of digital and data-driven skills. This skills deficit – and question marks over the willingness of today’s CEOs to adapt – is a major concern for the sector. This is a serious worldwide challenge for current leaders.

The obvious follow up question therefore is: will the new generation be better suited to the role by 2020, than their predecessors? Aspiring CEOs are going through a welcome evolution in terms of their backgrounds and breadth of experience more suited for the challenges ahead, but consumers are moving faster – they are in a state of revolution in terms of their expectations and behaviours. The second finding of this report therefore is that, as things stand, aspiring retail CEOs will still face a substantial deficit of online, digital and data skills by 2020, as well as requiring a far stronger understanding of customer behaviour than had been previously envisaged.

What can be done to turn this particular set of challenges into opportunity? Two sets of stakeholders in particular can get to work on the implications in this report. Firstly, those individuals aspiring to be retail CEOs have a framework against which to benchmark themselves; a blend of skills that they must cultivate through concrete development plans. Secondly, retail boards must have well focused succession planning processes for the CEO role and the requirements for the role in the year 2020.

The onus now is on retail boards and aspiring CEOs themselves to urgently address this issue. Time is short – and there is much that needs to be done.

Sir Ian Cheshire, Chairman for Debenhams; Senior Independent Director, Whitbread; UK Government Lead Non-Executive. Sir Ian is an Advisory Committee Member of True Capital.