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What Are the Skills Fashion Executives Need to Get Hired Today?

This week, talent expert Suki Sandhu OBE and advisor and executive search consultant Karen Harvey shared insights on the core skill sets expected of leaders and managers in the fashion industry today. BoF Careers shares key learnings from the event.
In a well-lit room, three individuals are engrossed in their tasks. One person, wearing an orange top, leans over a table, meticulously examining or working on papers. Another individual stands nearby, holding documents. A third person is partially visible in the background. The room features various decorative elements, including framed pictures, ornaments, and lamps. Overall, the atmosphere suggests a creative or professional workspace.
Executives in all functions across fashion are experiencing a shift in expectations around leadership skill sets in accordance with the changing workplace. (Shutterstock)

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Fashion executives today must navigate leadership in a constantly changing industry and workplace, impacted by regularly evolving technology and consumer demands to advancements in sustainability and trade regulations — all within an unpredictable macro-economic and political landscape.

In 2022, fashion executives cited capability gaps in areas like supplier management, artificial intelligence, automation and omnichannel customer experience, according to BoF and McKinsey’s State of Fashion 2023 report. Indeed, the C-suite in fashion continues to evolve to represent changing business needs and priorities, with increased attention to areas like brand and sustainability, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and supply chain.

However, leaders in all functions, and at all stages of seniority — from managers to C-suite — are experiencing a shift in expectations around cross-functional leadership skill sets in accordance with the changing workplace. Soft skills like adaptability, transparency, even demonstrating vulnerability, are just some of the expected leadership qualities referenced in a live event last week on “What Are the Skills Fashion Executives Need to Get Hired Today?

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To discuss the skills expected of managers and executives in fashion today, as well as how to upskill in and demonstrate those skill sets to progress in your career, BoF’s Sophie Soar spoke to two leaders in executive search and recruitment: Suki Sandhu OBE, founder and CEO of global executive search firm Audeliss and of the global inclusion consulting firm INvolve; and Karen Harvey, founder of Karen Harvey Consulting Group, an executive search consultancy that has worked with companies like Ralph Lauren, Versace and Calvin Klein.

Here, BoF condenses key insights from the event.

Develop strong in-person and digital communication skills

SS: Communication and stakeholder engagement are pretty high up there when you think about being a leader in a company. The effectiveness of an organisation is down to the effectiveness of the leadership team. But good leaders also need to be able to communicate with each other and that also means managing the stakeholder map of people in your organisation — be they in different departments, your customers externally, or the board.

When you might not be physically in the same [work] space, the need for communication is even more pronounced. Try to find ways to recreate that watercooler chat that you might have physically in a space online. For example, Slack has an option where you can create informal coffee meets with your colleagues around the world, which is a way to try and build relationships across functions and geographies.

Champion adaptability and a growth mindset in an ever-evolving workplace

KH: Change is inevitable. You have to know that your constituents around the world will always have questions. [...] If we go back to what some of the most fundamental and critical qualities of leaders are today, I think self-awareness and having a growth mindset and being able to be empathetic, clear, transparent — [that] requires that we are always growing.

Foster an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their experiences and perspectives and actively listen to their feedback.

SS: Flexibility and adaptability is really important — particularly in the current climate in terms of hybrid work. [...] We’re all creatures of habit, but we need to be more flexible in adapting in the new working world. The workplace has changed hugely over the last few years — and again, there’s the importance of communicating change to the rest of the workforce to ensure that people react in the best way, because people react to change in very different ways.

Lead by example and foster a culture of openness

SS: You should always be leading by example, because [...] people look to you for the behaviours that you represent. The culture carries the organisation. Make sure that you are driving clear policies within the business around promoting diversity, equity and inclusion — so anti-discrimination policies, flexible work arrangements. Ensure that these are followed and that there are consequences if they are not.

Foster an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their experiences and perspectives and actively listen to their feedback. And be vulnerable yourself, because when you’re vulnerable, you’re inviting others to be vulnerable. [...] It’s about ensuring that there is a strong communication strategy and that it’s true to the values and culture of the business.

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KH: When people think about becoming leaders and having that ambition, you are really committing yourself to being vulnerable to operating in a transparent way. That doesn’t mean — tell everybody everything, right away, all at once. What it really means is telling the truth in a way that people can digest it and work with it.

I think a leader’s job is to frame up reality in terms of what’s happening externally, and what they believe needs to happen internally, in a way that doesn’t create fear and panic, but gives [employees] the facts and a well thought-out platform for response.

Evaluate your leadership style and approach

SS: The old style of leadership — the autocratic directive style — does not align well with anyone nowadays. I’m the founder and CEO of our business. I rarely get my way. You listen to your people and [if] people maybe want to go in a different direction and do different things, you have to try and balance all these different views. [...] Active listening I think is pretty key.

KH: Really include your teams. [...] This whole top down [approach] — the boss is meant to know everything — I think just doesn’t work anymore. No one person is prepared to lead in times like this without the support, not just of their top team, but actually the voices that are [...] closer to the ground sometimes.

Embrace AI and digital advancements for competitive advantage

SS: [Artificial intelligence is at the forefront of conversations and developments across all industries]. But within a lot of companies, including within the fashion industry, there’s a fear of the unknown, so not all [businesses] are embracing [AI] as much as you might think — many are still trying to figure out how to apply it to their business.

There are lots of online courses around AI that you can learn from. But, you want to be clear about what your area of interest is and what your passions are [...] because there are going to be so many products and tools within that space for you to learn. And actually, if you do learn them, if you find the right employer, they’re probably going to bite your hand off to employ you because they probably don’t know how to implement [the technology themselves].

This whole top down [approach] — the boss is meant to know everything — I think just doesn’t work anymore.

KH: Digital is now the centre of everything [...] in the supply chain. The technologies that are evolving and coming [along] very fast will be critical to companies addressing issues of sustainability.

With 73 percent of executives investing in [AI] technology and believing that it will be game-changing for their businesses, we have to think about efficiency without losing creativity — and creativity doesn’t just come from the designers. What we use AI for should not be the things that take time away from being creative, being great leaders, or actually being strategic.

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I think training and development has gone by the wayside in so many companies because [of the] cost and speed [...] but executives with a growth mindset are already going outside their organisations, going to universities, going to wherever they can, to learn about AI. [...] It’s building that knowledge base for everyone, across the board.

Nurture and support all generations in the workplace

SS: We’re all growing older. There are currently five generations in the workplace. The ability to build bridges across these generations is really important. And actually, it’s one of the things that we learnt from the diagnostics we do with INvolve’s partners: companies think they might have a problem with race or gender — actually, a lot of the time, it’s age.

There’s this huge focus on Gen-Z and their development and their support, but what about the ageing population who are working longer and living longer? What support are we giving to them? It’s probably the case that the Baby Boomers or Gen X are more able to take things more directly, whereas Gen-Z want to have more of a purpose, with questions like, “why am I doing [this task]? What’s the purpose of it? How is it going to help me?” And so it’s really about having a different mindset and management style across the different generations.

KH: Gen-Z wants purpose [but] I don’t think they’re the only generation that does. I think what’s really cool about this generation is they are happy to hold a leader’s feet to the fire, to really answer that question of “why”. And for this, I feel very grateful. I think those more experienced generations should as well.

Be direct and proactive in your efforts to grow your leadership skills

KH: Going to your manager to tell them where you want to be and what your aspirations are is fantastic. But I also think we need to ask: “What do I need to do to get there?” What are the skills that you see or the attributes that you have today that are working for you in that regard?

It’s important for women to be very specific about why they should be there and what they are bringing to the table. Because, the data [which shows a disproportionate lack of female leaders in fashion], speaks for itself. So, in order to be stepping into that role, it’s really about demonstrating that you have the skill sets: the soft skills and hard skills.

SS: You need to advocate for yourself and take ownership of your own career, whether it’s a small or large company. If you aspire to leadership, talk with your manager about it because they can’t read your mind.

[...] It really comes down to finding ways to get any kind of training — see if there are any training programmes that might be taking place within your business. But, you have to be proactive about it as well and find out where they are. Don’t wait for it to come to you because you could be waiting a very long time.

Explore BoF Careers Executive Search, a tailored recruitment service offering specialist support to secure top-tier executive talent for your open roles across fashion, retail, luxury and beauty.

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