Setting the trend for skills

Alison
Straw, head of organisational development at retail giant Selfridges, has
implemented a structured qualifications programme. She talks to Stephanie
Sparrow about what lies in store for employees

From naked shoppers to speculation in the City about who will finally buy
it, revitalised retailer Selfridges & Co has been used to making headlines
this year.

The bare shoppers were part of an artistic ‘happening’, when controversial
photographer Spencer Tunick snapped volunteers in the Oxford Street store this
April to launch a month-long Body Craze celebration; the City rumour-mill was
still ongoing as Training Magazine went to press.

But amid the media frenzy, head of organisational development Alison Straw
remains calm and focused. "For me, it’s very much business as usual,"
she says. "We’ve got a huge agenda at the moment," she says, pointing
to a new store opening. She is also busy ensuring the ongoing success of
qualifications and training schemes for all staff levels in the existing three
stores in London’s Oxford Street, in the North-West’s tribute to shopping malls
– The Trafford Centre -and in central Manchester.

"There are things we need to be achieving this year – not least a new
store to open in Birmingham in September. We’ve had a year of change at the top
with some senior staff leaving and others changing roles, but people are
focused on what has to be achieved. We have a role to play in that."

Straw has been in post for six years. She has an annual budget of £300,000,
to carry out her remit in organisational development to support the
organisation to achieve its ambitions on three different agendas: skills,
change and induction.

"This might mean looking at the business goals and identifying what the
gaps are between where we are now and where we want to be, and creating
interventions to support the organisation towards that. The big thing for us is
the induction agenda, ensuring that new people have enough skills to be able to
operate within the timescale we are expecting."

Key mechanisms

The past couple of years have seen a rapid rise in employee numbers.
"Last year, it was the central Manchester store, this year it is
Birmingham. We are growing by 1,000 people a year – that’s a big number of
people to help understand where we are trying to get to."

The key mechanism Straw employs to get people where they should be is a
structured development and qualifications system placed throughout the company.
This starts with the sales associates – those who are literally on the
shopfloor. This is the largest concentration of employees, currently at around
3,000.

"We recruit people differently from other retailers. Our whole
philosophy is that we recruit for attitude and train for skills," she
explains.

"The challenge to us was ‘what can we put in to develop their skills
quickly, assuming they haven’t had those skills before?’"

The answer was a qualifications programme, for the sales associates, which
has recently tied in with a Certificate in Retail Skills developed by the new
Sector Skills Council for retail – known as Skillsmart – and the London Chamber
of Commerce and Industry Examinations Board.

The certificate, which Selfridges had piloted along with Safeway and Asda,
replaces work undertaken as part of an NVQ level 2 certificate, although certain
NVQs are still available to other Selfridges’ staff.

Although the retail giant had won praise for that programme and been
commended for it in the National Training Awards of 1999, the time and effort
to run it had become restrictive. "For four years, we had been running
qualifications to our full-timers because that was the only population we had
time to assess," says Straw.

"The assessment process is quite onerous and it took about 40-50 hours
just to get one person through it," she adds.

A shift to more part-timers, known as ‘key-timers’, who complement the
full-timers at crucial trade times saw Straw was casting round for another,
more flexible qualification.

The Certificate in Retail Skills, which Skillsmart launched to all retailers
in April, consists of three core units, covering health and safety, workplace
security and effective working. Employers are then free to choose five units
from a comprehensive list of 13 optional units, allowing them to tailor the
award to the needs of the company and the requirement of the individual.

"We are in a position now where we have revamped our induction, created
a workbook and developed the skills of our team leaders to be able to review
and give feedback to staff during the first 20 weeks that anybody has in the
business," she says.

Personal development

Every sales assistant has a six-monthly review and a personal development
plan arises from this. "It gets people focused on learning and most of
their learning will be happening through their team leaders or their other line
managers," says Straw.

Line managers are free to nominate up to 12 people to attend a further
customer service learning programme (NVQ level 3).

The next level in the Selfridges’s hierarchy is that of team leaders – line
managers for the sales assistants.

"We started work with them about two years ago, which coincided with
some research Bath University has done for the CIPD on people and
performance," she says.

"What has become clear is that team leaders are central in getting
leverage in what the researchers call ‘discretionary behaviour’. What they mean
is that bit extra, getting more people interested and motivated in what they
are doing and then creating that additional performance that is necessary for
business success and the energy that we need to perform well as an
organisation," adds Straw.

Team leaders – there some 200 of them – now go through a seven-day programme
based around their skills and what they need to be developing, culminating in a
development plan with their line manager.

Line managers

Alongside this, Straw is trialling a certificate in team leading, a new
qualification from the Chartered Management Institute, and including the line
managers in management induction programmes. "We are now clearer about
what it takes to be a good team leader and how to develop people in that
role," she says.

In turn, the team leaders are expected to be good people developers.
"They spend 80 per cent of their time on the shopfloor, coaching people, directly
managing them and dealing with queries they feel they can’t answer," Straw
says.

For managers themselves, Straw has developed a fusion of the Diploma in
Management, equivalent to NVQ level 4 and a home-grown range of workshops that
form the basis of a management development diary so people can pick and mix
their programmes dependent on their need or follow the diploma programme. This
is supplemented with challenging and stimulating activities such as corporate
social responsibility projects and, when we met, Straw was finalising an idea
for a circus skills workshop.

Senior managers and directors also have development plans, discussed with
their line managers even if that person is the chief executive. "Directors
have development plans with development activity schemed in," explains
Straw.

"Some of that might be that they have an external coach working
alongside them or it could be just a case of getting feedback, but we have to
make sure we have got people engaged at all levels of the organisation in
learning," she says.

Outside the stores, Straw has been responsible for making the most of the
latest skills at the company’s Leicester-based service centre. Selfridges has a
history in that city, stemming from its previous owners, Sears and has long used
it as a base for finance and administration work.

"About a year ago, we looked at the skills base and realised they are
experts in transactions, detailed work and IT. One of the prime motivators was
to build on that skills base, so we have created a central recruitment function
for the whole business in Leicester, and have relocated our switchboards and
the contact management centre for customers," says Straw.

The central recruitment function handles the internet applications from
would-be sales assistants. "The telephone team vets them against our brand
values to see whether we believe they will fit. We lose around 70 per cent of
them at this stage. They then have a face-to-face interview with the line
manager for their particular area. With this raft of people coming in we have a
much higher success rate, again because we recruit for attitude, rather than
for skills."

Straw is keen to keep all the Selfridges’s population learning wherever they
are. "We act as a hub for learndirect and towards the tail end of this
year, we will have kiosks in stores to maintain a learning environment."

She expects employees to absorb the Selfridges & Co brand values and
identity ‘by osmosis’. "We work in a very glamorous industry, but fashion
is also inclusive and the stores have a lot of energy. We want all our
employees to be drawn to that and to make a contribution," says Straw.

To create the right atmosphere, she has developed a portfolio of stylish
workbooks and learning materials filled with cutting-edge photographs and
striking graphic design.

Serious background

Straw herself fits in perfectly, right down to her well-cut but understated
designer label suit. Was it a difficult transition for someone with such a
serious background in youth counselling and the voluntary sector? She says not.
"The reason I wanted to be here in Selfridges was that employees had an
energy and passion which is similar to that in the voluntary sector. When I
first joined, I hadn’t a clue what half the brands were in the store, but I can
talk brands now.

Her skills in counselling and recommending interventions made an easy
transition across the sectors.

"My initial training gave me an amazing curiosity about people and
their environment. Most of my skills base is around the basics of helping
people to find their own solutions. That approach applies to my role here, it’s
about listening and being attentive," she says.

Straw is clear about the challenges which lie ahead. "We have the
Birmingham store to open this year, getting the service centre right and more
work do to in Leicester. But I also believe we want to get bigger and better as
an employer and want people to think of us as an employer of choice, which is
why we are working with Skillsmart.

"We want people to believe in retail more as a career option," she
says.

CV
Alison Straw

1999-Present
Head of organisational development, Selfridges & Co

1996-99
Employee development manager, Selfridges & Co

1995-96
Consultant TDA Consulting

1989-95
Career counsellor, The Institute of Management

1982-89
Youth projects manager and youth counselling project director,
Northamptonshire County Council

Shopping for skills

The Certificate in Retail Skills was launched on 1 April this year. The
qualification, created by The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Examinations Board in conjunction with Skillsmart, is designed to provide
successful candidates with a nationally recognisable, portable qualification –
said to be a first for the retail sector. Rather than obliging employers to
create and implement a new development system, the qualification enables
retailers to use their existing in-house training programme to meet the
requirement of the Certificate in Retail Skills.  www.skillsmart.org.uk

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