In working with retailers to develop their store leaders’ interpersonal skills over the years, one question seemed to come up again and again: What about the other leaders in the organization, like those in the distribution centers and home offices?

There’s no shortage of leadership development programs out there, but the retail ecosystem is unique. Management training without the context of retail’s realities doesn’t create the same impact—and this is true whether you’re working with leaders who are overseeing the stores or with those whose functions support the stores.

Several years ago, we began looking into the foundational principles, skills and strategies that are critical for the success of retail support leaders. We conducted research with top US and Canadian retail companies, interviewing vice presidents, directors, DC managers, AP supervisors, buyers, tax and audit managers, and a range of other support area leaders.

What we found were some clear patterns in terms of the management challenges these leaders deal with and how they handle the range of interpersonal situations they face on a daily basis. Six major themes emerged from the data, and they show some key differences between support leadership, store leadership and even general business leadership.

With an ultimate purpose of supporting the stores and serving their customers, these leaders also:

• Perform triple roles of “Do,” “Manage” and “Influence”
• Are more likely to develop technical skills than interpersonal skills
• Have specialized roles and responsibilities that create silos
• Lead associates who often work independently
• Have broader exposure to a wider range of people and teams
• Are successful as much for their leadership presence as their competence

We also learned that while many retail companies put a lot of emphasis on providing retail-specific development opportunities for their store leaders, they haven’t traditionally done enough in parallel for this group.

Leadership Development for Home Office and DCs Trends Upwards

Over the past few months, we’ve seen the focus on this group pick up fairly dramatically. Retailers are realizing that the home office and distribution center leaders aren’t being included enough in leadership development efforts, and they need to ramp up their skills to keep the company successful in an increasingly complex, dynamic marketplace. This is particularly important because their actions can have far-reaching ripple effects.

The issue of silos is a good example. We’ve heard that, by and large, DC, finance, benefits, IT and other support leaders all have great depth in their own functions, but that view is narrow. Now more than ever, cross-functional collaboration is becoming essential to the business.

Support leaders have to start seeing the bigger picture view and be more skilled at communicating, building relationships and working across functions. Otherwise, you could be missing huge opportunities—to bring on a great new vendor that could differentiate your stores from the competition, for example, or to keep departments stocked in a timely manner.

While these leaders are specialists, they have to collaborate with other specialists to serve the business, the store and the customer. Support managers need specific leadership skills and strategies to recognize how they can improve their department’s productivity by working more effectively with other departments within the supply chain.

We’ve all seen how the pace, dynamics, customer influence and competitive market forces are shaping retail management in different ways. Now is the time to ensure this vitally important group is part of your broader leadership development strategies. And make sure you’re focusing on the interpersonal skills and behaviors that create results.

Download our full report for in-depth discussion about each of the six key themes.


About Michael Patrick

Michael held positions in retail management, merchandising, and human resources before joining MOHR Retail’s predecessor in 1986. In 1990 he purchased the retail division of that firm to form today’s MOHR Retail. Michael holds true to his retail roots by delivering learning that changes behavior—providing both immediate and lasting business impact. In addition to facilitating MOHR Retail training programs, he offers executive-level coaching in one-on-one sessions dealing with critical strategic issues such as succession strategies and executive team development. The author of “The New Negotiation Mindset: Guarantee A Bigger Slice,” Michael is a longstanding member of NRF as well as ISA: The Association of Learning Providers. He has a B.A. from San Diego State University, completed Master’s level work at Arizona State University, and lives with his family in New Jersey.