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Emma Taylor | VP North American Stores at REISS

Welcome to the Retail Rundown, your go-to weekly podcast where RETHINK Retail teams up with industry experts to discuss the news, trends, and big ideas that are redefining retail.

Retail is a fast paced diverse, and exciting industry—and managing complexity and ambiguity has been the theme of the past two years.

In this episode, host April Sabral dives into the topic of positive leadership with guest Emma Taylor, vice president of North American stores for REISS, a modern, global fashion brand offering stylish women’s and menswear.

Prior to joining Reiss, Emma spent nearly 14 years growing her career at TOPSHOP TOPMAN where she most recently served as the brand’s US regional manager.

Host April Sabral has had a storied career in retail leadership with companies such as Banana Republic, Starbucks, and Apple. She’s a leadership and development coach and the brains behind retailu, an online learning platform designed especially for retail leaders.

April wrote her own leadership book last year called “The Positive Effect” where she shares how to build high performing cultures through the power of positive leadership.

If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know by subscribing to our channel and giving us a 5 star rating us on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

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Hosted by April Sabral
Produced by Gabriella Bock
Edited by Trenton Waller

Post Transcript

April Sabral: Hello. Today we’re kicking off another episode of the Retail Rundown podcast. I’m your host, April Sabral. And today we are going to discuss leadership. Specifically the topic of leading in retail. Retail is a fast paced, diverse and exciting industry, and managing complexity and ambiguity has been the theme of the past two years. I believe leading with positivity is essential today, now more than ever. It’s been a challenging year to hire and retain and what I have learned over my career is employees leave leaders, not companies. So with this knowledge, it’s important that retail leaders consider what they need to do to create culture that attract first time job seekers and develop the future leaders of their organization. Today we are going to gain insights from our guests on how she has managed to lead through the pandemic. I can’t wait to talk about my favorite topic, leadership, and how we can continue to inspire retail as an amazing place to work. Joining me to further dive into this topic is Emma Taylor. Emma is the Vice President of North America stores for Reiss, a modern global fashion brand offering stylish women’s and men’s wear. Prior to joining Reiss, Emma spent nearly 14 years growing her career at Topshop and Topman, where she most recently served as the brand’s US Regional Manager. Thank you for joining the show today, Emma. Emma Taylor: Hi, thank you for having me. So excited to dive into this topic. April Sabral: Me too. All right. So I’m just going to dive right in because we have a short period of time and I really want to get the most of this so that our listeners can really enjoy and learn everything there is around your leadership and your tips. So my first question to you is going to be, can you kick us off really by giving us a brief introduction to Reiss and your role at the company? Just in case people don’t know who Reiss is. Emma Taylor: Absolutely. So first off, you’re saying it right, which is fantastic. And as a British person, you probably know the brand pretty well. Reiss has actually been around for 50 years and newer than to the US and Canadian markets. So we’ve been in the US about 15 years. I joined four and a half years ago, and really it’s a full ownership role of the business out here, how we’re growing the business, the stores that we operate in, any relationships that we have with key partners. And within that we have standalone businesses, we have concession-led businesses with our partner Bloomingdale’s in the US and Hudson’s Bay in Canada, and we also operate partner e-comm businesses with them as well. And then more recently within my time here, we’ve now got wholesale relationships with huge partners, such as Nordstrom and more recently Saks Fifth Avenue. So it’s been a really exciting opportunity to come in and lead what I know to be a really prestigious brand such as Reiss, but actually then teach the American and Canadian customer about who we are, what we stand for, and why we should exist in the North America retail landscape. So it’s been a fascinating and whirlwind four and a half years. Throw a pandemic into that as well, it’s definitely been a roller coaster ride. April Sabral: Oh, wow. Yeah, that’s exciting. Congratulations, by the way, on the wholesale business, that’s exciting as well to just keep growing that brand and getting it out there. And yeah, absolutely, being a British person first and foremost, I love the brand and do know what it stands for. So it’s amazing to see UK brands enter into such a big market like this and successfully as well. So I know it’s been a tough few years for recruitment and retainment across retail, especially in stores. So what were some of the key challenges you saw during the height of the pandemic and how have they evolved over the last 24 months? Emma Taylor: Yeah, I think there’s been a few and I think we all entered into the pandemic thinking the hardest decisions and choices that we were going to have to make was about how we navigate our team and retain our team through the pandemic. That was step one. Now I look back at that was actually a much easier process than probably what we’ve then had to do post pandemic. Post pandemic we’ve seen real challenges within where talent is based. And by that there’s been a huge shift within the business, obviously migration of people then to cities that we operated well in, but we definitely didn’t have flagship level stores in, such as Florida. We then had to build and enhance our team down there. So really finding talent in areas that we are not used to then operating at such a big level in, while also then trying to retain incredible, incredible flagship senior talent in areas that now have really suffered post pandemic, such as New York. And actually it’s been completely different challenges across even just the US market, let alone then Canada, where they’re still mid-pandemic at this point and still facing store closures and reduced capacities and things. So yeah, definitely been a good few challenges along the way. Emma Taylor: I would say the biggest thing that we faced was recruiting during a pandemic. We actually opened 12 stores during the pandemic, which is a challenge. We love to set ourselves huge challenges at Reiss and it definitely was one that we went into thinking it was potentially near impossible. But we opened the California market and we found some incredible people that actually already know the brand or we’ve already worked with before, or have already worked within Bloomingdale stores before. And while a lot of other key brands and our competitors were having to then face losing talent, actually that was then an area where we really benefited from going in as a new emerging brand. We were actually able to then really build some core talent within our California market, and already within a year or two of them being in the business they’ve already progressed internally into bigger better roles, multi-site leaders and area manager roles. So really setting up the structure for internal development has been key to these other markets. Emma Taylor: In Miami, we did the same thing actually pre-pandemic. I almost wish I would’ve had a crystal ball, but the area managers that we then set up in each market were probably the best thing that we did, because it’s helped us then really strengthen those local teams. And in Miami, which has now become our number three region, where obviously it previously then we didn’t even then qualify our stores down there as flagship volume, actually having the leaders in the market, driving that progression and internal development has been really key for us. Emma Taylor: In New York, I would say we are still learning day by day. I’m definitely not going to sit on this podcast and say we’ve really nailed it in New York. We face different challenges every day in New York. We are finding that people, along with ourselves, are having these enlightening post pandemic moments about, do they want to be in retail anymore? Do they want to be in the city anymore? Can they now go and live somewhere else and still then obviously have a career that they choose? So we’re really facing some key retention issues. We also, as I mentioned, had flagship level talent now delivering stores that our Madison Avenue store hasn’t recovered as quickly as some of our neighborhood stores. So really making sure that we are enhancing people’s roles where they obviously have the capacity to then do more, but the fit for or the volume then has changed in their current scope. Emma Taylor: And then we’ve really had to look at pay benchmarking, benefits, what our commission structure looks like, what our uniform structure looks like, just to make sure that we are ahead of the curve really, because it’s fierce out there in terms of the competitors, and everybody’s obviously trying to then, now share a much tighter talent pool. So yeah, a number of different challenges, but really builds your leadership team because you’re facing then things that you never really thought… Who would’ve thought that two years ago, facing into the pandemic, that we would be struggling to find talent in New York. It just wasn’t a thing. April Sabral: Yeah, yeah. A hundred percent. And I’m assuming that being an emerging brand, like you said, specifically in the California market, it’s exciting for people to join a brand that’s growing versus where they can get that opportunity, like you said, to move from store ops into area manager, district supervisor, because there is that growth. So I can see how that would be appealing to people now, especially with lots of successful retailers, let’s say, closing down stores. So, [crosstalk 00:08:51] and helped you out. What has the pandemic taught you about yourself as a leader? Emma Taylor: Resilience is a core strength that every retail leader needs. I think what I’ve learned is now just to expect the unexpected and you can only deal with the cards you’re dealt on that day. I think I used to love building a strategy, and I still do build a business strategy and a team strategy, that we try and obviously strive towards. But actually it has changed day by day. And I think the best leaders or the most resilient leaders within our business have really thrived within that environment. And they’re quick on their feet, they’re solution focused. As long as you then have integrity in the decisions that you’re making and you make the right choices instinctively, then you can navigate your way through this. But yeah, resilience and still then coming to work with that positive attitude every single day, despite then what might be thrown your way that day, is the only thing during that pandemic that we could do for our teams. So yeah, I think resilience and solution focused, quick decisions and trusting my gut, I think, has been really, really key with every decision that we’ve made. April Sabral: I love that. And you know me and positivity, I wrote a book of about it. I’m all about- Emma Taylor: All about positivity. April Sabral: …positivity and real, authentic positivity, being concerned about what you do and how you respond to situations as a leader and that impact of how it makes other people feel. Because I truly believe that engagement starts from within, in any organization. I’ve seen it in my own career. So I wanted to ask you, do you agree with that? Why or why not? Emma Taylor: I do. Yeah. I do agree with that. And I think you have to build a team around you that also agrees in the value of that. The minute you have somebody within… you might have a senior team around you of let’s say 10 people, the minute you then have one person within that, that can’t see the vision and can’t see why the decisions are being made and doesn’t then lead with that positive employee first focus, it really then derails the authenticity of the vision. And for me, really, it has been about making sure that within our store teams as well, we do a lot of things in terms of employee surveys around engagement, motivation, what else we can do for the store teams; those store leaders are the face of our brand to that entire team every day. So they also then need to believe in the positivity and the strategy behind then why we’re making all these decisions and why we might be making changes. And so for me, it’s all about transparency, and giving people the information so that they can see the why’s behind things. But yeah, positivity breads positivity in others. And for me, the minute you lose that within your team and one person then doesn’t feel that same way, it can really throw it all off. April Sabral: Yeah. A hundred percent. I really agree with that. I mean, I’ve read hundreds of exit interviews over my career as I’m sure you have. And pay’s always on the third, it’s always leadership development or further developing their career and the person they work for that are the two main reasons why people leave organizations. Emma Taylor: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. And we have lost some incredible leaders throughout this pandemic through different choices, lifestyle choices, progression into other brands. And unfortunately, if they are a good leader, some of their team obviously will follow with them, which is a good thing for them, a bad thing for us. So for me, it’s all about then that, who you can bring into the brands and actually then building that trust within the team, that you are all striving towards the same purpose. April Sabral: So how do you align your organization when you’re building a team with your vision and mission? Because when you’re at like two, three stores, it’s easy, but as you grow, as you scale, what strategies do you have in place Emma, that can really align your organization, like I said, with your vision and mission, to make sure that culture stays intact? Emma Taylor: This one’s an ever evolving one for us because just before the pandemic we then changed the structure. So we used to be a heavily New York based organization, obviously with our main head office then in the UK. And the best thing that we then did was to create our field teams which obviously being a new emerging brand out here, hadn’t necessarily been done before. So the main focus for us as we continue to evolve that structure is how we then build our area managers, area VMs, and regional leaders into the strategy. So we’ve actually then more recently started then doing frequent in-person meetings. So obviously retail, we’ve been doing in-person now for a long time. You cannot be in an in-person meeting, but we then started doing these in-person meetings more frequently. Prior to the pandemic, we would’ve probably then gone to the UK conference and listened to the vision and things like that, but as we said, a lot of things are changing day to day. So we’ve actually then scheduled these meetings now every six weeks. Emma Taylor: We go through what our people vision is for that quarter, where are we at with it? What’s our business goals? How are we trading? Like, all the obviously boring things, but then we are consciously now trying to do a team build activity with that population of people each time, or a development activity. Because really, they are the face of our brands in that market and we need to make sure we’re all aligned. So it’s a fairly new thing for us to be honest, because obviously we’ve been in this pandemic world, but the one that we had last week was fantastic, and it was about the partnerships that they need to form with their visual partner in market, making sure that they’re both aligned, making sure that then they’re aligned with our overall brand vision for the North America market. So it was kind of then our baby steps out into that. Emma Taylor: But other things that then I really try and encourage my leadership team to do is, where they then are the expert in the market, they also then need to build an external network within the market. For me, you can’t be a creative, innovative leader, unless you’re in amongst and hearing what everybody else is doing. I get a lot of my own ideas or creative thinking from the network that I’ve built within the New York area or within the retail network, even the retail hive. We’ve got hive drinks tonight, we’ve got a lead event coming up, like so many things that then you can go and be part of. And then my peers in the external world, and they are the ones then that feed my creative thinking and new ideas. And that’s then what we are encouraging our area managers and regional leaders to do as well. If you’re out in California, they’ve got to be the California expert, they need to be feeding into us. What’s now the next thing then that’s that we should be doing in that California market? What are people doing for their teams that might be different out there? Emma Taylor: So really trying to encourage the art of networking. People like to say it all the time, “I love to network. I really want to now start doing this.” It’s actually critical at this moment in time. Without my network in the retail world out here, I would’ve really struggled navigating through even the pandemic, because obviously at a certain point then we were looking to each other, even for advice and ideas of how we were all going to survive this with our retail businesses. So yeah, I think there’s two main things. Obviously what we set out to do as a team together, but also then them establishing themselves as an expert in their market and building that network around them externally. April Sabral: Ooh, I love that because I think pre-pandemic, we were all in our own brands, heads down and in our own silos. Emma Taylor: Yes. Completely. April Sabral: And what I’ve experienced, it’s just meeting people like yourself in the last year that maybe I wouldn’t have before, because like you said, we’ve had to reach out, we’ve had to build those relationships outside of our own brand to gain tips, like what you’re sharing. And this is why I love this conversation because if you’re listening to this, you can take away practical things that can help you build internally, your structures. One of the things that you talked about was promoting from within those area managers. And one of the things that I think retail has struggled with for a long time, which is why I built retailu, was just the level of getting people ready for multi-site. My experience in my career was like, “Here you go, here’s 10 stores”. And I was like, “Oh, nobody runs a store like me.” So what are you doing to ensure your internal managers are ready for that next level of leading, so that you can continue to grow? Emma Taylor: Yeah. Pre-pandemic we learnt that lesson hard and fast. We, like you say, we asked employee feedback, exit interviews. We were losing key large store flagship talent because they said that there wasn’t available career paths. Or we were losing talent in markets where we didn’t necessarily have other stores for them to develop into. So we actually then had to create different roles within the structure so that people could see that there was progression within Reiss. Some of our employees then were getting frustrated at that store manager level, and it’s about what’s next. Whether that then be becoming a training hub store or whether it then became managing another store that then potentially was outside of your market and that multi-site leadership. Emma Taylor: The biggest then challenge that we’ve faced is obviously then getting people from… there’s a very different role that you play going from store manager to area manager. Area manager is much more hands off, big picture leading through your team. Whereas that multi-site manager for us has then been the perfect middle step because you’re still quite hands on, but you’re having to then learn that you physically cannot run that entire business on your own because you might now have two or three stores. And actually the learning that you get from having to then step out and see the bigger picture and actually not be able to do it yourself has then been critical for some of our leaders. We’ve now doubled the amount of multi-site roles that we’ve had post pandemic, because they’ve been so critical to our success and some of our area managers and even our regional manager came from area manager level. And some of our area managers have now then come from multi-site roles. So for us, it’s been about that middle step. Emma Taylor: What we are now focused on is how do we bridge the gap from supervisor to manager? Because we are now finding that the supervisor population is becoming very sparse, they’re they’re in high demand, particularly in areas like New York. And it’s about now us really focusing. So we’re actually building an entire development program as a brand, around how we then get supervisors into that first management role and giving them the skills to become a leader, and not then just a doer in the store or a seller in the store. So yeah, some big changes based on employee feedback that we got about both of those. April Sabral: I love that because sometimes we put our best sellers in a management role, and then all of a sudden they’re not so successful. So kudos to you guys at Reiss for really, sounds like putting a huge focus on people and leadership development and internal promotions. That’s going to really build, continue to build, that foundation of the brand in the US and make it a place that people really want to work and attract people. Emma Taylor: Completely. And it’s all about clarity of what progression looks like too. Progression for some people… Some people are fantastic sellers, that doesn’t mean that they just don’t cap out and stop at a certain level. And we even had this conversation yesterday. We have an amazing guy… nobody come from his mine. But actually, what else can we now get him doing and can he now become the training expert for New York? Can he then relaunch our made-to-measure services, so that there’s still development for him? And yeah, really putting a mirror up, I guess, against why are people leaving. And now we should be doing to really evolve the roles and what people see as progression. April Sabral: I love that because you’re being vulnerable and honest. Too many people are like, “No, we are great. It’s the best. Just come work here.” But you’re actually putting a mirror up, showing that vulnerable side and saying, “Okay, how can we improve it?” So thanks for sharing that. What’s a myth that you would bust if you could bust it about working in retail? Emma Taylor: Gosh, that it’s all “Devil wears Prada”, I guess. I think none of my friends probably have any clue about what I do day to day. And actually, once you get out of the store world, the majority of what I do day to day is leadership and people management. And it’s dealing with the emotions of people or what everybody’s going through day to day. You might be faced with an employee who’s had a death in the family, I mean, through COVID obviously then. A lot of things were happening that we were really just dealing with employees feelings about being in a pandemic and you really take on this family type role to a lot of people within the retail industry. And I know some of my best external relationships are then through work, people that I have met at work. And I think that’s something that I would love other people to understand about retail and why when once you are in it, you almost don’t want to escape it, because it’s like this huge family that nobody really understands on the outside. And they probably perceive it as, “Oh yes. It’s fashion shows and it’s Devil wears Prada.” And it’s really none of that. Actually what it is, at the core of it, is caring for people and making them the best that they can be. April Sabral: Oh, I love that. Caring for people and making them the best they can be. A hundred percent. Well, this has been an amazing conversation, Emma. So I’m just going to wrap it up with asking really what are your closing thoughts about being a successful retail leader? You know, maybe someone’s looking at you and looking at your career and saying, “You know what, I want to grow into a VP one day.” So what are your top three tips to be a successful VP, and of stores and continue to grow? Emma Taylor: Yeah, I think initially you need to figure out who you are and what you stand for and be clear in that. I think too often you can work in various different brands, I’m lucky to have worked for two fantastic brands, but you can become what they want you to be versus what you stand for as a leader. So by the time you then get to a certain point in your career and you look back at yourself, it’s can you stand by the decisions that you made, the teams that you built and what you then have delivered and what legacy you can leave behind in any business that you go into. So what’s your point of difference and what you stand for. Obviously critical to that is then building your team. You’ve got to be able to then build a team that you really, implicitly trust around you and you trust that they’re also going to deliver that vision that you set out, have integrity. Emma Taylor: And then one real thing that I’ve learned, more post or during the pandemic, is find a mentor. It can be one person, it can be two people, it can be a group of people. Find people that inspire you. Find people that when you’re having a rough day, you can call and say, “Oh my goodness, I don’t know how I can get myself through this. And they will let you rant, they will listen to you, they might give you some advice. And then also that networking piece, like I’ve met you through networking, I’ve met people like Ron and have been part of that whole Retail Pride journey with him. We did a huge event in the summer, and that was all built through networking. And I think the importance of having mentors and external networks, I had definitely overlooked earlier in my career and put it on my appraisal as, “Yeah, this year I’m going to build a network.” Actually, it has been critical to me being able to then survive as a leader this year. April Sabral: Oh, that’s amazing. Great advice. And yeah, Ron’s journey is amazing being part of that whole Retail Pride, we can’t talk about him enough. So thank you. I just want to say thank you for taking the time out of your day. I know you’re busy, there’s a lot going on, but this was such a great conversation and I’m really excited to continue to be part of your journey, support you and see Reiss grow in the US market. Emma Taylor: I know. What a record…we’ve had an absolutely record year this year and that was despite everything the world through at us. So yeah, we’re really excited about this year. We finally feel like we are a step ahead versus catching up. So yeah, we’re really excited. Thank you for having me. It’s been a welcome break actually in a day of madness. So yeah, I’m really excited that you asked me to be part of this and love sharing any story. And I would encourage anyone that is listening, please connect with me on LinkedIn. It’s all about making that first step. No one will ever deny you connecting with them and trying to network. April Sabral: So that wraps up another episode of the Retail Rundown podcast.