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5 must-know tips for getting an executive position in retail

Retail experts share advice for advancing your career when you’re already near the top.

5 must-know tips for getting an executive position in retail

You’ve worked your way up to a senior-level retail role, and you want to do more. There are fewer jobs available at the top, but there are steps you can take to best position yourself for that next move, assuming you have the right type of experience and plenty of achievements under your belt.

“It’s not just about how hard you work,” says Rob Bowerman, president of The Bowerman Group, a Boston-based executive search firm that specializes in luxury retail. It’s not even about your sales performance—at least not entirely. At this level, you’ll have to truly distinguish yourself from your peers.

Here’s what you need to accomplish to show you’re ready to take on an executive retail role.

Get to know the whole business

Chandler Means, 32, has worked at Macy’s in Manhattan for 10 years, climbing her way up from an assistant to vice president/planning manager. In addition to scaling the proverbial ladder, she has also advanced her career by embracing lateral moves to different departments.

When you’re at a senior level, you need to take steps to learn as much as possible about every facet of your business, she says.

Means particularly stresses the importance of digital prowess. As technology has dramatically altered the way customers shop and the way retailers communicate with their target audiences, nearly every retailer has become increasingly focused on its online business. To continue to advance your retail career, you’ll have to understand this evolving digital landscape.

“I work with people who have been in retail for 20 or 30 years, and they’ll tell you that they’ve never seen anything like what we are going through today,” she says.

Because of how quickly the industry is changing, flexibility goes a long way, Means says. “Always have an opinion, but on the flipside, always have an open mind.”

Prove you’re a visionary

“A retailer is in business to make money,” Bowerman says. To be seen as worthy to be an executive, “you have to deliver results at a level above your plan and above your peers.” But that’s more than just over-performing on a sales target.

You need to own your individual successes and show you are doing something different, better and a bit more innovative than others at your level, Bowerman says.

“I am working on a search for a fairly high-level head of retail right now,” Bowerman explains.

“It’s a great brand, and almost anybody could come in with their eyes closed and achieve their division’s sales plan. What they need is someone who is able to look at the organization and see not only what is going well, but what can be improved. They need a visionary and a leader—someone who can identify missed opportunities, get the whole team on board and empower them to evoke change.”

Let your personality shine

At any level, employees want to work with people they like. By now, you’ve proven you’re a talented and effective manager. You also need to feel comfortable being yourself.

When New Yorker Andrew Feldmann, 31, director of marketing at Tommy Hilfiger, interviewed for his current role, he was surprised by how interested his potential new managers were in getting to know him.

“I went in very nervous, thinking they were going to drill me about my work history and the company, but I found they were much more interested in my personal background,” he says. “People need to make sure you’re a good fit for the company culture and that you’re going to get along with everybody.”

If your next move is likely to be internal, Feldmann suggests getting to know your potential new colleagues and managers. “Get as much exposure as possible with the people who would potentially become your peers at the next level. Go to as many senior meetings as you can and connect on a personal level, even if that means eating together at the cafeteria.”

Don’t shy away from talking business over lunch. You want your managers to like you but also to understand you’re a capable leader. Talk candidly about challenges you’re facing and how you intend to solve them, while welcoming input. You’ll not only convey your personality, but also demonstrate your collaborative business style.   

Show longer-term results

Like any competitive business, it’s not uncommon for people to climb the ranks in retail by changing organizations, but too much job hopping will turn off potential new employers, Bowerman cautions.

“Retail works on an annual sales cycle, so you become more marketable by anniversarying your numbers and showing that you’ve had consistent year-over-year success,” he says. “It is one thing to deliver a great first year. It’s another to show a continuous trend.”

Network, network, network

No matter where you move, keep in touch with former colleagues, managers and vendors. Feldmann parlayed a media agency career into an in-house position at Calvin Klein, where he worked for six years, and then learned of his current role at Tommy Hilfiger from an old boss.

He stresses the importance of networking and maintaining an up-to-date online professional presence so you’re easy to find. At the top, there are fewer positions, and there is fierce competition for those slots—but you’ve made it this far for a reason. If you proactively stay in touch with industry colleagues, they’ll be more likely to consider you when an executive position opens up.

Find senior-level retail jobs on Monster.

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