What does Mokokoma Mokhonoana, the self-proclaimed Philosopher & social critic know about the Apparel & Footwear industries? Not a lot, but with the right context his wisdom pulls at meaningful chords.

Though you can love what you do not master, you cannot master what you do not love’. We need to master change and we need to love change more than ever. The word “want” doesn’t even exist on current transformation plains.

Digitisation. This is no longer a diplomatic action or decision, no longer a static buzzword the process of leaving analog processes behind has taken the apparel & footwear industries by a stranglehold. The radical nature of this year has been unprecedented and we cannot afford to fail. To fail will mean our demise, to succeed will mean our survival and survival only comes from transformation at a fundamental level. Great talent is fundamental to the success of any venture, the right people can move mountains and incompetency can cause catastrophe.

Brands have been pouring investment into digital sales channels in a vain effort to make up for retail losses, but as we move toward the supply chain the number employee casualties has been mounting and this pile looks to grow. Like any battle, bloodshed and casualties are inevitable. The fragging has been carried out in the best interest of survival, but you can only cut the grass so short before your lawn resembles scorched earth.

Rightsizing is not Rightskilling

Talent across apparel and footwear supply chain organisations has for a long period remained static and the industry as well as its players are to blame for this. The analog nature of the retail and its supply chain backside as well as partners has been the result of a margin driven business and short-term orientated direction. This orientation was the best way to capture customer value whilst fulfilling priority #1, stakeholder and shareholder value (in most cases).

Headcount and staffing have been at the center of the archer’s bullseye through the 1st half of the year, the target is a rationale one, but is the method of delivery preventing organisations from building a business model appropriate for a world on fire? Are the people we are letting go today the one’s we may need tomorrow?

It’s not too late to stop the hemorrhaging of the “right skilled talent,” managers need to be directed and empowered look beyond figures and into talent resilience as well as digital acceptance. Digital acceptance is broken off into competency and willingness for change. By placing more than numbers into an organisation’s current staffing rationalization processes you can begin to develop a form of fluid framework for your future workforce.

Move to Autocratic leadership

Technology that helps you move faster needs to be operated by faster movers. Poor collaboration across the supply chain has come as a result of disintegration and an uneven distribution of influence/power. With cashflows running out and survival chances decreasing with every extended lock down companies need to look to their “Winston Churchill’s” and their wartime leaders. Visionaries capable of bringing an overhaul to the business model and the talent to place change at the heart of organizational culture.

Digital transformation was afforded the luxury of time before 2020, but we now face a need to move faster and to accelerate decision making. We’re entering a period where leadership has seen more scrutiny than ever and the fear of failure from the individual is real as well as rational, but staying still right now represents a far bigger threat than any digital deployment gone wrong. So long as leaders fear the rolling of heads there is a low incentive to be bold and push boundaries.

Winston Churchill was far from flawless. Our supply chain leaders have the talent and trust from teams below to drive this change, but the headquarter offices need to give autonomy from above. Empowering Apparel & Footwear leaders to pursue the new supply chain which is without a doubt technology heavy will only cost more if investment into the area is delayed. “Supply Chains are too long” we cannot afford the back and forth of the past, we need aggression and alignment to achieve the future proofed supply chain.

Recruit & train aggressively or experience worse than a hiring freeze

If the world returned to its pre 2020 state which supply chain would you rather have underpinning your business.

  1. A technology heavy supply chain with an agile and flexible talent pool
  2. The pre 2020 supply chain

10 times out of 10 you opt for option A). Regardless of this year’s events we’d all rather have built the supply chain of the future and right now construction hasn’t yet gotten underway. Hiring freezes often leave the impression that there is “no cash to spare”, but this isn’t the case. The rent will be payed and with headcounts continuously placed on the chopping block more dollars are saved. Talent leaders and business leaders need to begin architecting the future supply chain workforce where digital transformation and the business are aligned at the core.

Deep diving new hiring

Fresh blood may be needed to turn the wheels of change in order to drive transformation down the digital highway. New leadership benefits from a fresh page on which to write the future as well as fresh relationships, typically organisations tend to lean towards getting outside talent rather than “teaching old dogs new tricks”. Apparel & Footwear supply chains as they are aren’t digitally driven, the amount of Chief Digital Officers/ CIOs in global supply chain can be counted with just two hands and the need for external expertise is paramount. Unfortunately, in today’s setting a bad hire can result in an organisation falling on its own sword, looking deeper into talent and intrinsic drivers will help mitigate the risk of failure. Don’t discount you current leaders and talent, whilst they may not be “digital on paper” they know your business, often times new hires fall short because of a lack of credibility and commercial knowledge. The best people can also come from within, you won’t be asking your global sourcing head to have software engineering experience anytime soon.

Authenticity needs to be emphasized at every step of hiring journeys and the existing “system thinking” as well as “process orientation” in recruitment functions needs to be replaced with a substance over surface approach. The industry is in need of entrepreneurs and visionaries that can lead from the front as well as implement, we need to rethink the talent that we place value on. We’ve been stuck in a cycle on placing weight on the brands that someone has worked for. Typical thinking denotes “the bigger or the more powerful the brand name the better the talent”. If we are to continue to follow this rule, we’ll be placing weight on talent coming out of the Gaps, Brooks Brothers, Forever21 and JC Penney. Businesses that have by no means kept up with the times. Looking beyond the surface can unlock your disruptors and innovators, talent from the bigger employers (like those aforementioned) may indeed be the best, but don’t count out the smaller company experience.

Centre on in culture

If global supply chains are to go through the phases of survival, revival and new normal arrival one of the most pressing opportunities to capitalize on right now is culture, this will see the through the success of digital transformation. Throughout the tangle that has been this year, culture will have played either the antagonist or protagonist in the fight that organisations are currently putting up, but to succeed in the new world it doesn’t matter which side of the seesaw your culture sits, it’s time to leave the playground and recognize it as a lever for digital innovation. Whilst we are still descending and waiting for the curve to trend upwards the opportunity to strike at culture is now. Before we start to ride the rollercoaster uphill our culture and talent needs to be prepared to fire on all cylinders.

Don’t forget inter-organisational culture

Supplier Consolidation and rationalisation will be carried out across supply chains in the coming years, these exercises should see benefits to partners throughout. If the new supply chain is indeed going to be more digitally driven then organisations across the supply chain can no longer operate as single entities. Trust already exists for most, but now this needs to be developed from a pure economic definition where costs and benefits are evaluated into a “normbased” type of trust where increased outcomes and reduced uncertainty comes as a result. To build this new form of trust, build the roadmap to digital evolution alongside you suppliers stressing the importance that your culture needs to harmonise with the culture of a supplier without being like for like. Offer to support partners with the likely superior Talent & Digital resources that you possess and address the burning need for better collaboration.

It goes without saying that we never feel ready for challenges we have yet to overcome, by we focusing on what we can control we put ourselves in the best possible position to ride out the tough times. Both Apparel & Footwear industries feature a range of talent and resilience has for a long time been core to supply chain cultures. Survival means balancing cashflows with digital transformation and the right talent is crucial to walking the tightrope.

About the sponsor: Spire Executive is a connecter and success enabler across leadership, management and critical hiring in the Apparel, Footwear and Retail industries. Hong Kong is our home and we have a physical presence in Europe, we take on assignments locally as well as offshore, applying a “boots on the ground” approach to engaging with talent. Our definition of “a job well done” is the success of the talent that we recommend to our clients and our network, knowledge and guiding principles enable us to create sustainable outcomes.