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What HR/Management professionals can learn from the likes of Gucci

by Shirley Soodeen

April 21 2015 - Have you seen the movie The Devil Wears Prada? It stars Meryl Streep as the ruthless and cynical Miranda Priestly, a hard-nosed, manipulative, driven boss who works and lives only for her job. Her excessive power trips were evident, for example when she flung her coat in her assistant's face every morning on the way to her office. Who would wish to work for a boss like that?

Everybody loves a good baddie, and just as movie-goers loved to hate Ms Priestly, the media love to highlight the worst bosses in the fashion industry. Think of John Galliano, 'enfant terrible' of the industry, whose genius was clouded by drug and alcohol addiction, leading to his dismissal from Dior. There are sadder stories too, ones involving suicide, abuse, anorexia and self-hate.

However, apart from the hype we read in the media, what is the real story about management in the fashion industry? How is it that they achieve and maintain such high levels of performance in such a demanding environment?

What characterises these high-performing teams?

High performance teams

For one thing, they are constantly switched on. They work continuously under very high pressure. Every aspect of their work will be laboriously picked to pieces by the creative director and later, during the collections, by the press, who will rip it to pieces or adore every thread of it. Their personal ability to withstand and contend with difficulties is key to remaining productive and alert at all times. Highly trained demi-gods are not permitted to switch off.

They also continuously reinvent themselves season after season. They can produce the most talked-about collection one season, but who will remember it once the hype has died down? The market expects fresh ideas and designs from the creative teams show after show. The ability of these teams to reinvent themselves and manage change is phenomenal. They suggest, inspire and constantly search for new approaches that will spark the creative director's ability to capture market appeal. As soon as something new is learned and mastered, it is discarded or reassembled into something else. These highly trained minds never turn off.

In order to thrive and deliver, these skilled teams require a management approach that responds to the demands of their business environment.

What guiding principles does the luxury fashion industry follow to create these high-performance cultures? And can these principles be applied to improve performance in other industry sectors?

How, What and Why

Fierce competition within the luxury industry to retain the best talent as well as changing business models from retail to online sales, have had a direct impact on employee engagement. Many major luxury brands struggle to hold on to talented individuals who are lured away by financial promises and the need to fulfil their development goals. Integrated talent management processes designed to attract, develop, motivate and retain the most talented employees enable organisations to remain productive, however what else can be implemented to continuously deliver performance outcomes whilst satisfying the individual need for contribution and recognition?

In my experience, I see that managers, who are required to deliver performance outcomes, are used to talking about them in terms of tangible deliverables that can be measured - the WHAT and the HOW. They are used to explaining WHAT their teams have to do and HOW they have to do it but all too often WHY they are doing it is ignored. What is the reason behind the outcome you have to deliver? Leaders know why they do what they do but do the people who work in their teams share the same vision?

The HOW looks into the way we reach our goals, the processes we use to move ahead: strategies, results, number of calls, clients visited and so on. It's the stuff that makes the business look good. Most teams are able to speak about these, but the reason WHY they have to deliver remains elusive. The reason being that the WHY addresses the individual, not the organisation or the business outcomes. WHY are you, the individual, who works within the organisation, an important asset to me, apart from being part of my talent management process? WHY are we trying to achieve something together?

While many organisation struggle with How to implement the What in their processes and procedures to support Talent Management, I believe that brands such as Gucci who continuously seek to deliver high performance have learnt how to tap into their Why.

Where's the passion?

The answer came to me from a man who had been in his job for more than 30 years creating shoes. He had begun his career as an adolescent, learning the trade from more experienced leather artisans and, bit by bit, he had taken over from them.

When I asked him why, he crinkled his eyes and said: "Passion! There is only one reason we put up with so much craziness, it's our passion for beauty." For example at Gucci, half of the open positions are covered from within the organisation. The company firmly believes that the aim of talent management is to find and nurture the 'hidden treasures' from within its own ranks. The individual is carefully selected and entrusted with the freedom to give new meaning to the How and What of the organisation in order to bring fresh and creative ideas. This makes Gucci very attractive for highly talented individuals in the often jaded environment of Luxury fashion.

A shining example, is the appointment of Alessandro Michele, the new Creative Director who heralds an era of a new direction for the group. Francois-Henri Pinault in a recent interview about the hire of the relative unknown fashion designer says: "we were extremely surprised, touched by his passion and intimate view of the house - and decided to give him a chance."

To risk "taking a chance" on someone who has a clear WHY about his company and his career is a sure way to create high performance.

More Commitment and Engagement Articles

About the author
Shirley Soodeen

This article was written by expert business coach and development specialist Shirley Soodeen, who specialises in creating high-performance cultures in the luxury fashion industry for some of the leading brands in the world. For more information, please visit

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