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Re-energizing a UK Retail Giant

Re-energizing a UK Retail Giant

Written by:
Gregor Towers
Reviewed by :
Date created
March 9, 2023
Last updated:
June 20, 2024
5 min read
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Key takeaways

• Simon Gibson is transforming Marks & Spencer by focusing on learning and development to re-energize the retail sector.

• He integrates learning and development into M&S' business model by leveraging his commercial background and diverse industry experience.

• Simon addresses post-pandemic retail challenges by upskilling staff, creating an omnichannel brand, and implementing scalable solutions.

• He emphasizes the importance of utilizing the UK Apprenticeship Levy to bring in young talent and upskill employees.

• Simon's approach involves adapting learning strategies to fit the context of a workforce with diverse needs and challenges in the retail industry.

Developing new learning approaches to transform Marks & Spencer as an organization

And now I have landed at M&S with this brilliant opportunity to help re-energize the retail sector and put a bigger focus on learning and development.Simon Gibson, Global Head of Learning & Development at Marks & Spencer

This week we’re having a conversation with one of Lepaya’s 30 leaders transforming people and businesses. Meet Simon Gibson who made Lepaya’s leadership list for reenergizing the retail industry in the UK. Simon built his experience across many industries, making him one of the most complete contemporary learning professionals.  

Simon has niche insights into post-pandemic retail challenges and changes. And with these changes, Simon is implementing new scalable solutions to transform Marks & Spencer’s 65.000+ staff and ensure commercial growth continues on an upward trajectory in any economic climate.

How does Simon upskill people with resources and learning to create an omnichannel brand and anchor M&S as a frontrunner in the global retail industry?

 Download your retail upskilling checklist

Connecting Commercial Know-how to Learning

“I’m not going to lie, I didn’t know L&D existed as a profession. It wasn’t until the midpoint in my career where I realized that I really enjoyed working directly with customers and making a difference with a variety of products I had to sell. I feel I had a really good commercial grounding in business – I know how things work and how things make money.

Early in my career I took this option into what was a very traditional HR function but very heavily invested in developing and growing people. This opened my eyes to a completely different world of work which obviously is radically changed. But I had no idea this job existed  and I wanted to take on as much as I could to grow my career.”

Integrating L&D into M&S’ Business Model

“I’ve worked in customer facing roles selling products and I had a job in commercial business lending at what was NatWest. That goes really well and they say, ‘Simon, we think you’re really good at your job. How about you do this role for 9 months and go back even better? It’s a secondment and you are top talent.’’ And so I asked, ‘What does talent mean? What is a secondment move?’

I moved into a head office role nearly 20 years ago where I was maternity cover for the training manager for 5,000 people. That was the start of my journey into the world of learning and development.

I’ve covered many sectors and talent scale. I went to a huge IT company called Fujitsu and afterwards to a company called RS Components. I moved to Direct Line group in insurance, I’ve worked for a company called Magnox (nuclear decommissioning) and then I landed at M&S with this brilliant opportunity to help re-energize the retail sector and integrate learning and development into the business model.

People & Commercial Challenges in Retail

I would say, like many retailers, Covid changed the global face of shopping and retailing. What it helped us to do was to accelerate our plans to be a more omnichannel player. So both in the physical and the online space to reach our customers, hence being an omnichannel player.

The priorities are around those relevant skill sets. How do you create a brilliant store experience of the future? We will continue to build and acquire new shops in high streets and shopping districts whilst also delivering a brilliant seamless, online experience but they’re two very different skill sets.

And finding those skill sets in the market is hard but that’s what the market demands. Some of that we can grow ourselves and that’s where I’m trying to put energy and focus: how do we grow those relevant skills and capabilities across the organization?”

Apprenticeship Program

“There needs to be a greater awareness of the value of better utilizing the UK Apprenticeship State Levy to bring in more apprentices because a  frightening amount of money goes back to the state treasury each year.

We’re a big UK employer and we only spend a fraction of our levy but what we’d like to do is re-energize and look at again how we bring in the right people early in their career.

Bringing young talent of that 16 to 25 mark and better utilize the budget to upskill people in a way that we don’t do today. We do some of that really well but we would like to do more of it.”

Changing Learning Approach to fit the Context

“Context is everything. The challenge we have here is that 90% of our workforce is scheduled time. Meaning those on the shopfloor don’t have a desk – so we’ve got this desk versus deskless dilemma.

How can you give people better access to resources in a way that’s seamless, easy and intuitive? We have some technological challenges such as Wi-Fi access in some stores and space challenges in other stores.

And not everybody has continuous access to equipment. So it’s about the broader system which is different to if I had 10.000 staff and they’ve all got a desk – that’s quite easy to target.

Then there’s a really interesting dynamic for us: making retail a sexy place to work, develop, learn and grow. Some people just seem to find it by luck, not by design. There are brilliant store folk. but I started this conversation by saying we don’t just need brilliant in-store folk, we need a lot of different skill sets.

So we’re trying to cover many different facets. Some we do pretty well today, some we do okay and some we’ve really got to improve. And so it’s about addressing as many ways as possible to help this organization learn, develop and grow.”

Three Key Components of a People Leader

“You’ve got to have that honest chat. That’s not going to be nice and easy but you need the honesty and bravery to have some of those conversations and say isn’t going well and / or this isn’t what we should be doing now.

Then there’s the team. I think a good leader knows how to get great people around them. I’ve got lots of great people around me. I don’t have all the answers and I never will. I’ve got lots of experiences, ideas and creativity to call upon. But get great people around you and let them fly. Let them understand what they bring and what you bring – the sum of that is much greater than the individual parts.

And thirdly, be comfortable in your own skin. I don’t know what you call that in today’s world, but don’t try to be anything that you’re not. Just be the best version of you and that will take you as far as you need to go.

Reenergizing the People & Customer Touchpoints of a Retail Giant

Simon is a transformative leader who guides Marks & Spencer through change and disruption. As a people leader, Simon’s impact is two-fold: he is commercially gifted while responding to people’s needs to secure M&S’ market growth. Therefore, Simon epitomizes why a financial, technological and people understanding combine to generate business impact.

And such a retail giant needs people leaders like Simon to adapt to new challenges. From fulfilling the evolving needs of talent’s skill sets and resources to building an omnichannel brand that generates new revenue streams, Simon specializes in designing scalable yet customized solutions.

But Simon’s impact extends beyond the progress he has made at M&S. Simon is reenergizing the entire retail sector by impacting customer touchpoints and different talent age groups entering the industry. His work is exemplary to all retailers and proves why Simon merits a place on Lepaya’s top 30 leaders in 2023.

Download your retail upskilling checklist

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Lepaya is a provider of Power Skills training that combines online and offline learning. Founded by René Janssen and Peter Kuperus in 2018 with the perspective that the right training, at the right time, focused on the right skill, makes organizations more productive. Lepaya has trained thousands of employees.

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