Transformational Leadership…Five minutes with Ian Watson, CEO of the Unbound Group

21st March 2023
Alka Gandhi
Associate Partner

In our latest Transformational Leaders interview, Berwick Partners’ Alka Gandhi speaks to Ian Watson, CEO of the Unbound Group about leadership, lessons and the advice gained during a career within retail and consumer working for businesses. Ian’s experience spans both listed and PE organisations both within the UK and internationally. Ian has a track record of transforming well respected brands whose business models have not evolved to meet the change in the consumer and retail landscape. The most recent example has been the successful turnaround of Hotter Shoes, a traditional stores business that has shifted to a successful ecommerce led business.

When you became CEO what was your biggest learning curve?

I think when you are part of a wider management team focusing on a particular function of the business, you think you understand the main elements of the CEO role.  However, as with everything else in life you don’t know what you don’t know.  I came from a commercial background and therefore understanding in more detail how things work more broadly and how they should work is a fast learning curve. For example, I had obviously an understanding of finance of course but corporate finance was very different. I had to get up to speed very quickly with banking arrangements, debt structures, covenants etc. Of course, you do this by having the right people around you, but you have to invest time in really understanding the broader picture, build a network where you can ask any questions. Remember that you don’t know everything and you are not expected to be the expert in all areas but you are accountable. I see myself as a ‘lifetime learner’ and  make a point of studying things that I don’t know.

Having great people around you, who you can bounce ideas with, in a non-judgemental environment is vital.  I think the biggest learning was simply – ‘I am in charge’ – I can listen to advice, take on board the ideas of others, but ultimately, I am responsible.

What advice would you give to a Functional Executive Leader moving into their first MD/CEO role? And what qualities do you look for when building an exec team?

You need to really understand the business, and the core specialisms that drive competitive advantage.  If these are areas outside of your own functional expertise, surround yourself with experts in those areas – but at the same time build your own knowledge base so you can effectively challenge.

Be clear on what you want to achieve and the leadership style you want to follow and project.  What got you to this point may not be effective for your next stage and you may need to bring new skills into your armoury.  However, ultimately you have to be authentic and remain true to yourself.

In terms of qualities and skills, I always try to find a balance of personalities, backgrounds and experience within my team – however I probably come back to logic, structure and instinct……. Most importantly is the overriding need for passion for the job in-hand, without that you will never achieve excellence.

When building a team it’s important to consider the state of the business, for example if it is in turnaround or transformation phase then I think it is important to have a balance of leaders who have the experience of delivering through a period of change. But having different perspectives is key on my executive team.

The Retail landscape continues to change and be challenged constantly, what advice would you offer to future leaders preparing for a CEO role?

How do you prepare for the unexpected? Understanding how business models can pivot, and trying to build scenarios accordingly is key.   Go and learn as much as you can, take up every opportunity to engage with your peers.  Make sure you’re watching the external environment as well as being immersed in your organisation.

What is the best advice that you have received. How has it shaped you both as a leader and as a person?

I have been fortunate enough to have some great mentors throughout my career. But some key advice in particular that has stuck with me is test your hypothesis or strategy with a’ blow away test’.  If you wrote your strategy on a piece of paper and that paper blows out of the window and someone happens to pick it up and read it, they should be able to instantly understand what it is you’re trying to achieve!

Everyone in the organisation needs to understand the strategy and their part within it.

The Unbound Group has undergone a successful business transformation program moving its business model from store led to ecommerce. What lessons have you learnt about leading a business through transformation?

The key element for me in a transformation project is to explain the reason for change, what the changes and the expected results are throughout the organisation in as simple language as possible so that you take people on the journey with you, but then execute as quickly as possible.  Equally in such environments you are not going to please everyone all of the time, you have to make the right decisions for the future of the business.  We pivoted heavily to e-commerce during the pandemic but kept 25 stores and concessions because we believe in the role of physical retail.

Alka Gandhi is Head of the Retail Practice at Berwick Partners, specialising in recruiting senior management and leadership roles across the sector.

Categories: Retail