John Lewis might have made the ideal appointment

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Choosing a new leader from outside the sector may seem risky, but they can provide valuable insight

Last week Sharon White was announced as the next chairman of the John Lewis Partnership. While many media reports mention White’s undoubted leadership qualities, they have also focused on her lack of retail experience. Is this a cause for alarm?

As recruitment specialists in HR we are seeing a trend emerging of companies looking outside their sector for senior-level candidates. Organisations are trying to break internal cycles, get a different perspective and come up with fresh ideas, which could be just what the retail sector needs.

For all businesses in the retail industry there is a huge challenge ahead, so choosing a new leader from another sector might seem risky. But even current chairman Charlie Mayfield has acknowledged that “these are not conventional retail times, nor is the Partnership a conventional company”.

Previously head of Ofcom, White was a contender to succeed Mark Carney at the Bank of England, so her stock has been rising for quite some time. When she takes over next year as chairman (a title she has insisted on keeping), the skills she has learned as head of Ofcom will be valuable and give a new perspective to the way the company is run.

Guiding Ofcom when it was considering breaking up BT surely could not have given her better experience of how to lead a major organisation through difficult times and make tough decisions. White's economic sense will also be valuable. But her real power will come in questioning the forms and structures of the John Lewis Partnership. And, as leader of the business, she has the power to make changes.

However, this is not the only case of companies appreciating the value of other sectors. Employers are already realising the potential for innovation by bringing across talent from other markets. At this senior level the difference between sectors can be a strength. As a leader they will undoubtedly have the talent to utilise, consult and manage the existing sector experience of their new colleagues. While those leadership skills are an important part of the process, the ability to bring in a valuable change in direction or revision of the route is the real appeal to company owners and board members.

It is not just at senior level we are seeing employers bring in talent from other sectors. For instance, many charities seek to attract people from the private sector with the commercial nous and attention to detail that helps increase the success or the profile of the charity and champion its causes. We are seeing more of these practices every day from employers in a range of sectors willing to innovate in order to thrive.

When employing at any level, the person with the ‘been there done that’ experience can be the obvious choice – but sometimes a more creative approach is needed. 'We’ve always done it that way' is often used as an argument against change, and who better to champion change than somebody with no previous experience of the business that can question everything. This is especially the case within a sector going through challenging times.

We are already seeing some employers specifically requesting to see leadership candidates from other sectors. But the high-profile nature of the John Lewis Partnership appointment could pave the way for more to take this direction. For the right role it could be the best move.

Chris Adcock is director at Reed HR

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