‘Inspirational means “in spirit”, and you can connect to people in spirit’ – New Look CTO Ed Alford’
Ed elaborates on his career path, explains what leadership means to him, and shares some insights he’s learned along the way.
For someone who professes not to have had a plan for how his leadership career might go, things have worked out well for Ed Alford. After long, successful stints as a consultant (Andersen/Accenture) and in the energy industry (BP, where he was Global CIO and Senior VP in the Group Leadership team), in April 2021 Ed changed course entirely when he became CTO at New Look. We were excited to host Ed at the Venari Partners office recently, where he discussed his experience in – and philosophy of – leadership.
Although he admits that he never saw himself working in fashion, meeting the executive team at New Look convinced Ed to take the job. ‘I felt I could work with and trust the people who interviewed me,’ he says. ‘They all came across with the same purpose.’
This may have opened a very different chapter in Ed’s management career, but his view of leadership has always revolved around problem solving, insatiable curiosity, and a willingness to seize chances when they come up. ‘I knew that if I worked hard and I was knowledgeable on leading teams […] that when opportunity arose, I’d be able to step into it,’ he says. Ed is invited to somewhat ‘cooler’ fashion industry events through his current role than anything he got to attend during his time at BP – but similar challenges remain constant across different markets.
So, what are Ed’s key principles when building and leading teams? One essential aspect is knowing the right time to get involved. After getting over the urge to do everything himself, Ed now credits his role in various projects he oversaw as ‘allowing people to have the space where they were trusted’.
Psychology backs up this approach: stressful, unrealistic deadlines mean workers revert to ‘fight-or-flight, which doesn’t allow them to use the brain,’ Ed states. ‘Allowing people to use the front part of the brain,’ in less highly charged environments, ‘is how you think and create and come up with the right ideas.’
Humility is also central to Ed’s leadership style. He quotes Simon Sinek’s maxim about having ‘people in your charge’, rather than ‘being in charge’ yourself. Ed also credits Paul Burgess, a former colleague at Accenture, for his policy of making a point of greeting, and showing interest in, co-workers at every rung of the corporate ladder. ‘People talk about inspirational. Well, inspirational means “in spirit”,’ Ed notes. ‘And you can connect to people in spirit.’
Ed recognises that executive leadership is not for everyone, but encourages problem solvers drawn to the challenge to ‘have a go. It’s not about the title for me.’ At this point in his long, varied, and illustrious career, one could perhaps forgive Ed for having a very individualistic view of what success means – but nothing could be further from the truth. ‘Success to me, in the nineties, was not having to be sat at my desk on a Friday night at ten o’clock,’ he says wryly – and this approach continues to serve him well. ‘Success, for me, is not having an environment where people don’t get to live life outside work.’
A few questions we asked Ed Alford...
Did you ever see yourself going into retail coming out of the gas and oil business?
My journey was always about opportunity and awareness. I knew that if I worked hard and I was knowledgeable on leading teams […] that when opportunity arose, I’d be able to step into it.
What made you accept the opportunity at New Look?
I felt that I could work with and trust the people who interviewed me […] They all came across with the same purpose.
How have you found the last year?
In the last 18 months it’s been about trying to foster […] the trust and collaboration inside the team across the organisation, and also foster trust and collaboration with the partners that we need to work with in order to deliver in the way that we have been [during] the last 18 months as well.
Is there an ideal pace to operate at? Key to transformation?
I think the biggest barrier to transformation is unrealistic timelines.
What are your guiding principles for leading teams?
[My role] was allowing people to have the space where they were trusted, and where they could collaborate, and where they could work with each other, and they could learn, and they could fail, and they always felt you had their back.
Humility: have you always been humble?
People talk about inspirational. Well, inspirational means “in spirit”, and you can connect to people in spirit.
How have you put yourself forward for these leadership roles whilst still retaining humility?
If you do have an opportunity to help make the place better and leave it in a better state than you found it, or help people, then have a go. It’s not about the title for me.
Have you changed since New Look in comparison with BP? (perception of leadership)
I guess all of my career has been around challenges and solving challenges.
What does success look like to you, then and now?
Success for me is not having an environment where people don’t get to live life outside work.
How are you tackling retaining and attracting talent?
Well, the way I tackle it is, is to create an environment where if I hire you to be an engineer, you're an engineer.
What do you think the biggest challenges are for omni-channel retailers over the next 12 months?
I think the challenge for a lot of retailers is to think: how do you streamline the executable path to the vision that you're trying to create?
Are there any retailers that you think are doing it well?
I look at some of our rivals like Zara and H&M and I even go into some of the higher end brands like Burberry and Louis Vuitton and all of that kind of stuff. And I look at pockets of absolute brilliance.
Who are your inspirations in life?
I look for people who […] create the right environment for people to be successful. Nobody's perfect. You’re only human at the end of the day […] You can always be learning.
If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?
I'd be trying to learn. I'd pick something and I'd learn how to be the best at it.
Olivia Britz leads Venari Partners' Digital & Technology function. She proudly works with many of the world’s leading brands across all sectors to source world-class technology and digital leaders across all major disciplines.