The Towards Maturity Journey: River Island

by | May 3, 2019 | Case Studies, Featured, General, Interviews, Resources

We always talk about the benefits of undergoing Towards Maturity’s Learning Health Check and using statistics to emphasise the effects of benchmarking, but what does its real impact look like on a business? We interviewed Nebel Crowhurst, Head of People Experience at River Island, to find out what role the Towards Maturity Health Check played in helping her develop her organisation into one that facilitates a high-performing learning culture.

When you joined River Island, what did the L&D function look like?

Nebel Crowhurst
Head of People Experience,
River Island


When I joined River Island in 2015, I was tasked with defining the people development strategy, which was a great opportunity as it bought a completely new focus to the people agenda in the business. That said, it was also a massive challenge as many people within the business had worked with River Island for many years and the con

cept of having an employee led career development culture was not something they had experienced before.

It became apparent very quickly that not only did we have an opportunity for things we could do differently, it would also be an interesting journey because our culture here is really mixed. We have a combination of people who have been in the business for years and who are used to not having anything really focused on L&D, and then we have those who join the business expecting personal development support. Within my first few months, I gained an understanding of where the opportunities were within learning and development throughout the business.

To start with, there wasn’t really a team. There were a couple of people who identified as being L&D but they were systems trainers who carried out admin tasks and systems training. They looked after Head Office and didn’t really do anything for our retail network, so it was very limited. I found it exciting knowing we could make a big difference. When you start off like that, it’s quite hard to find a way to be able to test out data or insights that can help to leverage how you can demonstrate having an impact.

“This gave me the evidence I needed to demonstrate a correlation between management development and bottom line performance.”

In previous roles I have actively used business analytics and commercial data to look at pre and post numbers which enable a platform to demonstrate the impact on deliverables.

It was around this time when I joined River Island, that I got to know about Towards Maturity’s Learning Health Check and it sparked something in me. I needed something that would give me data, so I could say to the business, “you know what, we’ve got a long way to go to make improvements”, as well as data, to show people in the existing team that we are not actually operating as an effective L&D function.

When we did the first benchmark, our results were 12.86. It was poor! I’d just come from a team previously that was multi-award-winning and where L&D was an integral part of the business, no big project would’ve happened in the business without my support.

I used the Health Check data as a bit of a tool to give the team some acknowledgement that we have a long route ahead of us and I used it as a platform to build some of our aspirations on too. We defined a three-year plan with all the things we wanted to deliver across the business, and we included within that a series of metrics.

One of which, being that we would work towards becoming a Top Deck organisation from a Towards Maturity perspective. We agreed on a plan which would help us to realise the aspiration of becoming a highly credible team both internally and externally. The benchmark tool would give us a guide to how we were continuously improving throughout a three-year period.

When you realised you scored so low, were you surprised?
No and there was part of me that was pleased. I needed it to be low, so I could say to the business that we were so far beneath where we should be that we really need to work differently.

Some people would feel awkward about going through a benchmark out of 100 and scoring 12.8. What was the team’s reaction to that? Were they excited, knowing the amazing impact they could have, or did they feel like they were facing an uphill struggle?
There was a mixture of feelings. It’s the people who saw it as a great opportunity, and were excited about it, that are still with me today.

“Use the Health Check results as a source of data to measure against and share the results with your teams.”

When you first completed the benchmark then, how did you identify some of the areas you were going to work on first? We had three key focus areas. The first, was making sure that we had strategic alignment. Realising that anything we had to deliver must have commercial impact.

The second being that we had absolutely no digital learning tool, so it was about looking for solution to that; to introduce technology which allowed employees to access digital learning.

The third was management capability. We had just gone through the transition of moving away from a traditional appraisal approach and introduced a much more agile way of managing performance, but we hadn’t done anything up until that point to really help managers to feel that they were competent and confident to deal with that. The three key areas for us were; strategic alignment, learning technologies and management development.

Did you return to the Health Check each year to help identify blind spots?
If you don’t do it every year, you don’t know whether you are progressing in the right direction. Fortunately for us, if you look at our scores year-on-year, we moved in the right direction until we became a top performing organisation.

Gradually, by checking our score every year using the analytic report which highlighted where our gaps were and where to improve, it gave me a chance to celebrate successes with the team.

We could see which areas we were doing well at, with our benchmark scores, and we knew which areas to focus on continuing to drive the overall index up to where we wanted to get it to.

How did you manage to get leadership and senior management buy-in?
It was a combination of me trying find something commercial, combined with engagement data which we used at the time, as well as the Towards Maturity Health Check data, so for me it was all three.

I did the first benchmark and used it from a team point of view, internally, and waited until we did the second one, so we could deliver the results demonstrating the difference between the two years. Throughout that time, we distributed an engagement survey which provided us with some data and we also did a lot of work on our management programme, specifically in retail with our Retail Area Managers. This gave me the evidence I needed to demonstrate a correlation between management development and bottom line performance.

We were able to correlate £6.8 million in difference in performance across the retail network, which came out of the specific regional projects that were hugely commercial and all tracked through the programme.

When you then go forward a year, and you’ve got the combination of Towards Maturity data, engagement data and commercial numbers, to then say “this is the difference we can make” if we work in the right way. Then you start to build up the momentum of what you can deliver, how you can develop a great team and you can increase investments.

This is not to say it will necessarily work on its own, doing the index is great and it will probably work within a people function. For you to be able to recognise where you have some gaps, then feeding that into some of your own data will make it more meaningful and commercial when taking it to a leadership board.

You have mentioned the improvements to business impact, but what other changes have you seen around the company because of the impact of learning?
I think culturally, we have been trying to focus more on an employee-led type environment. Empowering people and letting them own their development themselves.

When I first joined, if I sat down with somebody to give them some advice on their career development plan, it would tend to be very task-based. I would ask questions around their management style and behaviours and about being a manager of the future. Skills that are harder to develop and grow weren’t always recognised.

Now we are in a place where we have more of a blend. Of course, there are technical skills which will need developing; but people are also recognising the need to grow their leadership capability. This has come from things like us introducing emotional intelligence assessments, 360-feedback tools and psychometric assessments. We have got mechanisms in place for people to become more self-aware of their leadership and management style. That’s been a real shift over the years that I’ve been here.

One last question: if you were to give someone advice, someone that is about to start the Health Check process, what would be your key points to take away?
Answer the questions open and honestly. It’s pointless trying to fudge your results because you’re just not helping yourself. What’s the point in trying to over-inflate yourself? There is no benefit. So that would be my first thing, just be brutally honest with your scores.

The second thing, especially in the first year, is to utilise the Towards Maturity analysts who can help identify gaps and accelerate strategy. It’s important to interpret the data effectively and know how to prioritise.

I think the last point of advice would be to use the Health Check results as a source of data to measure against and share the results with your teams. By making them aware of the data, it becomes familiar to them.

To begin the next steps of your learning journey, complete the Health Check today

 

About River Island

With over 60 years of fashion retailing experience, River Island is one of the most well-known and loved brands on the High Street in over 350 stores across the UK, Ireland and internationally throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe, as well as six dedicated online sites operating in four currencies.

River Island always aim to bring new and original fashion to you, with great design at the heart of everything they create. Almost all of their products are designed in-house and, as they have one of the largest design teams on the High Street, River Island are proud that we can deliver fabulous new fashion in-store and online for you every single week.

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