They all have different causes, but three of the fashion world’s top executives left the catwalk stage right this week.Nick Robertson, chief executive of online fashion group Asos, decided to stand down after 15 years in charge and Natalie Massenet left her role as executive chairman of digital fashion group Net-a-Porter to pursue new opportunities. Fashion retailer Karen Millen’s chief executive Mike Shearwood also said goodbye after failing to win support for a management buy-out. These are clearly individual cases, but the timing suggests that the old saying of always compare yourself to your peers before anyone else still rings true. I’m not suggesting that Massenet decided now was a good time to leave because Robertson had made his mind up to go, or that Shearwood had bit his bullet because of the shake-ups at Asos and Net-a-Porter, but the timing must be more than coincidence. Your peer group – the companies in your sector – are your closest competitors and rivals but also your closest barometer. You must always keep a close eye on what your nearest rival is doing rather than say a business in another sector because their decisions will ultimately affect you on a greater scale. It sounds obvious doesn’t it? But so often it just doesn’t happen. Firms live in separate bubbles, concentrate on personal growth strategies so markedly that teams often don’t pop up for air and look around them. If they do they too often compare themselves with the wrong businesses, trying to ape the next big thing they see on the internet or the TV. The next big business brain, big business idea, how a firm presents themselves on Dragons’ Den say or a profile on BBC or Radio 4. Get this new business book on how to think and act big and grow more sales, go on this course and learn the secrets of success. It’s no real surprise. In the olden days certain parts of a city were split into sectors – this is the area where the jewellers stores reside, this is where the clothes manufacturers are, here are the grocers and the butchers. It still exists in parts of London of course as we saw with the recent raids on the jewellery stores in Hatton Garden – they still have their own quarters. But living cheek by jowl beside your fellow jewellers, watching how they work, discussing the gossip about rivals and suppliers and customers with each other over a pint after work – that is harder to do in a virtual world or in a tech hub full of different types of business and personalities. But it is important to measure up your values, the way you do customer service, your marketing skills and the strength of your management with your peers. These are the direct rivals for your custom – these are the people who are most like you. Perhaps it was in the thinking, somewhere, of Massenet and Shearwood – the prospect of Robertson leaving ASOS. The publicity, the chance of a fresh pair of eyes, new strategies and new energy at a fashion rival. Maybe they thought the best way forward for their own businesses was to depart and find their own new sources of energy and spirit from within or without the company. Of course that could be total codswallop. The choices could have been completely independent and personal. You could of course alternatively argue that Robertson leaving Asos would make you even more determined to stay – the competition in turmoil, potential uncertainty over the strengths of the new leader, nervous investors, customers and suppliers. But the over-riding message is still valid. That is to keep a close eye on your peers, react to their actions, defend and attack, take ideas off them and make them better, trade and market better than them, be the loudest shouter in the crowded marketplace. Don’t lose sight of them even if they live in the online world. They are still your closest rivals.
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