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The Hut Group’s CIO: Enabling growth through any disruption

The Hut Group The Hut Group
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Christoph Scholz

18 months after initiating a change program across The Hut Group, its CIO Joanna Drake is still riding high on continued growth. What's the secret?

The future of work is once again a business-critical question. COVID-19 has been a pivotal event in reshaping not just where we work, how we work or who we work with, but what works. No team has had a larger hand in this rapid shift than the technology team. Technology leaders therefore now have the responsibility of protecting their businesses and nurturing a different company altogether through the crisis. Their priorities pre-COVID19 were to maintain a productive workforce, a secure system and an agile culture. Have those changed in the weeks since? To understand how these technology leaders are leading in a time of crisis we committed to asking them.

The Hut Group is best known as an e-commerce expert in the industry, owing luxury health and beauty brands alongside building technology platforms to power its solutions and acquisitions, globally. The model seems to be working. THG – as it’s better known – recently reported its greatest sales figures, topping £1Billion. It’s a success story at a time of contraction. And its CIO believes prescient preparation is the key to its successes.

“We’re relishing the challenge [of lockdown and remote working]. The timing was actually good for us thanks to decisions we made over 18 months ago; we’ve been able to manage the disruption well,” said Joanna Drake, THG’s CIO.

The decisions she’s referring to form a massive digital change program, initiated in part because Drake wanted her organization to be far more agile. She rolled out new technologies and ran digital workspace programs to support her vision.

“We took the ethos that staff should be able to work any time, from anywhere.

“The aim is to make sure we can provide services flexibly from across the globe in different roles: from warehouses to health clubs, hotels to offices. Our devices should be a dumb thing that our people enable,” she continues.

Drake was clear that everything should be cloud-based, forging ahead with office for the web, single sign-on and multi factor authentication, via its technology partner, Okta.

In retrospect it was an incredible feat of foresight.

Entire industries have had to learn fast the processes and structures that enable agility, adaptability and productivity. It’s laudable that some businesses have been reacted so quickly to an unprecedented global economy amid pandemic, but far better still to have prepared for disruption nearly two years previously. The results may be hard reading for any experiencing sector contraction.

“We’re getting busier under lockdown; we’re still growing because of these solutions.”

Is THG’s success entirely down to strong leadership and the right investments? Drake laughs.

“Our staff’s average age is young, so that helps with training and adoption, sure. But what really helped drive our change program forward, quickly, was its communication across the organization.”

Drake goes on to explain that buy-in, or lack thereof, is one of the most underappreciated hurdles to transformation. With that in mind the senior leadership made sure any changes were communicated well to the company, in clear, concise language, with benefits listed from the outset. They also compared innovation in the B2C world, which employees themselves expected, as arguments for change in their own teams.

If it sounds like storytelling, you’d be spot on.

“Our aim was to tell a story and bring the company along with us.”

This story has also helped mould a tight culture of innovation, agility and adaptability at THG. It hasn’t been impacted by lockdown measures and the rapid shift to remote working. What’s next for the company that’s seemingly 18 months ahead of the rest of the industry?

“We’re seeking more automation, growth in our app stories and replacements for our remaining legacy infrastructure. For years now we’ve also been building a foundation of technology we don’t want to change, but improve and get the most ROI.”

Most importantly for Drake is to continue focusing on her team: strong culture is vital for the future of any company, she advises.

“The ability to change on a sixpence and understand why is more important now more than ever. It goes back to the power of storytelling. This is our priority, plain and simple.”

With this closing statement Drake joins a growing list of technology and IT leaders stating people – employees, teams, cultures – as their main priority for growth and change in the coming months. What was once the premise for soft-touch strategies within a HR context are suddenly being taken onboard by the rest of the business; the adaptability of any business increasingly lies in its people.

To watch the interview and watch Joanna Drake in full, click here.