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by Joanne Frearson
I’m sitting in the boardroom of the Mayfair showroom of luxury jeweller House of Garrard, with Joanne Milner, CEO and Sara Prentice, creative director.
The pair are just two members of an all-female leadership team at the brand. And with women still very much under-represented in senior positions in UK businesses, House of Garrard is certainly still an exception. Although the FTSE 100 is on track to reach government-backed targets of 33 per cent by 2020, the FTSE 250 is falling short.
But Milner stresses that this wasn’t an intentional outcome. “I don’t have an all-female leadership team because I went out to find an all-female leadership team,” she says. “I have the best people in the job. I don’t think there should be gender bias either way – it should be the best person for the job. The diversity point to me is less about being all female or all male. It is more about the diversity of skills.”
Diversity comes in many forms
When it comes to recruiting, House of Garrard does not have a one-size-fits-all approach. “In so many businesses, people surround themselves with mirrors of themselves,” Milner says. “It is that lack of diversity that is an issue. It is that which is missing in many businesses.”
Milner prefers to hire people in various stages of their careers, who can offer perspectives from different viewpoints. “There is diversity in age as well,” Prentice says. “Particularly in the craftsmanship area, where you have all those traditional techniques from the older level of craftsman, then you have the new guys coming in with the technology and the ideas to work with CAD [computer-aided design] and other innovations.”
Milner points out that fewer millennials are going to university, preferring instead to go directly into the workforce. This younger workforce expects different things to previous generations, with more of an expectation of a greater work-life balance. “People are working longer, and in many cases starting work younger,” she says. “The ethos of work life balance has changed quite rapidly over a short period of time.”
The idea of what a workplace should be has evolved over the years, says Milner, and there are differences in how generations first started their careers. Milner recalls a working environment dominated by presenteeism when she was a graduate, with employees working late for little reason, or leaving desk lamps on and suit jackets over the backs of chairs to make it look like they had been.
Things are different now, though. “There has been a big shift in that, all for good reasons,” Milner says. “[It’s about] what it means to be committed and loyal. [But] that is one of the challenges as well – that loyalty has to be earned – much more with the younger workforce than in the past.
“People will move around quite quickly – if you want longevity in your workforce, you have to listen to what is important to people and how you match it.”
To help staff get motivated and value where they work, House of Garrard also supports sustainable and charitable initiatives, which are close to people’s hearts – the company is a member of the Positive Luxury initiative, which awards its Butterfly Mark to luxury brands that commit to sustainability and “measurable impact”. “That will become a bigger part, I hope, of every business,” says Milner.
Learning from your workmates
To keep the workforce inspired, training is a big part of staff development at House of Garrard. Around 70 people work for the luxury jeweller, and Milner encourages staff to learn about the different aspects of the business, to give them a broad knowledge of and more of a connection to the company.
Given the brand’s long and illustrious history, they have a lot to learn. House of Garrard was appointed Crown Jeweller by Queen Victoria in 1735, and has created tiaras that are still worn at state occasions, as well as the sapphire cluster engagement ring worn by the Duchess of Cambridge.
The last Thursday of every month includes a “Lunch and Learn” session in the boardroom, an open-door event where anybody in the company can learn about other areas of the business. “You get a better understanding of what each department does,” says Prentice. “You are not isolated or sitting in your own little bubble – you understand what [other employees] are doing and have a comprehension of how the business works in the various teams.”
The jeweller also sponsors staff members to take professional qualifications in whatever field they are working in, whether it’s accountancy, HR, gemology or anything else related to the business. “You have to be conscious of making sure they are getting the training that they want,” Milner says. “If you are investing in [an employee’s] career, you are getting the benefit of that, and you also get their loyalty. A lot more people are deciding not to go to university, and they need a way to get those professional qualifications. Studying alongside working could well be become a much bigger thing.”
An apprenticeship scheme is also offered, to give younger potential employees a route into the jewellery trade that lets them earn while they learn. Milner sees this as a far better way to get good candidates than an unpaid placement. “[We’re] trying to make sure people can get into work without having to work for free for a year, which I find wrong,” she says.
Everyone feels valued
Milner’s philosophy is that the C-suite shouldn’t be dominated by particular people, but that everyone’s voice should be valued and listened to. “If you feel like the person next to you is your competition, then that actually works against you,” she says.
“It is no longer deemed negative if you are nurturing to your team. That is a nice change – that actually caring is not bad, it is a good thing. You don’t have to put on your tough work face. You can just be you. That is a really positive move.”
Milner sees her role as CEO as more that of a custodian responsible for protecting the future of the brand. “You need to leave it in a better shape, ready for a better future,” she says. “To do that, you need your workforce. “A lot of people would think this is the less exciting side of running a business – to be a custodian of a brand to make sure you are in a strong place for the future. But it is to make sure you have a workforce that has strong depth of talent, that you are not too top-heavy, and that you have younger people who are ready to grow with the brand.”
A lot of the training at House of Garrard is aimed at making sure staff members are ready to deal with what clients might demand of the company in the future. “There will be an embracement of more new technology that enables different ways of working,” Milner says. At the moment, for example, the company is using WhatsApp to communicate with its customers.
But regardless of how technology comes into the equation, both Milner and Prentice agree that the future of work at House of Garrard will be centered on making sure the workforce remains diverse, well trained and nurtured, and that employees see themselves as ambassadors of the brand.
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