Cover Feature

How Mulberry bagged L&D

The people function has faced the challenge of delivering necessary skills for the business over a difficult pandemic period. In an exclusive interview, Mulberry’s HR Director shares how the luxury fashion brand delivered in this difficult time…

Words by Jade Burke

How Mulberry bagged L&D

The people function has faced the challenge of delivering necessary skills for the business over a difficult pandemic period. In an exclusive interview, Mulberry’s HR Director shares how the luxury fashion brand delivered in this difficult time…

Words by Jade Burke

Throughout the pandemic, various workplace issues were placed on the backburner as businesses grappled with disruption and survival. It was easy for diversity initiatives, workplace benefits, and learning & development (L&D), among other things, to have often felt forgotten about as HR pivoted to helping the business navigate this difficult period.

Yet, all the HR agenda points that may have been temporarily dropped in the face of acute challenges, are essential if an organisation is to thrive in the long term. For instance, consider skills development: before the COVID-19 outbreak, the People Profession Survey 2020 found that learning was a key priority for 42% of business stakeholders. However, despite its importance for businesses – Middlesex University’s Institute for Work Based Learning found that 56% of HR managers believed training and development to be an essential business enabler – it seems to have fallen off the agenda. Less than a quarter now report L&D as a top three priority.

From these figures, it’s clear that L&D is falling down the agenda – but why? Well, according to Cathryn Petchey, HR Director at luxury fashion brand Mulberry, who speaks exclusively to myGrapevine magazine, one reason could be a lack of opportunities for those who need training, likely more junior staff, as a result of more remote working.

“I do agree with it [that L&D has fallen down the agenda] and I think home working has probably been quite a relatively easy transition for somebody like me who’s experienced and established in their job. I think if you’re more junior or you’re new in a job it’s a lot more difficult,” she claims. With this in mind, Cathryn has worked towards improving L&D within Mulberry so that each and every staff member can boost their own skillset, wellbeing is cared for and other areas of HR’s remit aren’t impacted, despite huge disruption to work as usual.

Cathryn Petchey,

HR Director

Spending ‘virtual’ time

Despite challenges, posed by enforced working structures, improving L&D is now firmly on the radar for Cathryn, with a key method being to encourage managers and senior leaders to spend more ‘virtual’ time with their teams. Due to the quick shift to remote working – this happened almost overnight for the majority of businesses when UK PM Boris Johnson told employees they would have to work from home where possible last March – the ability to offer elements of L&D shifted dramatically. For example, physical workshops were a thing of the past, while face-to-face mentoring could no longer take place.

As a result, Cathryn’s team has prompted managers to spend more ‘virtual’ time with their team members. “It’s really making sure that they (managers) are spending time with them (staff) virtually and getting together their whole team rather than just their direct reports,” she explains. However, she admits this development tack does “take more of an effort because people aren’t in front of you so you have to go to the effort of doing it virtually”.

She also thinks this approach could work both ways and doesn’t necessarily just work in siloed teams. Cathryn continues: “We’ve talked a little bit about reverse mentoring; connecting people on a mentoring basis across the patch, looking at high potential people and potentially doing something specific with those individuals.”

Conversations became more and more important

Mulberry’s holistic L&D approach

Cathryn’s approach isn’t just about encouraging managers to spend more time with their teams in order to help them identify where skills shortfalls may be. That is just one part of a joined-up strategy that stitches together performance management – understanding where employees may need upskilling – and managerial understanding of how to develop staff and wellbeing.

For Mulberry this meant that the relationship between the manager and employee had to change. With a small HR team of 10 members, Cathryn’s HR colleagues need all the help they can get from managers to connect with each of Mulberry’s 1,100 employees. “We really rely on the managers to be having close conversations, doing performance management and doing wellbeing checks,” she says.

Whilst this approach allowed managers to get a holistic sense of how employees were – something which was important as general wellbeing suffered during the peak of the pandemic and lockdown – it also allowed agile goal and development framing to take place. “Conversations became more and more important, and it feels like performance management has and will become much more agile,” Cathryn expresses. “It is much more focused on the individual; more focused on making sure that we know our employees and we know what they need to perform.”

Why L&D makes business sense

There are obvious business benefits to concentrating on L&D. For example, data from  ClearCompany previously revealed that 68% of employees regard training and development as a company’s most important policy.  Elsewhere, go2HR revealed that 40% of employees with poor training will leave the company within the first year.

One business who is well-versed in its continual development of staff is international auction house Bonhams. Jennifer Buckley, CPO of the firm previously told HR Grapevine that “primarily we want to really invest in our people, we want to get the best out of them”. This includes a heavy focus on mentorship, the rollout of a management programme and a new leadership development programme.

The focus for us is definitely about supporting the individual

Why L&D

These changes were undertaken by Cathryn with an obvious understanding of the role employee development can play in an organisation but also a nod to the fact that development obviously needed to be updated for these very different times. It’s not just Mulberry who is doing this, though. Research from Fosway Group revealed that 94% of L&D professionals reported that they have changed their L&D strategy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, two in three have made significant changes to what they do and how they do it.

For Cathryn, as described above, this meant encouraging more one-on-one chats between employees and their managers – giving them the opportunity to discuss with staff what they want more of – and giving employees more choice in their development, whether that meant offering an online training course, or allowing opportunities to sit in on senior team meetings to boost skillsets. Whatever it may be, Cathryn was aware that this shift to ‘virtual’ meant that L&D had to adapt in line with the change to work.

The last year changed everything about work and the way we work

Focussing on the individual

Despite organisational and macro-level change, the last year has, as hinted at above, allowed Cathryn and her team to focus more on the individual and their own development and training. This prompted Mulberry to truly listen to its workforce and their needs; for example, the firm introduced a questionnaire focussing on wellbeing, which also helped to spark the firm’s first ever mental health first aid training with a group of managers.

This also included the roll out of wellbeing bulletins for managers with hints and tips, as well as the introduction of some new development courses including ‘Leading and Developing High Performance Teams’ and the ‘Drive Your Development’. “As a result of the pandemic, we have taken a look at our policies and are doing a bit of a policy refresh and we will do skills training around those when we roll those out too. So, we have a bit planned coming up,” she tells myGrapevine magazine.

Each of these initiatives coupled together will certainly help to bring L&D and performance management back to the fore within the fashion house, as Cathryn enthuses: “I think the focus for us is definitely about supporting the individual as a whole in the context of performance management.”

‘The Mulberry story’

  • The brand was established in 1971 by Founder, Roger Saul. 

  • Its recognisable tree logo was created by Saul’s sister, while the name ‘Mulberry’ came from the trees he would pass on his way to school. 

  • First designs included buckled belts, closely followed by other accessories including bags and a womenswear line in 1979.

  • The fashion house’s heritage is quintessentially British, with early inspiration taken from styles synonymous with English rural pursuits – hunting, shooting and fishing.

  • Mulberry is recognised for iconic handbag styles: the Bayswater, the Alexa, the Amberley and the Iris.

Extra attention

While Mulberry’s Cathryn noticed that the pandemic could threaten L&D, she also understands that there are other HR agenda points that also need extra attention. One being the wellbeing and health of staff. In fact, research by Gartner supports this as it revealed in 2020 that two-thirds of organisations have introduced new wellness benefits to support employees’ mental and emotional wellbeing. It is clear this would be in response to increased need.

Cathryn shares that it was something that the business “naturally” started to look at and that the L&D agenda could actively boost organisational wellbeing, via the introduction of mental health first aid training. “I think it’s a topic that’s come to the fore for the UK over the last year and so naturally as a business you need to look at what you’re doing and what you can do more of,” she explains.

This approach wasn’t top down, though. To find out how employees were coping, the HR team launched an internal survey back in February this year “because we wanted to ask people how they were feeling,” says Cathryn. She notes that despite staff reporting that they were largely feeling resilient this, “we all know it has been really difficult for the last year” therefore Mulberry “wants to support people where we can, so it’s (wellbeing) definitely a focus for us.” This is where training of mental health managers will have an impact, she believes.

Of course, Mulberry’s sole wellbeing provision isn’t just about training up mental health managers. Cathryn has also focussed on keeping people connected. To do this, various activities have been rolled out for employees to take part in, such as a step-a-thon and baking competition, while every Monday a ‘Mindful Monday’ message is sent out which offers hints and tips on how to improve mental wellbeing and boost engagement.

We wanted to ask people how they were feeling

Adopting the hybrid model

Mulberry is also set to embrace the hybrid work model when offices reopen on June 21, 2021. This comes following an additional survey that the firm carried out which revealed that the staff who had been working from home had enjoyed the benefits it offered them. However, while many members of staff have noted the positives of remote working, the HR leader shares that there are some issues that HR has to tackle – the most notable being the ability to switch off when at home. “While it’s important to recognise that there are some downsides to work/life balance when working from home, we need to help people manage switching off,” she explains.

Similarly, there are other challenges that come with the hybrid working model when it comes to L&D. For example, a US Owl Lab study found that 29% of employees said they miss the visibility of being in the office and training and career progression opportunities – which suggests that this way of working may cause a hindrance to development. Recognising this may be a challenge, Cathryn shares that Mulberry will be relying on the relationship of employees with their line managers to ensure communication is clear and transparent when it comes to people’s schedules on when they are and aren’t in the office, to ensure that learning and development of each staff member can be targeted appropriately.

“We really want to try and keep it as flexible as we can,” adds Cathryn. “But from June when the Government gives the go ahead, we plan to do a 50% in the office and a 50% at home model, and we will really need our managers to be talking to teams, looking at the workplace and making those decisions themselves.”

The focus for us is definitely about supporting the individual

‘The better for Mulberry’

From tackling development remotely and enhancing the training of managers to focus more on the wellbeing of staff members, to examining the performance of employees, Mulberry’s Cathryn is keen to ensure L&D is a top priority within the global fashion house. And it’s no wonder this is crucial for the HR leader, as various studies point to the business benefits this can have on an organisation.

The Huffington Post reports, for example, that 24% higher profit margins can be the result of companies who invest in training, meanwhile LinkedIn reports that 94% of staff would stay with an organisation longer if there was an investment into training. As these figures suggest, investing in L&D opportunities is fundamental to engage staff and boost a business overall, which will of course lead to better productivity and retention among a workforce, something that Cathryn wants to continue to foster at Mulberry as she puts it, “the happier and the more content everybody is, the better the workplace will be, and the better for Mulberry”.

An icon

Back in 2010, Mulberry launched a handbag named after model and television present Alexa Chung. Part satchel, part briefcase, part handbag, the item was and is still considered an iconic accessory that will set you back over £1,000 for a full-size version (the mini version is a fraction cheaper at just under £900). But this bag certainly proved its worth, as one month after the Alexa launched, Vogue reported that analysts predicted pre-tax profits in the region of six million at Mulberry.

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