Mar 30 / Samantha Coates, BRC Marketing Manager

The Magic Of The BRC Leaders Summer School With Group Coach, Alison Emans

Let us introduce you to Alison Emans, who is the area manager of Entain and a Group Coach for this year's BRC Leaders Summer School. 

From delegate to Group Director at OSS Retail and now Group Coach for BRC Leaders Summer School, Alison shares her thoughts on the evolution of the summer school programme and the importance that it places on people. 

She also shares her insight into facilitating learning within the programme subgroups and the support offered within the programme: 

Can you give me a brief overview of what a Group Coach is and the part that plays in the running of the programme?

For me, a group coach is there to facilitate the learning experience of the delegates. You're there to coach them through the journey and support them through some of the challenges. I think the online learning aspect of the programme is great because you don’t have to physically travel anywhere allowing for a bit more freedom, but you also have to balance that with your day job and life, so I think it's important that as a Group Coach you’re supportive and a real sounding board. You also need to be able to identify if anyone is struggling and be able to give support on that.

The qualities of a Group Coach are listening behaviours, asking lots of open questions, bringing energy into the group as well and steering them. You're not there to deliver the learning, you're there to guide them through it and support them, whilst sometimes challenging them. You've got to remember, you're going to have eight people coming together from completely different backgrounds, with completely different learning styles, so it’s your job to make sure that they gel together as quickly as possible because the success of the programme is on the group. The quicker you can get that group to bond together to support each other, the better their learning experience is going to be. A lot of the job at the beginning is netting them together, but then as you move through it, you can kind of step back and be a little bit more of that helicopter person


I would say the main quality is about understanding how people learn and being able to really guide them through their journey and getting them to take ownership of their learning to make sure that they get the most out of it. There’re times when you have to be a bit of a listening ear and there are times you need to gear them on to make sure they hit a deadline. 

Why did you decide to become a Group Coach? What do you get out of the experience?

I absolutely love to facilitate learning for people, it’s a huge part of my career. Anytime I lead a team, it’s my favourite part is to see people learn to grow, develop, challenge themselves and stretch themselves out of their comfort zone. That is a huge passion of mine and I think that doing this role allows you to do that in a really kind of close contact way because that’s the role really, you’re there to facilitate the learning and to coach them.

You get to see people stretch themselves, whether that's through taking on roles to lead some of the simulator sessions or maybe taking on different roles within the group dynamics. You see people flourish from sometimes being a little bit nervous at the start to speaking up and asking questions and I just think that it's such a gift to be able to witness that!

It also stretches me. The nice by-product of taking a group of people through that is that you also get to do the learning as well. So, for me, it's also a great way to continually develop myself and particularly around the content that was included last year around sustainability, which in all honesty hasn’t been a huge thing on my radar in terms of a career, there were some real lightbulb moments. 

What support do you offer as a Group Coach between helping delegates manage their work-life and life whilst learning on the programme?

Yeah, I definitely had a couple of one-to-one conversations at times where people feel a bit stretched around trying to juggle, maybe not necessarily get space in a working time and having to pick the learning up in their personal time when they have families. Last year was tough, in 2021, most people were still working from home and the programme runs through the summer so there were push points where people were trying to manage the jungle of having kids off from school, trying to do my day job, and then on top of that, I’m trying to do my learning and get the best out of it. So every week to fortnight we would have a group coaching session and we used that as more of a check-in and I really encouraged the people to use that space to be really open, honest and transparent about where they were at, how they were feeling, and actually then as a group, how they coached and supported each other, because that, I think, was better than me sort of stepping into it. What I found was people will say, well, look, maybe this is the way to approach it, this is what I've done with my boss, this is how I sort of set up or how I kind of safeguarded my learning time. Actually, some of those solutions came from the group, rather than it being me saying that this is what I think you should do. 

One of the delegates actually said “we’re all on the same road, we’re just at different junctions” and I think that’s a really good way to describe it. Some people would feel like they were falling behind and they would say it’s not that you’re falling behind it’s just that you are there and I’m here and I can help you move forward. 

You were part of the Summer School when it was under the umbrella of Oxford Summer School, now BRC Leaders Summer School. What were your initial thoughts about the move?

The world has just shifted massively in the last two years in terms of what is retail, what is life, what is important, and I think some of it will settle into what is the norm and some of it will revert back.  

The transition from old OSS to the new concept from the BRC, was kind of like ‘jump on a rocket ship with us’. I think with anything new there’s a degree of well, how is this going to work? Because nobody really knew, but I think it’s the trust you have in the people. For me it wasn't even a question mark, I was like yes sign me up! I just have such a trust in the reputation of the people and the programme they're building. 

Last year built a really good foundation for this year, and the quality of the programme last year was amazing, and all I heard from the delegates was wow, that's just such great content and really thought-provoking stuff. That was all online as well, so add in the residential this year, we’re set for a really exciting time. 

You’ve obviously witnessed the change between the programmes, how would you describe the progression considering you were a delegate, to a Group Director for OSS and now Group Coach for BRC Leaders Summer School?

I think probably, in some ways, I think the connection between them is the magic of the people. That's the link that's there is that real commitment to people, and I think there's always been part of the OSS legacy in the BRC Leaders Summer School, such as there’s always been a people day, and I think that continues through in terms of it's such a big pillar. In terms of BRC and the difference for me is OSS, it's an amazing experience to do that kind of residential and you're there and it's hugely intense. I remember that week as a group director at the end of it I was absolutely physically exhausted because you’re nonstop, you're up at the crack of dawn, you’re going to bed late they are full days and it’s really intensive learning, and I think that's great but I think actually, again, if you were to ask me to do that now, I don't know if I could do that, because actually, again, does it fit in terms of where we're at now? Probably not. So I think having that balance piece is a lot better. 

I think where the differences in terms of the content of learning, I think the OSS is very much about retail as it was then, and I think it was really fit for purpose then, there was the merchandise exercise, there was a profit day, there was a commercial exercise that we did that was building a department store. That was absolutely relevant for that point in time, but I think when you look at what retail is like now, the day of the Department shop is gone, the future is about consumer connection. 

I think the fact that the BRC simulator exercise was around the 4 pillars and e-bikes I think speaks volumes. It’s understanding how retailers are evolving, because it's going to be about sustainability, it's going to be about ethical shopping, and there's a huge swing into online digital. There is still absolutely a place for the high street, the high street will never go away, but in terms of the shop of the future and the brands of the future, if you look at the next generation and the way that they shop it’s very much about their heart and it's about where do they believe in terms of people. And I think when you look at the content of learning from the BRC last year, that was such a big theme of sustainability, about people, health, and well-being, about how you build a community. 

I suppose if you look at what was OSS, which I have a huge affection for as my week as a delegate was transformational for me and my week as a group coach or group director was transformational in so many ways, I think that what it was was the right thing at the right time. Now with the BRC, it's taking the heritage of that, it takes the ethos, it takes the importance of people and evolves it into futureproofing around what is the future of retail. 

This is something we need to know, we need to get into and explore because, without it, I don't know where we’ll be. We've seen through the pandemic, so many great retailers go under and I think the future of that is about what's that looks like in terms of what's next. I think it has to be that evolution in terms of the content of the programme, but also keeping the heart, and I think that it’s there. 

The heart of OSS beats in the BRC because it’s the people. You know when your Mum and Dad said to you when you were younger "and would you follow that person off a cliff" I’d be like yeah I would because I’m pretty sure they’ve got a safety net down there! It’s the people that are the common thread. I think that's a real testament to the integrity of the people involved in this programme, that trust in terms of what they're going to do

What are the differences or similarities between your groups from OSS and BRC Leaders Summer School?

I think the original group that I had when I was a Group Coach for OSS which was three years ago back in 2019, we're still very much in contact. I've seen them grow in their careers, I've seen them have babies, I've seen them overcome challenges particularly through the pandemic when people were being made redundant. The connection from this experience doesn’t go away. 

The same with my group from the BRC Leaders Summer School last year, we've got a WhatsApp group and it’s still going strong, so you get to stay up to date with what’s happening in everyone’s lives. For example, one of the guys has been promoted. So, you get to see the learning impact beyond just the programme, and I think that’s the magic, the connections that are made don't just disappear. It's not like learning that you just do and then you go okay, well, that’s done and tick the box. I think that if you speak to anybody that was a delegate or a coach on any of the programmes, you are guaranteed that they would say the same. I think there’s something powerful in that. 

And I will say, it just isn’t the same anywhere else! I've been in other learning programmes in my career, and I haven't done that anywhere else. There's a special magic that comes in that you can’t find anywhere else. 

In your own words, what do you think makes the BRC Leaders Summer School so unique?

I think the biggest thing for me is diversity in terms of learning. I think particularly when you look at what was included last year from the BRC, it had real relevance to what's happening now in the world. It’s not a kind of bog-standard, oh, we're just going to talk about profit and commercial. If I take the biggest themes that came out last year it was about people and it was about sustainability. 

I think in terms of the quality of the speakers and the people, like Mary Portas last year, her opening speech was incredible. It was shocking in some ways, it was confrontational, but it was needed, and I think actually that's what you need. When you look at the people the BRC can bring in, who both contribute to the programme and are guest speakers, it’s really special. It's not your atypical ‘this is retail’, it's not retail in a box, it's retail outside the box that just adds different things for us to be thinking about as leaders, as consumers, as people and as humans. So yeah, I think that's a real kind of uniqueness. 

That’s lovely, you speak so highly about the programme it’s lovely to hear. Tell me, do you have any examples of delegates succeeding beyond the programme as a result?

Of course! There’s a couple that I've seen promoted up into different roles, it's difficult from last year because there's probably not been a huge amount in terms of change because it’s not been that long. I do know of one that’s been promoted, however. 

One of the delegates that work for Nespresso, as much as their role hadn’t changed, they’d been able to, off the back of the programme, influence Nespresso a lot more around their sustainability. They really took parts of the programme back into his business, challenged processes and shaped things for the better in terms of getting them to really think about what sustainability is and what benefits can be made for the economy. I also know that off the back of them attending the programme, they then challenged themselves to take on more learning and do different things. I think all the delegates left with a sense of that though - a motivation for change.

What do you think about the structure of the programme? Obviously last year it was all online but this year we’ll be moving to a blended model.  

The fact that it’s partly an online programme, there is an element of how you can work it to you. This year obviously we have the bookend residentials which adds a different dimension, but I actually think some of the big benefits is you can work it around how you want to work in your life. And, let’s face it, we're moving now into a hybrid world, and I think that's going to be the future in terms of how people live and work, so learning to work like that as well is going to be really important. The fact that the materials are available for nine months after is hugely beneficial, so you can go back to it after a few months. It’s not something that static like a workbook, you can go back and revisit things and challenge yourself again because it's really easy with learning for it to be something that you just do in a moment and then close the book on and walk away. I think the nature of the platform and the fact that it is interactive, it’s digital, it's accessible in a different way I think really helps to be able to tailor to different people's learning styles. I think having a more adaptable platform enhances learning for everyone. 

I think that’s it from us, is there anything else you would like to add?

I would just like to finish with the fact that I think the programme of the content that has been showcased last year, and I'm sure will be developed more by Rob and Sam for this year, is something really unique and something that is really groundbreaking. From that point of view, I think it's something that's exciting for people to get involved in. 

I think for anyone that's thinking about being a group coach, I would say jump on a rocket ship because it's a fantastic experience to be involved in. Yeah, again it takes up time and you've got to juggle your work in life, but it really enriches. And the people that are there are part of this are some of the best people in terms of not just in terms of working and building networks and relationships. They're just also just a really good bunch of people that you can just shout out about.   

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