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Alice Boaten: How I went from temp worker to award winner

Alice Boaten, everywoman in Retail Woman of the Year 2019
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Meet everywoman HERO Alice Boaten, whose remarkable career at Sainsbury’s Argos made her winner of Woman of the Year at the 2019 everywoman in Retail Awards. This is her story.

 

I took the job in an Argos store to fill spare time, but there came a lightbulb moment...

In 2002, I joined the Colliers Wood branch as Customer Advisor. It was just something to do while my daughter was at nursery. But I guess I’ve always been somebody who takes pride in what I do, and over time I built trust with senior leaders by always doing what I promised. A turning point came when I was given the opportunity to satellite Balham and Brixton as store manager. It was a tough demographic and I started in a critical trading month, but I delivered, and that’s when I thought, ‘Actually, I do have the talent for this’.

 

Retail is an amazing place to work or springboard into other industries...

My passion goes back to being a small girl, playing with tills and money and wanting to sell things. I’ve just been so fortunate that Argos has allowed me to bring my childhood dreams to life! But we don’t do enough to celebrate retail as a career, because the fact is, the multi skills you learn in a retail environment, and the resilience you build, will hold you in good stead for anything you do in business.

 

I’ve learned to distinguish between the feedback that really matters...

When media celebrates retail, the headlines are very focussed on male success. There’s still this unconscious bias in the sector about the role of women. When I first moved up to head office, there was some feedback about me being ‘too direct’. I was raised to not beat around the bush or be scared to speak up, but some people weren’t used to that way of working, and particularly not from a BAME female. Truth be told it knocked me for six; when you stretch yourself, and then you get that feedback, it makes you question if you’ve been doing it wrong the whole time. I went and spoke to people I knew, whose opinion I trusted. And since then I’ve learned that you take the feedback you need to help you grow, and discard what isn’t useful. 

 

Every day is about targets, but the important thing is how people feel about their work...

As Regional Manager of Central London South, I start the morning by digesting the reports to understand what needs to be done that day (thanks to technology, we get regular performance updates to the nth degree, so we can really influence in the moment). But we can’t just focus on today, because retail success is all about longevity. Ultimately, with targets, it’s pretty black and white – you’re hitting them or you’re not; you’re exceeding them or you’re not. But not everyone in the team is there because they care about profit and loss. So at the start of the year, I try to get my team to focus on how we want to feel and what we want to celebrate when our results come in. That’s how you get traction.

 

As you develop, you need one eye on the bigger picture, the other on the detail...

I try to maintain a 50:50 balance between the thinking and the doing. It can’t all be about blue-sky thinking; yes, you have to forge strategic plans and look to the future, but you have to be mindful of how those new ideas are going to connect on the ground. Even though I work in a field role, when I visit stores I make it a habit to still from time to time use in-store systems so I can still release pay roll, and organise marketing implementation.

 

Sometimes you have to be direct and just ask for what you want...

After some steady progression at Argos, I felt I needed to try something different, so I took redundancy and a new role at Woolworths. I kept in contact with colleagues and after nearly a year I received a call about an opportunity in Argos’ Balham store. I thought I’d give it a go; if anything, it would help me brush up my interview skills. They offered me the job but not the salary I wanted, so I said no and made it clear what I was looking for. Literally I got on the bus and within 10 minutes they called and gave me the news that they would indeed honour the salary I had requested.

 

I remember thinking Woman of the Year must be really rocking it!

I was blown away that I’d been nominated by my line manager for an everywoman in Retail Award. It felt like an acknowledgment of the effort I’d put into the job. I assumed the other women in the customer experience category would be fierce, so never expected to win. After judging day, I got the secret call to say I was a finalist and couldn’t even tell my nearest and dearest until the announcement. Then I’m at the ceremony and my category comes along and I don’t win. It’s getting to the end and I’m thinking about leaving when they talk about this final Award for Woman of the Year. I’m thinking to myself ‘Wow, she’s going to be fabulous!’. Then they’re describing how the winner has created so much transformation and suddenly I notice that the senior team at Sainsbury’s Argos are all looking towards my table. Finally, my name is called and I just remember getting up and walking to the stage. I was floating on cloud nine for the rest of the night. It was a truly humbling experience.

 

My trophy makes me very conscious of being a good role model...

I’ve got a 22-year-old daughter who is my absolute fundamental motivation and I always work hard and focus on the things I need to do because I want her to be able to say ‘My Mum is my role model’. It’s easy to look at Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, and Oprah Winfrey, but you want people to have role models they can truly connect with. So I focus heavily on that in how I behave and how I immerse myself in my community governor role, supporting our children to get the best start they can.  As for my team, they never let me forget it. I don’t think there goes a week without someone saying ‘You’re everywoman’s Woman of the Year!’. I hope it encourages people to have confidence and try new things.

 

Find out more about how you can get involved in the 2020 everywoman in Retail Awards