Lateral moves are the secret path to the CEO role – here’s how to make them

For women in retail who are aspiring to the highest level of leadership in an organisation, what is the best path to take up the corporate ladder? 

Meg Zalewski, Rebel’s general manager of retail operations, is a strong advocate for making “lateral moves” to gain experience in different parts of the business, rather than getting stuck in a specific function. 

“The biggest barrier for a female who has the ambition to be a CEO or an MD is you have to tick every box,” she told Inside Retail in a recent interview. 

“I have to have marketing, e-commerce, merch, planning, finance – thank God, I’m an accountant. There’s the P&L piece, but oh, ‘You don’t have ops.’” 

Zalewski is open about her long-term goals and has planned her career accordingly, but she admits it can be difficult to find employers willing to support these lateral moves. 

“The breadth of experience holds you back. You’ve got to have someone believe in the fact that you don’t have that experience, but you can get that experience,” she said. 

She counts herself lucky that she has had the support of two key mentors in her career – Donald Kohler, then head of global planning at Burberry, who first gave her the opportunity to shift from finance to merchandising, and Gary Williams, managing director of Rebel, who has similarly supported her move from merchandising to retail operations. 

“A leader that is willing to consider developing you and giving you chances and roles that you don’t have direct experience in… I think it’s rare,” she said. 

Lateral moves

Zalewski started her career as a consultant in the UK, advising clients across different industries. But after a stint in retail and consumer goods, she was hooked and knew she wanted to work full-time in what she called the “heart” of retail. 

Having trained as an accountant, Zalewski naturally landed on the finance team at her first retail company, Burberry, where she analysed the performance of different categories and the operating expenditure for design and product development. 

But she was always looking for opportunities to work in different parts of the business. 

“I never saw myself as doing group financial control and I struggled with that. I struggled to see how to go into the business, what I called the ‘heart’, really running the nuts and bolts of it,” she said.

She spoke to people in different areas of the business and tried to find out as much as she could about what they did and what was required. 

“I would say, ‘If there’s a project you need commercial input on, or you want me to lead something, hands up. I’ll learn something,’” she said.

This willingness to learn paid off when Burberry appointed Kohler to run its merchandise planning function, and Zalewski was assigned to his team, despite her lack of merchandising experience. 

“I remember the CFO taking me aside, saying, ‘You’re one of the most commercial people I’ve met. Would you like to work on a project for him?’” Zalewski recalled. “He thought I knew a lot more than I did.” 

However, this move proved critical, as Kohler – now president of the Americas for Calvin Klein – became her biggest mentor and sponsor within the business. 

Eventually, he appointed her director of merchandising for womenswear, the biggest and hardest category at Burberry. This led to other categories and ultimately all product areas. 

“That was the shift for me to get across into product,” Zalewski said. “That was always my ambition, and he knew I wanted it, he knew I would work my socks off to succeed at it, but I guess he also saw attitude and willingness to learn.” 

A similar shift occurred when Zalewski joined Rebel after immigrating to Australia during Covid. She briefly worked in merchandising, then did an eight-month stint in marketing and e-commerce. Last year, she took on a completely new role as general manager of retail operations.  

“I’m pretty well-rounded now, but if it wasn’t for Gary, and subsequently the rest of the leadership team, who gave me the mentorship and development I’ve had, there’s no way I’d be on the path that I’m on,” she said.

Focus on the long-term

Zalewski’s advice for women in retail with ambitions to reach the C-suite is to make lateral moves and make them early in your career.  

“You may not know what that experience is going to give you, so that’s why I suggest lots of projects. ‘Give me the poison chalice project,’” she said. “Be open and don’t be so hard on yourself.”

While making lateral moves can be costly in the short term – Zalewski said it took her 10 years to earn the same amount of money in retail as she was making as a consultant – it’s all about the long-term result.

This article is part of Inside Retail’s #IRWD365 campaign to shine a spotlight on inspiring women in Australia’s retail industry and drive tangible change towards gender equality.

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