Jean-Francois Bessiron has over 20 years’ experience in retailing, both online and offline, including senior leadership positions at B&Q, Dixons and Amazon. He’s led business divisions with revenues of more than £1billion, and launched new units from scratch. Bessiron spent the past decade at Amazon, launching and managing its computing and mobile tech stores, grocery division AmazonFresh and more recently Amazon Business - before leaving in February this year to become Vice President of voucher giant Groupon. Now combining that executive job with two Nurole-recruited NED roles, on the boards of charity Asthma UK and of the taxman, HMRC, the French-born biology graduate here talks about digital investment from a board perspective - and reveals it’s cooking that makes him cry.

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You've a huge corporate role at Groupon - what made you decide to take on two NED roles too?

I specifically chose two NED roles in very different sectors of industry that are experiencing large transformations: Asthma UK in the charity sector, with rapid changes in fundraising models and in healthcare and HMRC, a very large public organisation with the remit to transform its customer experience at scale whilst maximising tax collection on behalf of the government. I think of NED roles as an opportunity to glance into these very different industries, to step out of our own "bubble" and come into contact with very different people. It’s very mentally stimulating to learn about the challenges and opportunities of these companies and explore where my own experience, especially in digital and technology, can help them. More often than not, it has also provided me with a few ideas that I can bring back to my own organisation!

What are the areas that boards considering investing in digital need to consider?

Boards need to make a realistic assessment of their company’s digital abilities, where it should complement the firm’s purpose and in what areas specific investments are required. This requires a holistic approach, and consider all aspects of the business, especially the human capital and potential impacts to existing processes.

When a firm wants to scale-up, fast, what kind of skills should they try to recruit at a board level?

Each company growth phase requires a particular skill set: from start-up to scaling up. Often, companies that have grown very fast find that their own foundations (e.g tools, processes, people) may not be robust enough, or even can hinder, the next phase of their growth. Knowledge of these "growth pains" can help these companies move more efficiently through these phases without diluting their core purpose or their customers and employees engagement.

How about large scale digital transformation - what particular skills should boards be looking for in candidates?

Digital is an enabler and only a means to an end. It enables companies to innovate and build closer relationships with their customers. As with any new, fast-moving technology, digital is disrupting previous operating models and board recruiters should be looking for candidates who are able to navigate the opportunities it brings whilst ensuring companies continue to build on their existing strengths and unique culture.

How did you find Nurole as a platform to the NED world?

Nurole features a large variety of NED roles from the not-for-profit sector that complement my executive role. The role briefs are very clear, including the specific experiences required to ensure there is a good match. This is further re-enforced throughout the application process.

Given your own experience moving from Dixons and B&Q to Amazon - what's your personal view, is there a future for the high street?

Absolutely. It’s still an essential part of how customers shop. Digital has disrupted the retail landscape in the past 10 years but, just as other industries have evolved in the past, the high street will adapt, and develop better ways to serve customers. The success of "Click and Collect" or shops without checkouts are two examples.

What do you put your own success down to?

Putting myself outside my comfort zone - I’ve done it several times during my career: joining an internet retailer from traditional bricks and mortar, launching AmazonFresh and AmazonBusiness with no prior experience in food or B2B, and now creating new intersections between ‘hyper local’ and national retail at Groupon. Each time I’ve learnt a huge amount, sometimes painfully, and have grown as an individual. Beside remaining obsessed with serving customers better, I was helped by a few principles I learnt from previous leaders I worked with, such as "Good intentions don't count...

What’s the next big thing in digital that boards should be aware of?

That the next big thing in digital probably doesn’t exist yet! Technology moves fast and customer adoption can be unpredictable and short-lived. With that in mind, we should remain agile and develop a culture of curiosity, especially trying to decipher customer behaviour from the multitude of signals they give us.

And now for some quick-fire questions…

What’s the best professional advice you’ve been given?

Hope is not a process.

What was your biggest break?

Moving to Amazon in 2008 - over 10 incredible years, it has been an accelerated learning curve!

What are you reading now?

The Inevitable: understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future, by Kevin Kelly.

Favourite holiday?

Going to my childhood home, in Provence.

What do you do to have fun?

Downhill skiing… as fast as I can.

When did you last cry?

Cutting onions!

When does your alarm go off, and how much sleep do you get?

5.55am, and 7 hours.

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