CLO Sarah McGowan: growing a career with Specsavers

Sarah McGowan beams as she chats to us about her 20-year Specsavers career and 5 successful years as Contact Lens Director at Specsavers Bristol. For someone whose career has not stopped, she has found the right balance between running her contact lens clinics and managing a very busy City Centre store. She’s enjoying every minute and talks to us about her impressive career, the lessons she’s learnt along the way and her advice for anyone ready to do the same.

The career of a lifetime

Her career in Optics began in 1996, “I was studying to be an engineer and couldn’t get a job. I answered a local advert to be a receptionist for an optician in Bridgwater and really liked it from the offset.” Keen to keep learning, she studied for her Dispensing Optician qualification, joining Specsavers in 2001. “I was halfway through my DO course before joining Bridgwater Specsavers, and after completing it, I started my CLO course. I passed that and still felt I needed to continue to develop myself. I wanted to go into management and see whether I could do it. I moved to Weston-Super-Mare Specsavers as CLO and Assistant Store Manager, I really enjoyed both roles. It reassured me I could be a decent manager.”

We asked Sarah if becoming a Director was always in mind “I certainly didn’t come to Specsavers as an Optical Assistant and straight away think that I’m going to be a Director. I’ve fallen into things rather than having a five-year plan.”

“I went to Australia for a visit to see if I could get a store there, but at the time my son was just at that wrong age to leave so, we didn’t go. Instead, I joined Filton in Bristol as a Partner in development and then moved to the City Centre store – a significant leap from a store with a single test room to one with a huge contact lens database. I worked so well with the Partners there that it seemed a perfect fit.”

Becoming a CLO Director

The relationships Sarah has built throughout her career have been influential in her success. Her Specsavers colleagues have been very supportive in advancing her growth and providing the direction she needed to progress her career. “I kept asking, what can I do? And that discussion took me from management to the Pathway scheme, and then on to a position as a Partner in development.” If it hadn’t been for another colleague commenting, “well you were a CLO, why are you not in a store with a high contact lens turnover?” Her directorship journey may have been quite different!

The rise of contact lenses

Sarah believes contact lenses are going to be greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. “This time last year there was so much uncertainty about the future of the business. Coming out the other side with a new focus on the contact lens side of the business is great. Everything that has happened through COVID, like remote care and the new Contact Lens Subscription platform, is good!

“Nicola Lewis coming on board, as Specsavers Director of Contact Lenses, has been fantastic. The turnaround that contact lenses have had in-store and in the industry is huge. The vibe has also changed within the business, which is fantastic.”

We are in such a perfect position to bounce back. People want contact lenses now because of masks. I am testing five days a week and I manage Directorship as well. I have a contact lens trainee who will hopefully start testing soon, and I’ve also got a student coming through, which is really exciting. It’s good being a supervisor I just love it and seeing them qualify is the best feeling in the world as a director.”

Challenge yourself and keep learning

Developing your skills and learning new ones is key when you run a store. “From the clinical point of view, I think it’s about being good with people, I’m a people person, I enjoy talking. I can build a rapport with a patient within the first 10 seconds. We always have a laugh in my appointments which is great. I’ve got better at communication skills with my colleagues over the last couple of years.

The first couple of years realistically I took my eye off the contact lens ball because I was learning to be a director and there were so many other things going on. I had to think about things I’ve never thought about it before. It’s only been the last two years that I have found a nice balance. We’re driving the contact lens business forward now and I’ve still got a handle on everything else, it’s been a challenge, but I’ve definitely found more of a balance now.”

Valuable words of advice

Sarah had a lot to say about how to succeed as a CLO and as a Partner, “You have to be honest with yourself about where you can improve. Take ownership of your work and your career and be honest with your Partners. It was hard at first, but I’ve improved my communication and people skills. Be self-aware and make sure you know when you are not doing something right. Do not lock yourself away in the test room, be available to everybody, and don’t beat yourself up because you have taken your eye off one ball to concentrate on another. Be honest with yourself when you need help, ask for it.”

She knows you will feel the benefits, “The major highlight for me is working in this store. This store instantly felt like home, and the team instantly felt like a family. The family unit here is what I’m very proud of and how this store behaves with each other and with patients.”

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