How to Be a Post-Pandemic CEO

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On an early Wednesday morning in May, Reebok president Matt O’Toole held a meeting with the athletic brand’s team in India that almost certainly wouldn’t have happened pre-pandemic: it was a conference call focused squarely on the employees’ personal lives.

Until last year, O’Toole said he tended to stick to business with his overseas employees — going over performance reviews and tightening up processes for addressing customer needs. But on this day, with a brutal wave of Covid-19 infections devastating India, the executive said he recognised that a different kind of meeting was needed.

O’Toole, who has held the top job at Reebok since 2014, said he never expected to be leading employees who might be focused on a marketing campaign one minute and the needs of a homeschooled child the next. But he sees the ability to do so as a key skill — along with “a high level of curiosity and listening,” and “greater appreciation for colleagues’ experiences” — he expects to rely on long after the pandemic ends.

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“The way all of us are working and leading has fundamentally changed in the last year and, for me, [it’s meant] doing some introspective thinking,” he said. “What [I’ve learned] is that keeping my finger on the pulse of the organisation now means [things like] having to schedule what used to be informal conversations at the water cooler.”

O’Toole said his new approach will help him make better decisions, too.

“I’m finding that I can be so much more plugged in on a global basis,” he said.

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Between the pandemic, the resulting blow to sales and the resurgence of the racial justice movement, leaders across fashion were forced to focus on economic survival and socio-political issues last year in a way that many had never experienced before. Now, top executives must determine the new — and old — skills they’ll need to navigate a post-Covid era that is starting to take shape.

They must prepare for the prospect of a permanently remote workforce, digitisation on steroids, rapidly evolving consumer trends and a host of unknowns that could upend businesses at any time in an increasingly uncertain world. In this context, the most important leadership skills are flexibility, agility, empathy, collaboration and informed risk-taking — all of which must take into account the needs of both customers and employees equally.

“This has been a year and a half of hell for everybody and it feels like we’re starting a new chapter,” said Mike Evans, the New York-based president of China’s Alibaba Group. “But, as a leader, can you articulate that? What is the new beginning and what are the opportunities? Your employees will be looking for it. If they don’t find it, they’ll look somewhere else — and so will your customers.”

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Taking (Informed) Risks

Aizel Trudel, a Russia-based entrepreneur, debuted her eponymous luxury fashion boutique in 2002 and launched e-commerce in 2011. She helps hundreds of international luxury fashion brands — like Marc Jacobs and Christian Louboutin — sell their wares online across Russia. She, too, witnessed — and arguably helped lead — a frantic digital evolution among Russian fashion purveyors in real time last year.

“I remember I locked myself in a room and, every day, I had four to five different meetings with my team [including] marketing, merchandising and IT teams, because we started to have a lot of requests [from brands] all over Russia asking us to help take them online,” she said. “[Before Covid], we were pushing companies to [launch] e-commerce and they would say, ‘We’ll do it later.’”

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Trudel said she and her team “realised we were blessed because we started e-commerce 10 years before Covid happened,” but now it was time to accelerate. Out of those daily meetings came the company’s launch of drop shipping — which helped the business save money and time by shipping directly from supplier warehouses to customers. Trudel and her team also recognised a need to “totally restructure” their approach to digital marketing.

“We have shut off everything and switched [all our marketing resources] to Instagram,” she said. “I thought about how many times during the day we touch our phones and [determined] the future is there — it’s on Instagram and TikTok.”

In March 2020, the jewellery brand Kendra Scott launched its “ship from store” program, originally planned for an end-of-year rollout, in just eight days. When the company was forced to close all of its stores, it pivoted to use those locations as mini-distribution centres that helped balance the influx of sales it was seeing online.

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The result: Kendra Scott logged one of its most lucrative years to date and entered 2021 with double-digit revenue gains in the first quarter.

“Effective leaders are constantly rethinking and relearning and inspiring [those skills] within their teams,” said Sarah Engel, chief marketing officer and chief people officer at the digital leadership consultancy January Digital. “Yes, there’s an element of risk-taking to that, but it’s [more so] the willingness and ability to pause, take in new information and rethink quickly to make the best decision at the moment and keep pushing forward with an acknowledgement that there may be [a need to pivot] again.”

Collaborating

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When nonessential retailers had to close their stores last April, Saks Off Fifth chief executive Paige Thomas still needed her teams to show up in person at warehouse fulfilment centres to process online orders.

To keep them safe, Thomas wanted to offer temperature checks in addition to personal protective equipment but she could not get her hands on any thermometers. Her solution: call up her competitors. The executive got a tip from an industry “partner,” who told her where to get thermometers and even advised on pricing and lead times.

“Last year, we really had to rely on one another to brainstorm and I think that is a very effective tool,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that you give a competitive advantage away, or share all of your competitive intel.”

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Thomas has since joined several leadership support groups, including World 50, Civic Alliance and CEO Action — all of which allow chief executive officers across a range of companies and industries to share best practices and other resources.

The pandemic rallying cry “we’re all in this together” was not lost on forward-thinking leaders across the fashion industry. Many of them came together to address long-standing issues like racial injustice and sustainability.

Last May, Belgian designer Dries Van Noten and a group of designers and retailers — including Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom, Tory Burch and Maison Margiela — wrote an open letter to the fashion industry calling for “fundamental” changes that would “simplify our businesses, making them more environmentally and socially sustainable and ultimately align them more closely with customers’ needs.”

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Among the resolutions, the group agreed to streamline the fashion calendar and create “less unnecessary product” and “make use of digital showrooms in addition to personal creative interactions.”

Brother Vellies’ founder and creative director Aurora James created the 15 Percent Pledge, which called upon retailers to dedicate more shelf space to Black-owned brands. To date, Sephora, Macy’s, Ulta, The Gap and J.Crew are among the companies that have signed on.

Lindsay Peoples Wagner, the former editor in chief of Teen Vogue, and Sandrine Charles, a fashion marketing consultant, formed the Black in Fashion Council to aid the advancement of Black individuals in the fashion and beauty industry. Cartier North America, Athleta, Kith and Tiffany & Co. are among the companies currently collaborating with the council.

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Agility

The need for leaders to “be more human” and show vulnerability has never been greater, said Patrick Chalhoub, chief executive of the Chalhoub Group, a Dubai-based luxury conglomerate with over 12,000 employees.

Chalhoub, who took the reins of his family’s business in 2011, recalls an adolescence and early adulthood where he and his family were displaced multiple times — moving from Syria to Lebanon to Kuwait — due to civil and political unrest.

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As Covid-19 disrupted the business last year, Chalhoub said skills developed during his turbulent youth — including bravery and courageousness – became more important than the usual attributes listed on a CEO’s resumé.

“You have to remain calm — even if internally, you could be boiling — and really prioritise what you have to do,” he said.

As Covid-19 was ramping up and stores were shuttered, Chalhoub had his team launch 10 task forces, each made up of three to five employees, that developed strategies for areas like health and safety, business continuity, real estate, supply chain and communications. The goal was to “reorganise the work” in order to face “this emergency,” but also to offer “full honesty and communication.”

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Now as the business settles and he sees post-pandemic “revenge buying” boosting revenue, Chalhoub said the bigger lesson he’s taking forward is to admit “I don’t know everything.”

“[It’s important to be] daring and courageous, especially in these [times] but to also complement this by being extremely human,” he said. “Because you are watched by your organisation, by your family and by other leaders.”

Empathy

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Trudel said she, too, channelled experiences gleaned during personal crises — specifically witnessing the death of her grandfather at 14 years old — to lead a panicked workforce.

“When my grandfather died in my hands, [it taught me] how to act when something wrong happens,” she said. “As a leader, you need to be ready to take the responsibility, and you need to lead your team … I had no choice, I couldn’t sit down and just cry or get scared, I had to move on. I had 500 people working for me … I had to give them comfort.”

Kendra Scott’s Nolan said although he relied on several pre-existing strengths — such as the brand’s charitable hook and its affordable pricing strategy — to advance the business last year, Covid pushed him to “lead with my heart” and sharpen his focus on “people and culture.”

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Among the ideas he signed off on was a new partnership with Care.com, an online marketplace for childcare and senior care, to help employees with children and elderly parents. The company also joined the growing list of firms that sought virtual solutions to boost employee wellness during the pandemic. It offered virtual yoga and meditation sessions and shifted company gatherings like the annual Halloween party to virtual events.

The leadership challenge now, though, is to figure out how to continuously motivate teams — which had to kick into exceptionally high gear due to unprecedented events — to keep the same “high level of intensity and drive and nimbleness, without getting lax,” Nolan said.

“When business is great, it’s hard to continue to challenge yourself to be better but I think if we get ‘back to normal’ as a society and a company, that would be a shame,” he added.

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As companies continue to reimagine the future of work, leaders will have to keep an open mind about policies for remote work and relocation, noted Alibaba’s Evans, who predicts a more localised approach to hiring for global firms.

“We have lots of Chinese people working in our [offices around the world], which makes sense because we’re a Chinese company,” said Evans. “But the way that we put teams together and the way we think about leadership may require a stronger local dimension, because of the inability [or willingness] to be as mobile as we’ve been in the past.”

In other words, employees are going to be increasingly more empowered to dictate where, when and how they work.

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But it’s a concept Evans doesn’t believe “most business leaders and companies have caught up with yet.” Either way, he predicts that those who are too locked in with any particular strategy — hiring, relocation or otherwise — will face significant repercussions in a post-pandemic era.

“The question for leaders is ‘can you adapt quickly enough to address the pain points effectively, for your customers and for your employees?’” he said.

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