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As the impact of the coronavirus outbreak continues to run its course, business leaders are being forced to adopt new modalities of leadership that require often untested skillsets. Operating in a “crisis response” mode also spotlights the need to maintain operational strategies endemic to any successful business.
As part of a series of stories on crisis management, WWD shares the best practices of retail and brand consultants, analysts, c-level leaders and other industry stakeholders in managing the negative impact of the COVID-19 disruption.
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Fast thinking in times of change
When asked what retail and brand leaders need to do in times of crisis such as now, Darrin Giglio, chief executive officer and chief investigator of North American Investigations, said instilling confidence and thinking fast can be beneficial.
“A firm and its employees greatly improve their chances of enduring the crisis if leadership believes they will,” Giglio told WWD. “You’ve got to convey confidence when addressing employees in this situation but at the same time, you need to be honest. This isn’t a time to be painting a picture of rainbows and unicorns or it damages your credibility.”
With “fast thinking,” Giglio said being decisive is crucial during a crisis. “Make choices quickly and implement a plan,” he said. “During the current crisis, sitting around debating courses of action probably got a lot of people sick. The firms who began social distancing and remote work the earliest are in the best position from a health perspective.”
Paula Cizek, chief research officer at NOBL, which is an organizational design firm that helps companies navigate cultural transformations, said it is important for c-level executives to acknowledge that “change is loss.”
“Teams are facing a lot of uncertainty and change in a very short period,” she told WWD. “Even positive changes [like getting to work from home with your dog] involve some feelings of loss. Take time to check in with your direct reports on a one-on-one basis to help them work through it.”
Cizek also suggested engaging in some visualization. “Think about what you want your organization to look like, post-COVID,” she explained. “Right now, leaders are being forced to triage situations while teams have to adjust to remote work, reduced hours or even layoffs. But once the initial frenzy of activity has died down, it’s critical for leaders to think long-term: three or six months from now, what will look different? How can you use this time to leapfrog your competition?”
Communicate clearly, meet deadlines
Michelle Bogan, founder and chief executive officer of Equity for Women, said in the current environment, leaders need to “create a sense of calm and clarity that their employees can hold onto.” That requires also acknowledging that this is “an unprecedented environment to operate in, and any decisions made will be in line with the values of the business and with compassion for employees and customers.”
“Communicate clearly and often about what is happening and why,” Bogan told WWD. “Be clear about what is temporary and how quickly you will re-evaluate the steps you are taking. Don’t make promises about things you cannot deliver but do show employees you are in it with them, side by side, and are doing everything you can to weather this challenge and keep as many people taken care of as possible. Demonstrate radical humanity.”
Nick Kaplan, president and cofounder of Fashion to Figure, said in times of crisis and duress, communication holds everything together — internally with employees, and externally with business partners. “All of your partners want, and need, to know your strategy, and how they fit in it,” Kaplan told WWD. “As a fashion brand that has built an ecosystem comprised of corporate and field team members, manufacturers, service providers and customers, they are all counting on you to be there in the end. Letting them know your plan to evolve through the moment, their role in executing your plan, how they measure progress and what the end result will look like is critical. As a leader who is driving strategy and decision-making, there is no such thing as over-communicating.”
Aside from clear communication, having patience as a leader can help during a crisis. Doreen Hatcher, president and ceo of Haoma, which is a plant-based, sustainable, unisex and prestige skin-care brand, said as an organization, “we have been striving to stay connected and foster understanding and patience with each other as we deal with this new normal.”
Hatcher, a beauty industry executive with over two decades of experience at companies such as L’Oréal (Kiehl’s), Estée Lauder (Origins), Stila Cosmetics and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, said there is “not one person on our team that hasn’t been impacted by the sudden change in the social and economic landscape, whether figuring out how to work while it’s homeschooling our kids or simply dealing with anxiety and adjusting to social isolation.”
“From a business standpoint, we quickly pivoted to the relaunch of our web site and laser-focused the team on figuring out how to maximize our direct-to-consumer business,” Hatcher added. “In addition, we reallocated resources to what was necessary immediately, such as sampling, and enhanced charity initiatives to help our communities.”
Brian Lim, a “Shark Tank” alumnus who received a deal from Mark Cuban and Daymond John, and who is the founder and ceo of rave clothing and festival fashion site iHeartRaves, said that with COVID-19 forcing companies to work in a remote environment, “great leadership is even more important than ever.”
“When leading a remote team, it’s important to ensure that deadlines have been discussed so there is no guesswork and you don’t have to micromanage anyone,” Lim told WWD. “Assume Positive Intent. By this, I mean there are two ways of interpreting messages. People generally think negatively when reading communication. This is not healthy. Give people the benefit of the doubt and assume positive intent. Emojis and gifs are worth the time to help convey your true feelings when communicating via Slack or any other tool.”
Lim said it is important to also make sure brands and retailers “have processes and procedures in place.”
“This is very important for any leader who is trying to scale,” Lim said. “I also believe in the importance of having a ‘Do Not Do’ list. Your ideas need to align with your mission statement, and if they don’t, move on.”
Reacting to change, with change
Meyar Sheik, president and chief commerce officer at Kibo, said the current business environment requires companies to “quickly determine changes that need to be made, while at the same time communicating to both internal teams and consumers that their safety and satisfaction are a top priority.”
“It’s important to keep in mind that every city and country is in a different situation; no two can be compared directly or treated the same,” Sheik said. “Plus, every consumer has a unique need based on their location, age and employment status, and also have specific preferences around channel engagement and price sensitivity. Employing personalization as a tactic offers retailers the opportunity to address each need by segment or by the individual.”
Sheik said having location data, past purchase data, “and real-time intent data available for accurate personalization will deliver much better experiences during this sensitive time of uncertainty, and, in turn, much higher ROI for brands.”
Tarek Hassan, ceo of multibrand streetwear and sneaker boutique retailer and brand Concepts, said in the current climate, relationships have been key. “Social distancing has actually made Concepts closer as a team,” Hassan told WWD. “I’m connecting more regularly with folks across e-mail, text, phone and other chat channels — much more so than I used to.”
Hassan said motivation is also important, and is enhanced by communication technologies, which has helped him to “continue to motivate the team in ways I couldn’t before. Motivation is my number-one priority. We are a family here and family comes first.”
“Leading through partnership has also been critical — talking more organically and frequently with key partners like Nike and others, has strengthened those relationships, which will collectively make us stronger when we get to the other side of this,” Hassan added.
For Traci Inglis, the incoming ceo of RTW Retailwinds, the fashion apparel industry was also dealing with “seismic shifts” in how companies operate. Dealing with change was already in the works. “In many ways, the past several weeks have brought a sense of urgency and bias for action to adapt the accelerated disruption of this new retail reality — all the while operating in an uncertain and anxious macro-environment,” Inglis said. “For us, we’ve had to make some tough decisions in order to preserve liquidity and manage our business during this time.”
Inglis said leading during this COVID-19 crisis “requires all of us as leaders to be transparent with our teams to alleviate a layer of anxiety all of us are experiencing. While transparency doesn’t make these decisions easier, it ensures that everyone on my team understands the challenges we are facing so we can navigate through this crisis together.”
Taking action, fast
Aside from fast-thinking, acting fast can also benefit retailers and brands in times of crisis.
Inglis said companies need to adapt “and we need to act fast to manage our business through this period.” The ceo said, first, make decisions with speed over precision. “The situation is changing daily and we need to synthesize new information and make decisions with conviction,” Inglis said. “We’ve had to challenge ourselves internally and adapt old ways of thinking to pivot to the uncertainty of today. We are breaking through this inertia and analysis paralysis by embracing action, and not punishing mistakes. In fact, I believe our best insights will come from our mistakes — fail forward.”
Fashion to Figure’s Kaplan believes “decisive decision-making” is another tactic needed in the current climate. “During uncertain times, a global pandemic, where there is no playbook for an unprecedented global crisis, you are in a foxhole and your game plan is built each day based on many factors out of your control,” Kaplan said. “Every member on your team is living the moment with you, but has their own perspective. It is critical to encourage them to share ideas and feedback. Everyone on the team needs to know their value, be heard and encouraged to bring the next great solution or idea to the table. You never know when lightning will strike.”
Kaplan said in this moment of the outbreak, “the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. After listening to all ideas, think about what you need to accomplish, your potential position at the end of the crisis, and move forward with a decision. It is also important to continue to actively listen and be open to new thoughts informing new and old decisions. Better to fail forward in a crisis than to have stayed stagnant and died.”
Focus on the team
For Noah Stern and Ayal Twik, co-ceo’s of Moose Knuckles, the priority is to “lead with compassion and care for our tribe — all the people we work with.”
“Our ‘director of giving a f–k,’ Scott McDougall, has been solely focused on keeping our worldwide tribe abreast of all developments from a personal and health point of view, because we really do give a f–k,” Stern said. “For every employee, worldwide, who we have been forced to furlough, we are topping up whatever financial assistance the governments are giving, to make sure they each have enough to see them through this s–t show. Lastly, as concerns our global team, each and every one of us have banded together to take meaningful cuts in comp in order to see the whole moose tribe through these tough times.”
Lastly, Stern urged other leaders to be generous and compassionate. “Care for your tribe, the whole tribe, every one of them,” Stern said. “Show it with words, show it with time, show it with dollars. This is not about business and profits — that s–t is for normal times. Now it is about taking care of each other.”