Resilience, overcoming obstacles and crisis management were core themes of day two of the Be Inspired virtual conference. RWRC heard from retail and business executives on how they’re navigating challenges in this difficult period and the positives they have taken from it
Covid-19 has tested leaders like never before with consumer demand accelerating for some sectors and floundering for others. Not to mention the added pressures of working from home, managing teams remotely and getting used to what is being referred to as the ‘new normal’.
As Citi managing director Sharon Blackman says: “We’re all going through the same storm but people’s boats are different so we’re experiencing it differently.”
At the Be Inspired virtual conference, head of Figleaves Jenni Burt, Rituals UK and Ireland managing director Penny Grivea, Salesforce retail GTM leader UKI/EMEA Wendy Gardner and Blackman sat down with Be Inspired founder Charlotte Hardie to share their responses to Covid-19 and how they have been leading their teams effectively.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your business?
Grivea: “Retail has been very tough, and nothing really compensates for the loss of sales. We’ve been working really hard to safeguard our shopping environments and thankfully we’ve been able to plan for Q4, which is our busiest period of the year. What I’ve realised is that you shouldn’t let life’s challenges paralyse you, but you should see them as a route to new opportunities and to allow you to discover more about yourself.
“We still don’t have all the answers but having constant communication with our team has been crucial. Although 90% of our workplace has been furloughed, we’ve been using technology to bring teams together.”
“I think it’s OK to say you’re not OK and to share that message with your team. We all have good days and bad days”
Penny Grivea, Rituals
Blackman: “At the beginning of lockdown, there was a massive period of intense activity for some of the groups we cover, whereas for other markets the bottom fell out. However, we’re now seeing activity pick up increasingly on a week-by-week basis. From a legal perspective, I’ve been busy advising clients and the focus has really been on communications and connectivity.”
Burt: “It’s been really challenging but we’d been working remotely since last summer, so it was quite seamless in terms of that first transition.
“I think what was interesting for us was that we saw it hit our suppliers in Asia and the Far East about six to eight weeks before [the UK] and we just didn’t expect it to come here; it felt like it was the other side of the world. There was really intense pressure those first few weeks of the crisis and I’m not saying it has relaxed, but we’ve definitely been able to get more into the groove as a team.
“We produced our best swimwear campaign ever and it’s been disappointing as obviously no one is going on holiday right now. However, lingerie has seen a real spike and we’ve seen a rise in sports bras, bralettes, comfy bras, so we’ve been delighted by that performance.”
Gardner: “As a company, we’ve had to change very quickly and adapt our vision. We’ve had to think about how do we keep our people skilled, how do we communicate with our customers effectively, and how do we push forward and go to market?
“We’re a very proactive business and as we began as a start-up many years ago, we’ve almost reverted to that start-up mentality now.”
What have you learnt about yourself as a leader during this crisis?
Burt: “I only took on the role of head of Figleaves six months ago, so I was learning to be a new leader and then this happened. You can start to go into panic mode, but I have been in retail for many years and I know my strengths and have already established great relationships with my team. I think you have to remember that you have things in your locker that can help you through this.
“You can lean on each other and be there for each other too. We’ve been having regular town halls and group gather-rounds; it’s back to basics in a certain sense. If you’ve got great people around you then you can really get through the toughest day.”
“My focus has been letting staff know they could step back and that they needed to make time for them. A few weeks back, I made the decision to close the business for a whole Friday afternoon to give the team time to step back”
Jenni Burt, Figleaves
Blackman: “I think there’s been a lot of opportunity for self-reflection. I’ve always considered myself as an extrovert and this situation has made realise how important it is to have people around me and how central a team is to me. I don’t think I was aware of it, but I realised that when I’m in the office, I make an effort to walk around the floor and speak to people each day and I’ve had to find a new way to do that in lockdown. I’ve also found that there’s a genuine need for routine to get work done.”
Gardner: “I’ve found a genuine need for planning and control and being more structured. I’ve also been managing my diary more effectively as I was making time for everyone in my work life but not my family, so I’m starting to take control back.
Grivea: “I think just looking at the women in this session, it’s taught us all that we’re actually much stronger than we thought we were.
“I’ve built more meaningful connections and it’s taught me to stay focused on my vision and to not get sidetracked. I’ve stopped watching the news on a daily basis because I find it really negative. There’s more we could be doing to bring positivity to keep us fired up.”
How have you focused on the wellbeing of your staff?
Blackman: “We’re all going through the same storm but people’s boats are different so we’re experiencing it differently. It’s definitely brought our teams together and we now know more about them so that’s helping ensure they’re able to cope with what the business is throwing at them and their personal circumstances.
“The starting point for me is are the people in my team OK – once you’ve established that they can then give back to the business and get things done. I have always run one-to-ones with my team but now they have a slightly different flavour as we’re not just talking about deliverables but how they’re feeling, what their work setting at home is like, how comfortable they are.”
Gardner: “I’ve been really surprised by how impacted people in our teams have been, particularly their mental health, by this pandemic. When I have calls with people now it’s about asking how they are and looking for signals before you go into the business conversation. A lot of people are acting differently in lockdown.”
“I don’t think anyone three months ago would have imagined you’d have been able to get the traders from the office floor to working from home – it’s shown the possibilities”
Sharon Blackman, Citi
Burt: “What was interesting to me at the start of lockdown was the sense of responsibility among staff to work long hours and put in extra work because they were fighting for the survival for the business. My focus has been letting them know that they could step back and that they needed to make time for them.
“A few weeks back, I made the decision to close the business for a whole Friday afternoon to give the team time to step back. I’ve also taken a few personal days and it’s really key to have that. We’ve created a safe space for people and the biggest thing for me has just been allowing that flexibility.”
Grivea: “I think it’s OK to say you’re not OK and to share that message with your team. We all have good days and bad days. We’ve been navigating through this by taking time to have training and wellbeing sessions but there’s such importance in having personal connections.”
How does leading a team during Covid-19 compare to other challenges you’ve faced?
Gardner: “While this is unprecedented, I have felt fear of the unknown in the past, I’ve felt fear of failure and I’ve felt fear of losing my job. I’ve experienced a great loss in my life in the past and my team were so supportive and communicative. One of the leaders in our team sent me a [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt quote from during the Great Depression that says ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’. It’s so true now in that we all need to face our fears.”
Burt: “There have been some challenges in 30 years, I’m not going to lie. I think what’s different this time is that before I’ve been in more junior positions, so I’ve gone through administrations, facilitating business continuity and the pressure and responsibility to get the job done was huge. But now being a leader in times like this, you have to face into it and accept that you can’t control the things you can’t control. You have to know that you’re strong and have a solid support network in place to really get you through it.
“I think we’ve all learnt to have more trust in our teams as we’re working from home and people are showing a different side to themselves, bringing family into calls, dropping their guard”
Wendy Gardner, Salesforce
Grivea: “You can’t go through life without failure and disappointments because that is how you learn, but it also helps you appreciate life and what it is that you want from it.”
What positives will you take from this crisis?
Burt: “For me, it’s been establishing new ways of working and a greater focus on work/life balance. I’ve now met everyone’s family in our team [via video calls] and we’ve got a real community spirit.”
Grivea: “It’s about really slowing down and putting things into practice. My son and I picked flowers on the weekend and we would never normally do that, so it’s about doing less and taking time to feel less pressure and not rush around as much.”
Blackman: “From an industry perspective, I don’t think anyone three months ago would have imagined you’d have been able to get the traders from the office floor to working from home – it’s shown the possibilities. On a personal level, I’ve learnt a lot around self-reflection.”
Gardner: “I think we’ve all learnt to have more trust in our teams as we’re working from home and people are showing a different side to themselves, bringing family into calls, dropping their guard. The big learning though is about fear: we all need to face into our fears.”
RWRC’s Be Inspired programme began in 2016 with the goal of promoting diversity at all levels of retail and to encourage everyone, whoever they are and whatever their background, to fulfil their career aspirations.
To learn more about Be Inspired and for more content like this, follow the link here.