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How leaders can shepherd their people and brands though the COVID-19 crisis

The writer talks to Tom Herbst, former CMO of the North Face, to examine seven leadership lessons that are emerging due to the coronavirus crisis.

How leaders can shepherd their people and brands though the COVID-19 crisis
[Photo: Aron Visuals/Unsplash]

A few weeks ago, Tom Herbst, former CMO of the North Face, extended an open invitation on LinkedIn to brainstorm with other leaders on how to navigate the COVID-19 impact on business and brands. He’s been recognized in the industry as one of the most influential CMO’s because he builds cultural currency. Before Herbst left the North Face, he helped launch two bold campaigns focused on inclusion and diversity.

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We were able to connect over the phone last week. Like many other calls these days it was prefaced by apologies for kids in the background. Once we got started, his words came easily since he’s been spending the past few weeks talking with leaders of brands both big and small over homebound background distractions. Clearly people have taken him up on his offer.

What struck me the most about our conversation was his primal call for humanity and how many questions he didn’t have answers for. We tend to think that our leaders will intuitively know what to do and then will flawlessly execute their plans. That may be true under normal circumstances, but this degree of not knowing the future has created a kind of fog. If you think about it, it’s the most inspiring part. Not knowing is the human bond between all of us, regardless of our position.

Doug Tompkins, the founder of the North Face, coined the brand’s name because the north face of a mountain is the coldest, iciest, and most formidable route to climb. Applying an explorer’s mindset to what’s happening right now can help guide and ground us.

A few key themes emerged from our conversation that can hopefully guide many leaders about how to shepherd their brands and their people through these times.

Know the role of your brand

Purpose has been a bit of a buzzword, and many brands have sought to articulate theirs recently. Now’s the time to put it into action. “Purpose lies at the intersection between what you do best as a company and what needs you can serve in the world,” says Herbst, “Not every brand’s purpose needs to save the world. The key is to be helpful.”

Your purpose doesn’t have to be world changing

Seeing automotive companies retool their manufacturing facilities to make ventilators or distilleries make hand sanitizer is inspiring. But there are many other ways to have purpose. “Companies should be looking to how they can shift quickly to help. Everyone is in confined spaces and looking for ways to manage their time, stay active, and balance work and kids,” notes Herbst. “The more that brands can help people stay connected to communities, to passions, to learning, to like-minded people, to the thoughts and ideas, the more that they’re going to win.”

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Don’t help just to get credit

Though it’s tempting to merchandise your actions, it might not be the right thing to do, “Don’t step up because it’s a marketing moment, but rather because it’s a humanity moment and it’s the right thing to do,” Herbst cautions. “Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, not because you want credit. I believe in some karmic retribution,” he continues, “If you do the right thing, it will come back around, and people will come to your support when you need it.”

Leaders are most concerned with how to treat their people

Whether you’re a small business or a publicly held Fortune 100 company, chances are taking care of employees is what’s keeping you up at night. “It’s heartbreaking to have to make tough decisions,” Herbst admits, “But it’s either you make these decisions now or the company doesn’t exist in a few months, and then everyone is in pain.” It’s important to have radical transparency with your employees.

Manage relationships first and work second

Managers need to budget more time to direct their people than before. We’ve all become masters of the videoconference and while that’s better than conference calls, it’s not a substitute for human connection. “You can’t expect people to come to you—you have to reach out and check in with them,” Herbst suggests, “And you have to do it in a way that’s not always related to the work at hand, but to see how they are doing, what they need help with, and how they’re managing through it.” Managers who do this will come out stronger on the other side.

Everyone is freaked out

The overload of mixed information without a unified point of view has caused people to feel unsettled. No one really knows how many virus cases there are in the world or in your neighborhood, what the trajectory is, or whether the curve is flattened out. “In all fairness, I’m sort of one of those freakers,” admits Herbst, “I haven’t left my house in 10 days, and I’m not planning to.” Business leaders are also fathers, husbands, sons, mothers, wives, and daughters. This crisis impacts everyone, regardless of position or status.

Adopt an athlete’s mindset

There’s a lot to be learned from how athletes assess conditions and calculate risk. “The thing that is most in danger right now in terms of the explorer’s mindset is curiosity,” Herbst observes. “What drives athletes and keeps them going through the hardships, quite frankly, is a sense of curiosity.” Curiosity is the best antidote to fear. We must continue to learn and grow as individuals, just like a marathon runner at the beginning of her 25th mile or a swimmer with a sprained wrist.

Overall, this is a time in which we can learn what glory can be gained on the business end of hard work and what the value found within the struggle.

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Carolyn Hadlock is an ECD/principal at Young & Laramore Advertising. She writes the blog Eunoia (which means “beautiful thinking” in Greek and is the shortest word in the English language that uses all five vowels), where she interviews CEOs, founders, and creatives for her Beautiful Thinkers series. You can follow Eunoia on Medium and on Instagram @eunoiaquarterly.

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