Leading successfully during major uncertainty

Trust in leadership is the key to surviving and thriving in periods of major uncertainty.

Retailers that continue to find their way through 2020, amid the uncertainty and turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic have done so, in large part, due to strong leadership. Some retail commodities like luggage and travel accessories or swimwear may have greater challenges simply due a lack of consumer demand. Retailers in others have survived - and in some cases, thrived - by changing product mixes, improving delivery channels and embedding themselves more deeply into their communities. Ensuring their success continues, and indeed grows to full recovery, means hard-wiring trust in the leadership that helped get them there.

Building that trust takes effort, and in these times decisive and swift action is required. Leaders must guide this process consistently to help their organizations and stakeholders along this journey.

Some of the key approaches resilient leaders use to positively support an organization’s success along the way include:

Shifting mindsets:

With the onset of the pandemic and the unanswerable questions around its severity and duration, most retail organizations took a reactionary stance, at least to start. However, the uncertainty is continuing, coupled with ever-changing data and information. This sustained ambiguity has placed huge strain on all stakeholders - investors, employees and customers alike.

To successfully navigate the recovery process, stakeholders need to be focused on the future - what the organization’s next steps are, and the ones after those. To build trust, leaders can highlight how their organizations are thoughtfully planning their safe transition through, and re-emergence from, the pandemic. By visibly shifting from simply reacting to taking control of future planning, they can build stakeholder confidence and ease the stress of the unknown.

Reinventing through innovation:

Resilient retail leaders understand that the only certainty during the pandemic is uncertainty. Organizations can leverage that uncertainty as part of their recovery efforts by using it as an opportunity to encourage innovation.

By shifting the organization’s mindset from a reactionary stance to a more proactive reinvention (or pivot) attitude, reinvention through innovation allows retail organizations to build trust in leadership and continue the journey to recovery. Shifts that are working for companies like Walmart, Target and others include:

  • Building out digital and e-commerce footprints to increase traffic, scale and speed (improving customer experience on websites, making it easier to order online/pick up in store or curbside, focusing online assortments on increased demand for health & wellness or other in-demand categories, etc.)
  • Probing for shifting customer needs and behaviours in the new normal (conducting customer surveys and website exit polls, etc.)
  • Encouraging employees to actively participate in the reinvention (emphasizing workplace safety and increasing shift flexibility, clearly communicating changes in policies and procedures, increasing the level of cross-training, etc.)

Demonstrating core values and authenticity:

In a time of great uncertainty, retail organizations can demonstrate they’re a part of the community, and can be a force for good. This is an opportunity for retailers and their leaders to demonstrate their core values, to act with purpose and to show they care about their stakeholders. Right now, Canadians are focused on their families, their friends, and their communities. They also care about the environment and global health.

Some ways retailers are building trust by demonstrating authenticity, empathy, and a genuine commitment to their teams and communities include:

  • Increasing collaboration externally as well as internally; As an example, London Drugs has offered shelf space to independent non-essential retailers directly affected by a reduction in sales
  • Working with supply chain partners to evolve their processes and source and promote local products; As examples, Le Panier Bleu is a Quebec initiative to promote thousands of local businesses and products to consumers, and in Australia, IGA now puts up shelf labels highlighting those products actually produced in Australia

Communicating your recovery game plan:

It’s not enough to be “doing” or “planning” just in the boardroom. Effective leaders understand the need for regular communication, sharing information consistently with their communities, shareholders, employees and customers. Full transparency about the COVID-19 situation, the challenges and how the organization is dealing with them is essential. Location-specific virtual townhalls, social media, e-newsletters and internal blogs/vlogs are all communication channels that can serve to keep stakeholders informed.

New channels provide excellent opportunities to talk about the organization’s vision for the long-term, helping to redefine it and make it more agile and ready to take advantage of its full potential, post-pandemic. Messages can focus on new successes – i.e. successful sourcing of scarce products like hand sanitizer, rollout of new contactless delivery capabilities, etc. They can also spotlight new opportunities that are currently being explored – i.e. apps being developed to allow customers to book specific times to visit store locations, or to improve the online shopping experience on mobile devices.

The pressure of uncertain times won’t stop as the economy reopens. It’s becoming increasing clear that recovery will take time and we’re on the way to a new normal. That includes a shifting future of retail.

At JRoss, we’re seeing retail leaders emerge who have demonstrated the skills and qualities required to successfully guide and transition their companies, their teams and their communities through these unprecedented times. The current challenging and uncertain times have created tremendous opportunities for leadership at every level and in every area within today’s retail organizations.

To learn more on this and other retail trends and insights you can check out our blog.

Written by Patricia Viscount and Rob Fisher