Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
September 10, 2020

The New CMO: ‘Showing Up’ in a Time of Crisis

By Marketing, Sales & Communications Officer Practice

In the face of a global pandemic, an economic downturn and social upheaval, top marketers around the globe have seen their jobs change immensely — and quickly. Historic, tried-and-true practices have been tested like never before, and new paradigms have emerged.

This volatility and disruption were the topic of discussion for our 18th CMO Summit, which, not surprisingly, was also transformed for 2020, convening for the first time in a virtual setting. As a result, the panel of leading marketers meeting via video was also uniquely global: Singapore-based Erica Kerner, SVP and head of marketing strategies and partnerships for ONE Championship; Silvia Lagnado, sustainable growth officer at Natura &Co, who was in Brazil; and Janey Whiteside, EVP and chief customer officer at Walmart who joined from the United States.

The discussion, moderated by Spencer Stuart consultant Richard Sanderson, addressed the challenge marketers face today: How do you meet immediate needs with an eye toward sustaining longer-term viability? And how do you maintain an effective, engaged and motivated team while leading virtually?

The new digital normal

For each of our panelists, the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly transformed the customer dynamic at their companies, as consumers stayed home and expanded their digital footprints. At Walmart, Whiteside said, e-commerce post-shutdown was up 300% year-over-year; at Natura &Co, the shift to digital was swift at all four of its brands (Aesop, Avon, the Body Shop and Natura), Lagnado said. For ONE Championship, a sports media property known for its coverage of martial arts and esports, viewership of these digital-friendly sports increased, according to Kerner.

“I think we saw five years’ worth of acceleration of digital adoption within five weeks,” Whiteside said. “We've had to figure out how to rapidly evolve our business model and the way that we communicate with customers.”

The question of the moment is whether these changes are here to stay. All three marketers indicated that they believe that at least some trends will stick. In sports, Kerner noted, social media during the shutdown gave people increased access to athletes’ personal lives, something that fans will likely seek to maintain into the future.

“It’s been a very interesting time,” Kerner said. “It’s been a learning curve, but one that we're excited about because… we've seen viewership grow in both of our sports, even though we're not currently hosting live events.”

Meanwhile, at Natura &Co brands Natura and Avon — with products traditionally sold in-person by consultants — the company’s representatives and consultants have begun to embrace e-commerce and social media as effective avenues for both connecting with customers and driving sales. “We've learned that it's possible, and for many people, nicer and better to do business [virtually],” Lagnado said.

Virtual leadership

Leadership is critically important during any crisis, however 2020 has been unique in that top executives have been forced to lead remotely. In companies big and small, team dynamics have changed, pushing those in charge to be more purposeful with their communication.

In a physical work setting, you might bump into someone in the hallway and find out how they’re doing, set up a lunch or coffee to check in, or conduct an informal debrief during the walk back from an in-person meeting. In a remote setting, those encounters have disappeared, and leaders now be more proactive in how they connect remotely.

“Some people will reach out to you and say they're struggling or ask for help, but others won't,” Kerner said. “I think that's the biggest change for me, thinking about the need to [actively reach out to colleagues], rather than it just happening naturally with face-to-face interaction.”

At Walmart, the virtual setup has been a “great equalizer” in many ways, Whiteside said. Whereas in the past, people dialing in remotely may have felt isolated from those in the conference room, everyone is on equal footing. Video conferences from home offices have given team members a glimpse into their leaders’ lives in a way that may never have before. And perhaps ironically, the capacity to focus and innovate has actually increased, because a meeting is only a Zoom video away.

“You have to communicate, communicate and communicate, and you have to be able to make sure that we're creating connections,” Whiteside said. For example, “We’re doing a weekly touchbase [with] multiple thousands of people in the teams, where we get them all on for an open Q&A with me and my leadership team — much more [communication] than we'd ever done.”

Lagnado, who began her job at Natura &Co in January, echoed similar thoughts about the year’s implications for leadership. With the COVID-19 crisis hitting soon after her start, most of her onboarding occurred virtually. Rather than an impediment, however, Lagnado said it enabled her to meet more employees in more parts of the world more quickly, and it has drawn the leadership team closer.

At the same time, Lagnado said, the leadership team has had to increase its “gentleness, or mindfulness” in engaging with employees whose personal situations have been impacted by the sudden shift to remote work — for example, those with children, or those in difficult living situations.

“There can be a lot depending on personal circumstances, and it's not always obvious… who is needing what kind of help,” Lagnado said. “I think we are becoming much more aware, asking more, and changing our approach depending on who we're talking to.”

Remaining forward-thinking

Lagnado’s position as Natura &Co’s sustainable growth officer has a strong focus on the company’s medium-to-long-term ambitions, yet the crisis immediately thrust her into a sharp focus on the short term needs of the company, in particular her role overseeing the communications function.

However, in mid-June, the company launched its long-planned 2030 Commitment to Life, only slightly delayed by the COVID crisis. The program lays out the group’s goals and plans to address climate change, defend human rights and embrace more sustainable packaging by 2030. Lagnado said that the launch demonstrated that the group’s longstanding goals related to sustainability would not be sidelined by the coronavirus crisis.

“I was amazed by how committed everybody was to put the extra hours to do all the work that needed to be done for us to launch it,” Lagnado said. “I think when you're dealing with something that you care about and that is bigger than today, people find the time.”

For Walmart, the societal change of 2020 related to diversity and inclusion has led to what Whiteside said are some tough conversations about minorities’ experiences at the company and the steps that can be taken to improve them. One step Walmart has taken is to address systemic, long-term racism; it announced in June that it would committed $100 million to exploring racial equity. At the same time, Whiteside said her leadership team have been talking about the many day-to-day decisions it makes, for example how it chooses agencies to work with and how it creates an organization that is more representative of its customers.

“Our corporate commitment… really gets into, how are we digging into communities and how can we make relevant systemic change?” Whiteside said. “But to me, it's also about some of the actions that you take day to day…. how we learn and grow and get better by understanding, as colleagues, as leaders, as a retailer.”

Awaiting a return to normal?

Kerner had the unique perspective of having been in Asia during the SARS outbreak of 2002-2004. While the scale of that crisis compared to COVID-19 differs, the experience of lockdowns and quarantines within each has many parallels, Kerner said. However, the return to normal she experienced more than 15 years ago will almost certainly be different this time, considering the global nature of this pandemic and the corresponding economic downturn, as well as the spread of social media and the ease of remote communication in today’s society.

“What was most interesting to me — and as we talk about coming out of this — is how quickly things went back to the old normal” after the SARS crisis. Kerner said. “People went back to their old habits very, very quickly and almost forgot about the lockdown. I'm very interested to see how quickly things go back to a semblance of the old normal versus what a new normal is.”