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5 takeaways from our CEO Panel: Driving Transformation Amid Uncertainty

These CEOs have led their organizations through growth and organizational change during uncertain times and are now preparing for the future. See what they had to say.

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5 takeaways from our CEO Panel: Driving Transformation Amid Uncertainty

Many organizations were already undergoing fundamental transformation when the pandemic hit and forced even greater change. West Monroe recently hosted a webinar to explore the topic of transformation. Four CEOs shared their views and experiences in a discussion that ranged from key challenges and lessons learned to transparency and other success factors for driving change. Our panelists included: 

  • Amanda Lannert, CEO of Jellyvision, a software company that creates benefits and financial guidance software 
  • Ginny Rothschild, CEO of Workscape Inc., a company that designs office space and furnishings 
  • Paige Ponder, CEO of One Million Degrees, a nonprofit that empowers low-income, highly motivate community college students to succeed in school, work and life 
  • Sue Buchta, CEO of RevUp Brands, a private equity-backed manufacturer and wholesaler of dance apparel  
  • Deb Krupinski, Director in West Monroe’s Advisory & Transformation team (moderator)

We have captured some of the highlights below.

The key challenge across talent, productivity, and culture? Finding balance 

In West Monroe’s latest executive poll, respondents said that maintaining company culture was going to be the top challenge in building a hybrid work model. Our panelists shared the same insights, that post-pandemic plans will change how, when, and where people work. There’s also a balance that needs to be struck between flexible work options and making sure the work is still getting done. How that balance is found will perhaps define the rest of the year—and beyond. 

Amanda: We are entering the roaring 20s, but it may not be the roaring 20s that everyone expects. People are going to roar out to travel, see friends, and socialize, but they may not be roaring back into the office. I think the employer/employee relationship is about to be reset. We are also struggling with the implications of borderless hiring, bracing for a hybrid work environment, and figuring out how to provide psychological safety for employees.  

Paige: My team does very emotionally heavy work, so the burnout and the fatigue runs deep. We are thinking about how “back to the office” can be restorative—with consideration for physical safety but in a way that gives everyone a little more energy. 

Sue: We have a diverse workforce, with some jobs that cannot be done remotely. It is a real creative challenge. We are looking at ways to stay as flexible as we can and listening to what our employees need. Sometimes, it’s just old-fashioned me walking into the warehouse and talking to people, not about what we are shipping but about how they are doing.  

Ginny: The livelihood, productivity, and profitability of our business depends on us getting back. This hybrid world has a lot of “gray.” We have spent this past year being very empathetic and getting to know people on a level we never imagined. But now we have to rise to the occasion of what’s right for our businesses. I think that is the most difficult thing for leaders. 

The past year’s global events struck a chord on how to humanize and empathize with our workforce.

No matter how large or small, every organization has been affected by the events of the last calendar year. 2020 will forever change how organizations operate on just about every level. The main theme from our panelists: humanizing and empathizing with the workforce. 

Paige: Our organization was profoundly affected by the tsunami of racial equity that was part of the COVID experience but also separate from it. As a millennial, I was raised to compartmentalize parts of my life and believe that those don’t really overlap, at least most of the time. Experiencing the blending—that people are human and there aren’t those compartments—has really made us think about what we value, how we measure things, and how we show up for each other and care for each other.  

Amanda: To quote Chip Conley, “The most forgotten fact in business is that we’re all human.” Companies don’t buy from companies. People buy from people. Companies don’t innovate. People do. And employee populations don’t show up to work. People do. We’ve had this incredible look into people’s homes. When it comes to productivity, I think employers are going to have to flex more, offer more, and be more holistic, because work is not going back in a box.  

Sue: I also believe it will require people to flex leadership skills that they don’t have or haven’t used in a long time. I don’t just mean at CEO level. I’m talking with my leadership team and the next level down about being empathetic leaders. Not everyone is like that.

The focus has shifted to future-proofing organizations and building momentum with customers. 

With the worst of the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, the time has come for organizations to begin looking forward at how to serve customers in a “new normal.” It’s a critical time for organizations to be there for those they serve. 

Sue: One thing that has always been part of our DNA is a desire for customers to see us as a partner, not a vendor. We are in a highly creative industry, and many of our school and studio customers are reluctant owners. What they really love to do is choreograph and teach. With the resources we have, how can we help them be better business owners? 

Ginny: When the pandemic hit, customer needs changed overnight—and kept changing. First, they needed signage and navigation, then plexiglass barriers, and then hand sanitizer stations. Now with a return to work, they are looking for air purification. We know the workplace is going to continue to evolve, so we need to be flexible and have offerings that are adaptable.  

Paige: In the community college space, the conversation is shifting to policy discussions about free college. That would fundamentally change our landscape, so we’re thinking about how we evolve as a service organization and can be proactive about positioning ourselves to partner with colleges and with workforce development ecosystems. 

Transparency is critical at a time when everyone is looking for answers. 

The pandemic has changed how companies communicate—especially with so many people working from home. It’s why being transparent—and even being comfortable saying “I don’t know”—and effectively communicating is more important than ever. Our panelists have changed how they talk and they’re already seeing results. 

Ginny: Profit sharing is ingrained in our culture. But for the first time we had to say, “We don’t know what will happen.” We tried to take people on that journey with us and keep them updated. In the end, we couldn’t pay what we wanted, but we were able to do something. Now the conversation is about getting back to who we were pre-pandemic. That transparency is a motivating factor. 

Paige: I have tried to get better about communicating my guiding principles and the things I’m thinking about as we navigate through a situation or make decisions. So even if we don’t have answers or a plan, people understand how we will arrive at a solution.  

As I prepared for our May 2020 all-hands meeting, I was nervous. It was becoming clear we wouldn’t be back in the office for some time, and I didn’t have a plan. That’s when I learned the importance of shooting straight and saying, “I don’t know.” Also, celebrate the wins, no matter how small. We launched something we call “A Few Good Things” at the end of every all-hands meeting, where we recognize a few teams or wins. 

Ginny: On the topic of recognition and transparency, we created an Armadillo award for people who admit to a mistake and share what they learned. We believe bad news should travel as fast as good news. We celebrate wins, but we also want to learn from what went wrong. 

Change is inevitable but getting buy-in from your organization is not—unless you’ve got a strategy 

Change was the main theme of 2020, and with so many future unknowns, it’s inevitable as we look toward the future. And while workforces of organizations understand that change is coming, getting buy-in from them at a high level is easier said than done. Our panelists discuss how clear communication will be a key driver toward making sure those changes are successful. 

Sue: Be intentional. You have to tell people, “We are going to change,” and talk about it frequently. I’ve also learned the importance of creating an environment in which it’s OK for people to say they don’t want to be part of the change.  

Amanda: You have to start with why. You have to remind people constantly why we are doing this and what success looks like. Talk about what you aren’t doing as well as what you are doing. That helps people see you’ve thought things through. Finally, have an objective, honest assessment of how it’s going and a process for reassessment and replanning on a regular basis. 

Critical success factors that will drive transformation vary—and all are important to growth 

Paige: Using technology to bring everyone together. A real focus on community and culture. And not just an openness to change, but an eagerness to embrace and lean in to change. 

Ginny: The right talent. A strong culture. And trust within the organization.  

Amanda: Team trust, well-set goals, and measurement and iteration.  

Sue: People. You can replicate processes or systems but you can’t clone people. A culture of trust. And staying focused on what really matters. 

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