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Step-Up Leadership

Here are some of my learnings taking on a pivot project during the first few months of the pandemic

Photo by Ryan Tauss on Unsplash

About a year ago the world temporarily came to a halt due to the pandemic. Businesses were no exception – I was head of trade marketing for two world-leading appliance brands, we thrived in retail and as shopping malls started to close, so did our windows of opportunity.

The onset of the quarantine brought about various questions in my mind. I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for a couple of decades, and even briefly handled a vaccine portfolio. I knew it was going to be tough and I definitely know that it is not going to be brief.

As an employee, I questioned whether there would still be a job waiting for us when we got back to work. As a manager, I worried about my team and how they would cope throughout the ordeal. As an executive however, I thought about business continuity and what steps the organization should take to pivot around the situation.

The consensus was to shift to digital selling. The goal wasn’t to sell hundreds of millions but to sell enough inventory to keep cash flowing and the pay rolling. We didn’t have years to execute, not even months nor weeks. We only had a few days to start a viable website and fortunately we had a person on board who knew how to set-up a Shopify page.

With the help of everyone in the group, the site was up in almost no time. All we needed to do was sell, but online selling (and marketing) is very different in the digital world. Running a digital business needs a different set of competencies and there was no one on deck to take on the leadership responsibility. There was simply no time for leadership to adapt and we could not afford to wait for leadership to emerge.

A few years back, I was introduced to online marketing as part of an initiative to launch a digital platform for a former company. Since then, I took the time to educate myself on the different facets of online marketing. With this short ‘head start’ and given the urgency of the matter, I determined that it was necessary for me to step-up and take on the leadership role.

In this article, I will be sharing with you some of my learnings taking on a pivot project during the first few months of the pandemic.

Take Ownership. This means aggressively putting yourself out there. I spoke to my boss, sent an email to executive leadership and even personally messaged our general manager. When you know that you are the right person for the job – do not be afraid to raise your hand and take the lead. It doesn’t stop there though. In a time of crisis, there has to be a clear leader. I made sure that there was a formal announcement across the organization regarding the project, and that it was me that will spearhead the program.

Be Pragmatic. There are many aspects to digital marketing and it was easy to get distracted with vanity tasks and metrics. We had to constantly remind ourselves that we needed cash quick, and so we kept our strategy simple and our measures straightforward. Keeping things practical also made it easier to communicate across the organization especially since we were limited to online interactions.

Over-communicate. People were distracted, they had many things on their minds so we took every chance we could to cascade our plans and updates. We maximized technology and set-up Virtual Townhalls, MS Teams Meetings, even launched a dedicated Viber group. As project leader, I had to make sure that I was always accessible. Note that in a time of crisis, especially when fighting for business survival – there is no balance. It is upon you, to move the fulcrum and keep yourself unflustered.

Learn and Apply. Since I was basically the only one with a digital marketing foundation, I encouraged my team to learn fast and apply whenever they can – We dared ourselves not to label our activities as trial and error but rather a cycle of learning and applying. You would be surprised at the wealth of free information that is being provided by digital marketing leaders. In about a week — my team had respectable certifications in the digital marketing field.

Keenly Observe. Let’s keep it real. Not everyone will be on board. Some will be paralyzed by fear, some would be indifferent, others would follow while others would step up their game. Be quick to recognize the ‘emergence’ of leaders and leverage on their sense of action. Use them as examples to rally the team. Be ready to be disappointed though, because oftentimes people whom you thought would step up will turn out to be the ones unable to adapt. Be ready to be surprised as well, for those who would come out of their shells and genuinely contribute to the effort.

Engage. At the end of the day there is an ongoing pandemic, people’s lives are at stake and there are relatively more important things going on in the world. Create a social media atmosphere when engaging everyone in the organization. Keep it light and playful, but at the same time extensive and forward looking.

Reward and Recognize. Be quick to call out small wins. This helps you build momentum, increase participation and create a little bit of excitement throughout the program. The first sale, the top contributors, all the way to your first million – make them feel that you have their backs, and they will hold the line and move forward with you. At the very least this distracts the team from the ongoing health crisis.

Share your Story. We achieved our goals. We sold a few million worth of inventory and it was enough to tide us over for a couple of months. Markets opened up after that and we were back in business at that particular moment. However, retailer confidence is still low. There was no vaccine yet and it was just a matter of time before markets are forced to close again. What we did was share our little success story to our partners and it sparked enough enthusiasm that we were able to sell our other product lines. Now only did we survive but we were finally getting back on track!

The pandemic is still ongoing and according to the World Health Organization, we will still be dealing with the virus in the next coming years. Tough times are still upon us and these are the times that necessitate leadership. Be safe, be strong, keep leading. Cheers!

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Written By

Iks is a Pharmacy graduate from the University of Santo Tomas and has spent two decades as a Marketing Executive in the Pharmaceutical Industry. He has left his corporate career to pursue his passion for connecting and inspiring people - Publishing a book on Career Advancement, creating The Inspiring Leader social media community and hosting The Inspiring Leader Podcast. Visit his blog.

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