What leadership lessons have retailers learned during the pandemic?

Best Buy CEO Corie Barry - Photo: Best Buy
Jan 13, 2021
Tom Ryan

In a keynote session at CES’s first virtual trade show, Corie Barry, Best Buy’s CEO, said she believes her role as leader is to create conditions for others to succeed and that’s been a “huge component” behind the consumer electronic chain’s success during the pandemic.

When you unleash other amazing people to do great work, they will organically do more than you ever thought possible,” she said.

She believes Best Buy clearly benefited from four prior years of supply chain investments to support anticipated online growth. That helped scale many omnichannel practices as the pandemic emerged.

But the severity of the crisis, she believes, emboldened her team to quickly set up curbside, ship-from-store and other practices as needs were accelerated.

“There’s something very unifying about a pandemic,” she said. “And what I mean is when you’re so worried about your employees’ safety, your customers’ safety and making sure people get what you know they fundamentally need to live, that’s a very unifying factor. All of a sudden you worry a lot less about which channel it is happening in.”

She also believes Best Buy’s purpose-driven positioning helped as “clarity of purpose provides clarity of direction in a time of crisis.”

At Best Buy, the company’s purpose is “To Enrich Lives Through Technology” and that mission was heightened as stay-at-home households embraced tech solutions for working, learning, entertaining and even cooking. She said, “That’s not just a tagline; we believe that’s fundamentally what we’re here to do.”

A second purpose for Best Buy is social, and that plank became critical last year in Best Buy’s response to the protests and discussions around racial injustice.

Finally, the third purpose, personal, involves work and aligning personal lives in harmony and that’s underlined by Best Buy’s four inclusive leadership behaviors: empathy, courage, vulnerability and grace.

“When you find an intersection between the company, the social and the personal purpose, there is great power in that,” said Ms. Barry. “In a time of crisis, the clearer you are about the intersection of those things, the more quickly you can make decisions and pivot.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What leadership lessons have retailers learned from the pandemic? Has being purpose-driven and focused on employee empowerment been an advantage in helping some retailers speed omnichannel rollouts and manage challenges?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"I feel like this has been a few years of intense, on the job management grad school squeezed into a few months."
"Luck happens when opportunity meets preparation. Best Buy is a good example."
"The pandemic created a great opportunity for leadership to build stronger relationships with employees."

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21 Comments on "What leadership lessons have retailers learned during the pandemic?"

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Mark Ryski

The pandemic has tested the mettle of every executive. I agree that being purpose-driven and employee focused has been key to successfully navigating the challenging circumstances in which every retailer found themselves, regardless of whether they were deemed essential or not. There are many lessons to be taken from the pandemic, probably the most important is for retailers to realize just how vital their front-line workers are. Hopefully retailers remember this after the pandemic.

David Naumann

First and foremost, retailers were forced to become more nimble during the pandemic. Rather than long cycles of analysis to approve technology enhancements or process changes, retail leadership teams had to make quick decisions to adapt their operations to meet new customer demands and safety requirements. Many retailers have done things in a month or two that typically would have taken a year or two. In that sense, the pandemic has been good for retail.

Jeff Sward

The under-learned lesson prior to the pandemic was that what worked last year might not work this year. Evolution of product and process was undermanaged. Testing and probing new initiatives was under-utilized. There is now no question that many malls and retailers got lazy and complacent over the last decade. Now that the change has been imposed by the sledgehammer of the pandemic, listening and learning are of paramount importance. The evolution of business models has to become an offensive tool, rather than a defensive response.

Gene Detroyer

Great comment. However most retail leaders and those in other industries won’t even understand what you are saying.

Dick Seesel

Retailers were forced to adapt very quickly at the start of the pandemic in order to develop sustainable business models. This required a common sense of purpose between senior management and frontline workers, and it also required tossing out old assumptions about “we’ve always done things this way.” It also helped if retailers had strong omnichannel and supply chain processes in place.

But, above all, surviving and thriving in 2020 required a sense of urgency. My experience taught me that there is no substitute for it, among all the other positive traits of good managers, because the clock is always running fast. (Christmas is coming on December 25th whether you are ready for it or not.) Applying “high speed” to decision-making (even if some trial and error was involved) definitely payed off for companies where urgency is part of the culture.

Gene Detroyer

This is right out of the book of leadership by Tony Hsieh. Ms. Barry follows in those footsteps. Her most important comment is that her role as leader is to create conditions for others to succeed.

This has nothing to do with the pandemic and everything to do with good leadership. Those that have followed this philosophy have done well in these trying times. Those who have not have suffered. When you have large organizations like Amazon, Walmart, Target, Best Buy, the more the CEO tries to control the outcome, the less successful the organization will be.

Gary Sankary
Where do you even start with this question? I feel like this has been a few years of intense, on the job management grad school squeezed into a few months. Since we are seeing an ever widening gap between retailers who are thriving and those who are struggling, it’s worth the time to try to understand what about the winning companies’ leadership seems to be working and learn from them. From my perspective there are three areas that rise to the top: Putting employees and customers first. From safe stores and commitment to health and well-being to engaging experiences. Companies like Target, Walmart and Best Buy, who from the beginning emphasized these commitments, were rewarded for their efforts. Moving quickly to react to changes in the market. I believe that the top issue for companies is that they stood still and underestimated the impact and scope of the pandemic. It seemed to me like they felt that if they waited, this would pass and it would be business as usual. I think most have realized… Read more »
Lisa Goller

Leadership lessons from the pandemic include:

  • People matter: Hazard pay, closing on Thanksgiving and supply chain-wide safety measures helped retailers show they care.
  • Agility is profitability: The status quo is not an option during this period of global, real-time change management.
  • We need each other: Collaboration helps internal teams and supply chain partners boost their resilience.

As for empowerment, Target’s deep respect for its people unified its team’s omnichannel mobilization, leading to impressive wins. The wage hike proved Target’s willingness to invest in its talent and their loyalty.

Brian Cluster

Undoubtedly the most common theme of leadership from the pandemic was that companies were able to adapt and to act through technology. The fortunate retailers with agile technology and strong business practices were able to lead and implement new customer-facing processes such as curbside pick up in record time. But perhaps the most undermentioned leadership success stories were the retailer’s ability to support and motivate their retail associates to deliver better service under more stress and in a fast-changing environment. As Ms. Barry mentions, empathy is key in these challenging times as well as grace. Using empathy and grace, a good leader is supporting that employee during an off-day because there may be some other challenges in that employee’s life. Despite all of the technological advances, my experience is that industry has become more human and that is a testament to improvements of leadership at retail.

David Mascitto

It seems that for retailers it was necessity that drove innovation. If not for the pandemic, we probably would not have seen as many resources dedicated to building omnichannel infrastructure. As an industry traditionally averse to innovation, a strong lesson for retailers should be that digital transformation in retail is essential to growth and longevity.

Rich Kizer

Focusing on all of these great comments about the best offered services that made a pleasurable surprise and created a great customer experience, we found and hung a sign in our office that stated: “The primary objective is to focus on how we make the customer feel thrilled.” When that happens, everything else falls into place.

Andrew Blatherwick

The first lesson must surely be “it is better to be lucky than good,” as those in the right sectors have done so very well out of the COVID-19 pandemic, others have found it much harder. The second lesson must be to make sure your company is as flexible as possible. That takes great management and yes the empowering of your team but also great technology to enable you to react quickly, efficiently and accurately to the very fast changing situations we have seen over the past 10 months.

Bindu Gupta

The biggest lesson for retailers from the pandemic has to be how to be more customer-centric than product-centric. When retailers focus on making all decisions with the needs and values of the customer in mind (including how a certain action would make them feel, if it would maintain trust and boost good will, etc.), customers are more likely to respond favorably.

Shep Hyken

The pandemic created a great opportunity for leadership to build stronger relationships with employees. Sure, tough decisions had to be made in many businesses, but the way leadership goes about it paves the way to build more trust with their teams. Leaders were able to be more “real” than usual. They could build connections, be more visible and show empathy for scary and difficult times.

Brandon Rael

Throughout the pandemic, outstanding leaders have focused on inspiring and supporting the organizations being extra empathetic as we are universally dealing with a pandemic without a real horizon yet. True leadership will address the consumers’ needs and the unique challenges store associates and corporate teams face.

Retail operations have faced unprecedented challenges throughout 2020, and it will continue through 2021. Whatever initiatives and strategies retailers had going into 2020 they have had to revisit with a very agile and flexible mindset, as the situation we are all dealing with is so fluid.

Going into 2020, most strategies were around driving experiential retail across physical and digital commerce. However the pandemic has disrupted our normal way of life. This has required retail and consumer products leadership teams to drive new, agile, flexible, and scalable innovations that will meet the needs of a more convenience- and efficiency-driven consumer.

Ed Rosenbaum

It may be too simplified, but with working from home so prevalent, more employees are forced to make decisions they normally would ask their supervisor’s advice on. This is allowing them to spread their wings, so to speak, and improve their skill set through self training. Will it work? Depends on management’s willingness to continue improving the teams under them.

Ryan Mathews

The simple answer is: Trust peoples’ reactions in the moment more than traditional, institutional responses and get out of your employees’ way. I’d answer the second question, but I hear much more about employee empowerment than I actually see.

Gene Detroyer

So true. It seems every few years or so there are new management buzzwords. This has been my experience over my last 50 years. They are embraced with much fanfare and little seriousness. If you hire competent people let them be competent. There wasn’t enough of that in business 50 years ago and there is not enough of that now.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Luck happens when opportunity meets preparation. Best Buy is a good example. In addition Best Buy had the sense to unleash the power and wisdom of its employees. Well done.

Karen Wong

When it comes to retail tech, flexibility has an outsized impact on resilience. Systems need to be architected loose enough so that they can be adapted to the strategies required at any given time.

Casey Craig

Both business and IT leaders had to learn to trust their teams and strip away arduous processes in order to reduce speed to market. Doing so enabled deployment of omnichannel capabilities at a record pace. Retailers have seen success from this new way of working which will forever impact how capabilities are delivered in the future.

"I feel like this has been a few years of intense, on the job management grad school squeezed into a few months."
"Luck happens when opportunity meets preparation. Best Buy is a good example."
"The pandemic created a great opportunity for leadership to build stronger relationships with employees."

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