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Female Leaders Guide COVID Strategy Differently and Identify Critical Shortcomings Early

It was the middle of April and everyone’s lives had just been turned upside down by the crushing blow of the novel corona virus. People were still scrambling to piece their lives and the lives of their families back together. Some companies had to stay open, they were deemed essential businesses. This is the story of one company’s response to the crisis.

SageGlass creates electrochromatic glass. This is a relatively new high-tech building product that tints automatically to ensure occupants have a glare-free and comfortable environment using sustainable and energy-efficient green products. They subscribe to a set of values that include “People Come First” and a “ONE Team” philosophy.

A month into the crisis, the CEO, Alan McLenaghan sent out an email to the company. Typical of his leadership style, it was full of questions. Questions that seemed easy, but the answers would be complex and nuanced.

Alan’s philosophy was admirable,

“You should never waste a good crisis, what can we learn from this?”

And learn, they did. Carlijn Mulder was sitting at her desk when the email came in. She had recently returned from maternity leave and as a new mom with a seven-month old had a lot on her “home” plate. The crisis had hit just as she was returning to work. Her return was supposed to be in her brand new executive position as VP of Quality and Regulatory. Because of the crisis, the company had asked her to straddle her new and her previous position as Manager of R&D at least for a while to ensure things didn’t fall through the cracks. Her “work” plate was already overflowing, but she looked at these questions and thought,

“Our success lies in getting the answers to these questions and taking action to keep pushing forward.”

She leapt forward, resharing the email with her team, asking them for their input and perspectives. She compiled their responses and presented this at their next senior leadership team meeting. As a new member of this team, it was a bold move. Carlijn thought of it differently:

“How often does the CEO ask his organization for insights? When they do, we really know our response is important.”

Later in the week, Alan called and asked her, as a new member of the senior leadership team, if she would grab the reins on this one to help guide the company.

Carlijn is a very collaborative leader and she used that to her advantage on this task. First, she formulated the outline of her plan. She knew they needed to dive in and get specifics from each group to have meaningful information for decision making. As a new executive, she also realized she probably didn’t see enough of the whole picture yet. She scheduled a meeting with Alan, the CEO, and Chuck Hayes, the VP of General Admin, HR, Legal, and Strategic Purchasing, to get some early feedback on her plan. Chuck was particularly surprised. “I never would have done that”, he said. “I’m very independent and I would have just charged ahead. Yet, he checked himself, and thought,

“She has a different style; we need to let her run with this.”

And run she did. She tapped five others to be a part of her core team. They would drive getting the information to answer those questions. She intentionally selected people who would represent groups that had been affected very differently across the business. SageGlass has both a strong manufacturing component, they were coping with social distancing and safety on the manufacturing floor. There is also a huge new technology component to their business as well as sales, marketing, and R&D. Some groups were working from home while others had to adopt a hybrid model to support manufacturing. Understanding how the different facets of this business were impacted was going to be critical.

Carlijn worked with her team to quickly brainstorm different ways to approach this issue. The diversity of her team was key to identifying how to get the information they needed. They decided on a two-pronged approach, first, they would survey the employees, then based on the survey results they would do more in-depth focus group interviews to get even more specific information about the issues. Based on the dramatically different work being done by the groups, the team concluded they would need to customize questions for each group. The survey went a few days later, and they gave employees three days to respond. Results in hand the team, launched the second phase which involved some deep dives using focus groups with different departments. To make this work, they added department Liaisons to the team. They would guide the core team collecting data and ensure they included a cross-section of the departments needs and challenges. Over the next two weeks they practiced their best listening skills. By mid-June they had completed Phase 1 and had compiled an extensive list of learnings.

Meanwhile, Chuck was watching all the effort going into this and wondering, “Do we really need to do surveys and focus groups?” He thought, “We need answers now, we need to move quickly, this is going to take too long!” Yet, he checked his compulsion for speed and said to himself,

“Let’s just wait and see what they come up with. It’s not the way I would do this, but we asked Carlijn to lead this effort, let her lead.”

The core team madly shifted through and compiled the data. The department liaison’s input was crucial, as they intentionally assigned the core team to work with departments they didn’t normally interface with on a day-to-day basis. The thinking was this would force them to ask the “dumb questions” that often unearth great insights and ward off preconceived notions. The team assembled some general business learnings and the department-specific learnings and handed them over to the department heads to develop their own specific actions to alleviate the issues.

Below is a short-list of what they discovered:

These early finding were gold for SageGlass. It allowed them to make some rapid changes and begin putting other changes in place over the longer-term to alleviate issues. Some issues are still being evaluated to figure out the best long-term solution for the post-COVID world that continues to remain undefined.

I was talking with Chuck, and he was thrilled with the outcome of Carlijn’s Team. The most surprising was the decline in interdepartment communication and collaboration. This represented the beginning of those silos that can kill off innovation and productivity in a heartbeat. Chuck said,

“Carlijn’s Team was able to catch this, before the concrete had a chance to set on those silos.”

“Everyone was so focused on just trying to keep the business running, that we really didn’t ‘see’ this was happening,” he told me.

“And what’s more is that it was Carlijn’s plan that unearthed this. If I had been the lead, I would have done it very differently, and I doubt I would have dug deep enough to discover this. Her approach identified this very early so we could make adjustments before it caused a lot of long-term damage.”

It turns out that Carlijn is very community-minded person and Chuck is a very independent-minded individual. It shows up in their styles and behavior and even their unique approach to problem solving. These differences are discussed in detail in the book: You Can’t Fix What You Can’t See: An Eye-Opening Toolkit to Cultivate Gender Harmony in Business. The key is to understand both styles and use them to leverage the diversity in your organization to improve innovation, market growth, and engagement.

Shefali, one of Carlijn’s team members and a R&D Project Leader, said it best:

“There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to alleviating the impact of COVID-19 on an organization’s performance. Just like the doctor prescribes medication based on unique symptoms, so should senior leaders elicit what their people are feeling/doing before implementing rapid changes.”

SageGlass is an amazing company that was able to go from 7 to 33% women in their professional ranks in just seven short years. The story of their assent and the actions they took to accomplish this feat are chronicled in eight episodes of the You Can’t Fix What You Can’t See Podcast. I encourage anyone who wants to become gender savvy to lend their ear to these success stories. We keep the stories real and share the mistakes along the way, so you don’t feel compelled to make all the mistakes yourself.


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