My Top 10 COVID Learnings as a Team Leader
By Tom McDonald, VP Team Leader, Walmart and Sam’s Club, Bayer Consumer Health
Of my 35-year career in the Consumer Packaged Goods industry, no time has been as interesting and difficult as the past 15 months. The learnings are abundant, yet I’m not sure how to apply them all in the roles that I have.
At Bayer Consumer Health, I’m responsible for managing our business at Walmart and Sam’s as the Team Leader. While I have held this role for the past two years, I have called on Walmart and Sam’s Club for the last 25 years. My more important role is as husband of 29 years, father to three great children (Justin 28, Meghan 26, Mitchell 24) and father-in-law to two of the most wonderful young women (Maggie and Sarah). I will also become a grandfather in September which will be a true blessing. The following 10 learnings are in no particular order and I’m more than happy to discuss them with any reader.
· Reading the Lonely/Stressed/Depressed/Happy people on my team
The loss of an office environment has made it incredibly difficult to get a pulse of the individual, let alone the team. When we were in the office, I could get an understanding of how team members felt. You knew their family situations and could experience their joys and sorrows firsthand. The impersonal nature of Zoom/Teams and constant jumping from call-to-call leaves little time to understand how the individual is “really” doing. There are times I feel powerless to help my direct reports and as someone who strives to be a servant leader, that pains me.
Learning: Being intentional about spending time with people is key. I hold daily team meeting for updates and some fun, as well as 1:1 calls with team members to include the real “how are you feeling chat” and understand their new “daily” life.
· Top Talent and New Talent
We must develop, train, and keep our best talent, otherwise, they will leave. We must figure out how to get our new people to “catch” the learnings they hear and see in the office environment.
Learning: A great reminder that you need to love your top talent or someone else will. I must invest in them, or I have failed. Time is key.
· The Quiet People are even more quiet on Zoom
In the office, it was so easy to ask them a question or go see them to ensure their wisdom would be incorporated into decisions. It’s difficult to “call them out” in a team meeting because it puts them on the spot and could make them uncomfortable.
Learning: Text during or before calling on how we need their opinion during the meeting to make the best decision. Call them afterwards to touch base.
· Regional Differences drive mental well-being
Understanding the regional differences of the U.S. makes a better Team Leader. Our HQ is in New Jersey, which is one of the hardest hit Covid areas of the U.S. They experienced lockdown — no office, no in person schools, no childcare, no gyms, limited outdoor activities, and constant masks. In Arkansas, we had a much shorter and easier lockdown. A mother or father of three young children in NJ had a vastly different last 15 months than me.
Learning: Life is a lot more important than work and I need to understand each team member’s current reality.
· My 10,000 hours of “expertise” no longer matters
I am a huge believer in Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule and how it helps develop the key skills for success in your chosen area. I had to “unlearn” a bunch of supposed skills. I had to learn how to lead from my kitchen table, how to sell without seeing a person, how to influence without understanding the room and how to create “fun” while everyone else is on mute. Learning: I still have a lot to learn in this life.
· Relentless focus on the key deliverables and priorities
With all the additional burdens, we needed to deliver the key priorities and stop the swirl. We need to focus on product supply and in-stock items to drive sales and share.
Learning: Always major in what is important.
· Make it easier during difficult times
My job is to help and that has looked very different during the past 15 months. I need more than ever to focus on “what help is” by business and person. Covid has overwhelmed people and they need support more than ever.
Lesson: Cut out the clutter and protect my people.
· Listen to understand
It’s much easier to listen to understand when face to face. On Zoom/Teams calls, you can have people multi-tasking in their business or personal lives. There can be multiple interruptions during a 10-minute call. People have “Zoom Fatigue” which leads to less robust conversations.
Learning: Focus on listening despite all the swirl and ask questions for clarity. Set time to double check your understanding of key situations.
· The ever-changing shopper dynamic
I’m blessed to have two of the best omnichannel managers in the area and no you can’t interview them, (see learning #2). As society moves to personalization, ease of ordering and demanding immediate delivery, we must deliver on those needs and still make money. Understanding the omnichannel shopper behavior is the key to future success.
Learning: Be bold and resolute when you know you are right. Keep the data in front of key decision makers until they understand the implications.
· Embrace the blessings (Family/Friends/Faith) during the trials
During the last 15 months, my daughter, Meghan, has been home for 10–12 of them from NYC. It has been a true blessing to spend time with her and the rest of the family as we have watched shows, played games and talked about life. We celebrated Mitch and Sarah’s wedding in June. I have kept my sanity by going to the gym and spending time with good friends at the golf course. I’m only three days behind on my reading the Bible in a year plan — which is the best I have done in years!
Learning: Embrace and be thankful for your blessings every day.