The pivots these leading business women describe may have come about as a response to an immediate threat, but they represent more than mere crisis management.
By Meredith Moore
It isn’t the year any of us expected as we entered 2020. The pandemic has disrupted so many aspects of our lives that it’s hard at times to remember what “normal” looked like. But successful women have always faced a balancing act; their talent for combining innovation and consistency in just the right amounts — and with grace, no less — is an inherent element of their skillset, and one that helps qualify them for the senior leadership roles they hold.
This year, I have been privileged to learn about different ways such women have pivoted to meet the unexpected challenges of a pandemic-driven world. My 2020 passion project has been hosting a series of luncheons for Atlanta-based women in senior leadership roles from a variety of professional settings: Fortune 500, entrepreneurial and government.
The conversations are invariably fascinating, with diverse guest lists and a varied assortment of topics. But no matter what else we talk about, I always raise this question: How are you pivoting this year?
The answers, as you might imagine, are wide-ranging, but five distinct themes have emerged in our discussions.
1. How we conduct business communications. When the traditional workplace environment vanished, the ways leaders typically communicated key messages was no longer effective. Lisa Tilt, founder and CEO of Full Tilt Consulting in Atlanta, recognized the need to help her clients pivot on the fly at the outset of the pandemic. “It became clear to us that 2020 would be relentless for business and necessitate leaders make the best decisions they could with less information and more pressure,” Tilt said. “That required clear focus and planning to adapt company messages and modes of communication to hit the intended mark. In response, we created tools and consulting modules for strategic ‘pivot messaging’ to help organizations stay brand-centric, avoid blind spots, and increase inclusivity.”
Networking routines were disrupted as well. “In a virtual world, spontaneous networking doesn’t work like it does in the physical world,” said Kat Marran, vice president of US marketing at UPS. “You don’t see people by happenstance. Casual interactions like seeing someone in the cafeteria and other physical triggers that encourage people to connect are gone, so we have to be more deliberate about building and nurturing professional relationships.”
2. How we keep brands connected with customers. To say business leaders faced a tricky economic landscape is to drastically understate the situation. How could brands deepen bonds with their target audiences despite closed store fronts and physical offices? Messaging was crucial, but so too was generating actual sales, both during and after the crisis.
Lisa McLeod, founder of McLeod & More, is an Atlanta-based consultant and speaker working with senior executives and sales teams around the globe. McLeod says, when the world changed so suddenly due to the coronavirus lockdowns, “We realized very quickly that we needed to help our clients stay connected to their customers in meaningful ways. The sales landscape changed overnight. We pivoted from looking at long-term strategy, to helping our customers stay relevant and resilient, and keep generating revenue.”
3. How we help nonprofit organizations continue to meet fundraising goals. The galas and auctions so fundamental to nonprofits’ fundraising strategy were clearly inappropriate in 2020, so many organizations responded by restructuring their events as virtual ones. While practical, this strategy demanded a creative approach to ensure the same opportunities for personal engagement offered by in-person fundraisers. Marva Bailer, strategic advisor at Splunk, replaced the traditional PowerPoint presentations with quotes to ground the discussion as new people entered the virtual room during gala events for the NFPs at which she is a board member. “The conversation continued with smiles, virtual hugs, sharing of drinks, Zoom backgrounds and outfits. Then there would be a break in the laughter to focus on the mission of why we were together and the quote fostered deep conversation and insight.”
Heather Rocker, global executive director for the Drupal Association, found that holding events remotely conferred unexpected advantages: “It opened up new programming that we can do around diversity, equity and inclusion in a way that’s not cost-prohibitive,” she said. Rocker’s organization typically covers costs for about 20 people who otherwise wouldn’t get to go to a major annual conference. “This year,” she said, “we reached out to organizations across the globe and have 350.” Bailer pointed out another benefit of virtual events, saying, “The positive part of this virtual pivot is that the walls of formality were down; you could actually hear what people were saying (cocktail parties not so much) and people showed their heart and opened their homes to others.”
4. How we support and strengthen communities. “Initially, the focus for many leaders in public service was doing everything we could to safeguard the health and safety of the community and ensure that public safety and other essential operations had access to the resources they needed,” said Marie Willsey, a Roswell City Council member. But while they sought innovative ways to deliver critical services immediately, civic leaders also began considering next steps. “The pivot? Imagining and planning for the ‘new normal’ and what that means in terms of how people will live, work, play, and gather,” Willsey added. “It’s essential to look ahead and reimagine how city operations and planning will adapt to the changes sure to come in an uncertain future.”
Governments had to find new ways to communicate with stakeholders and enable them to take part right away, but the solutions they implemented represent a far more permanent shift. “The pandemic has completely changed the way we manage public dialogue in a digital world, transforming for the long run how people engage around what we do as governments,” said Shannon Powell, who serves as assistant city manager for Avondale Estates.
5. How we educate our children. Organizations of all kinds faced challenges, but let’s not forget what was for many of us the greatest challenge of all during this strange, difficult year: helping our children navigate a virtual school experience. This is where a surprising number of accomplished and powerful women met their Waterloo. How does one conduct a virtual business meeting and, simultaneously, keep a 5-year-old academically engaged and on task via Zoom or Google Hangouts? Tiffani Nevels, a managing director at Accenture and mother of two young sons, described the horrible realization so many parents shared. “Oh my gosh, I actually thought I was going to set the guys up and go work! Clearly that was impossible,” she said, “so the pivot was finding a virtual learning facilitator to help them get through their school day. For me, that has been a real game changer[l4] .”
From preschoolers to high school seniors, our children struggled with this new format and we as parents often struggled even more to facilitate, supervise and nurture the educational process. Without professional help, families often wrestled with issues of gender equity: Whose “job” is it to support and monitor children’s education when both parents work from home? A flexible approach to schedules, family time and division of labor has been an absolute necessity for most of us.
The pivots these leaders describe may have come about as a response to an immediate threat, but they represent more than mere crisis management. While no one would have endured the events of 2020 by choice, the twin calamities in public health and the American economy provide an opportunity to reassess and revamp how we approach both societal needs and business functions when the crisis finally ends. And guided by the insights and inspired leadership of the many brilliant women I’ve enjoyed hosting virtually at lunch this year, we can feel confident that Atlanta and the nation will emerge stronger than ever.
About the author:
As an Atlanta-based business woman who has spent the last 20 years leading her own practice in a profession dominated by men, Meredith Moore is keenly attuned to how women approach financial awareness, management and decisions. In early 2020, Moore published a white paper on the interplay between gender, money and power and how gender role assumptions impact women’s financial power within personal relationships. She holds a Bachelor of Industrial and Systems Engineering from Georgia Tech and has received numerous awards for her professional work. She is a 2017 graduate of Leadership Atlanta. A cancer survivor, Moore firmly believes that perseverance and a methodical approach allow individuals to achieve any goal. Learn more at www.ArtisanFSonline.com.