We all faced it, and some did it really well. Recently, the CEOs of Ecolab, VF Corporation, and Nasdaq came together to confab about how their firms dealt with Covid-19. All organizations did everything they could, and these three companies stand out. They invigorated the purposes of their corporations and mobilized their people in extraordinary ways. So, how did they do it?

Doug Baker of Ecolab remarked that what worked for Ecolab was to stick with its purpose. A part of Ecolab’s stand is “When our customers succeed, we succeed.” The challenge, though, was everyone had to rethink how that purpose was delivered.

Obviously, the pivot in the market was significant given the restaurant, hotel, and office industries that Ecolab serves, and how compensation schemes had to shift to incentivize the right things in a way that people could win. Moreover, the Covid market changed the way Ecolab looked and dealt with how its people needed to work, such as its digital investments and how the company creates value.

Mr. Baker spoke, too, of the special focus this work had in 2020 for other reasons. Ecolab’s home is Minneapolis / St. Paul which was the site of the George Floyd murder in late May. Ecolab’s people spent time reflecting on its purpose and how it plays into the company’s work on social justice and police reform in the City of Minneapolis. Ecolab recognized that the company’s B2B business model affords the company the chance to work in ways that many consumer-facing brands are not afforded.

Steve Rendle is the CEO of VF Corporation. While many don’t know the name, many people reading this are wearing what VF makes given a brand portfolio that includes Vans, The North Face, Wrangler, and more. Steve was clear that VF had no change in how the company thinks about its purpose. That said, the events and environment of 2020 provided the people of VF space to have even greater conviction and commitment to its purpose.

VF took a people-first approach to Covid. It shuttered offices and stores to protect people from the unknown threats of the virus, but it did not lay off any employees. One innovation was shifting their DC (distribution center) from shipping to its retailers and customers and moving to a more direct-to-consumer model as much as it could. Moreover, VF shifted to critical consumer-centered communication, an approach that Mr. Rendle admitted VF Corp had been tone-deaf to prior to the social justice events of 2020. The company morphed itself in its communications to being fun and experiential while engaging appropriately with each brand and its distinct customers and consumers. Such an approach has already grown to a much stronger consumer base.

A key lesson from the conversation was to focus on guiding principles. Empathy, for example, calls people and companies to take time to understand colleagues given the variety of global cultures, consumers, etc. Steve Rendle said, “We’re much smarter when we understand [all of our colleagues’] needs and wants.” As consumers are making more and more buying decisions based on issues like the environment, social justice, and diversity & inclusion, companies are wise to be grounded in the multi-faceted aspects of these issues and know where they stand.

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