Michelle Gass is the chief executive officer of Kohl’s. After an extraordinary run at Starbucks, she joined the retailer in 2018. Kohl’s is the largest department store chain in the US with 1,100+ stores in 49 of the 50 states. Like most companies, Covid-19 slammed hard into the side of Kohl’s ship. Gass and her executive team were just about ready to launch Kohl’s new strategy, but Covid brought other plans. Below summarize some of her comments as a part of the January 2021 Wall Street Journal ‘The Future of Leadership” event:

Gass and her executive team circle March 16, 2020 on the calendar as the day things went from readying the new strategy rollout to determining if Kohl’s had the financial resilience to get through the pandemic, a world-wide phenomenon about which nobody had a full understanding of. The financial resilience included understanding the realities of their inventory management and employee management. On March 20, Kohl’s closed its stores and shortly thereafter furloughed its 85,000 employees. Once the initial maelstrom passed, the executive team realized that when we all came out of the pandemic, Kohl’s would need a new vision.

Communicating has been one of Gass’s primary activities since March 20. Like most executives in the world, she had no playbook for what to do in this situation. Gass identified a few things that were critical to succeeding in this space:

  1. Communicate directly. Doing email with 85,000 people wasn’t going to win the day. Being present as best as possible – by video, live, and real – was going to be critical. She knew it was what she would want if she was in their shoes.
  2. Calm, confidence, and clarity. Gass realized that she needed to speak to what the executive team knew (and what it knew it did not know). Also, sharing where the company should have confidence about why and how Kohl’s would survive was critical, as well. Make it clear what was so and what was not clear.
  3. Be a realist and share bright spots. The old adage is ‘hope is not a strategy’ and Gass knew that sugarcoating was a disservice to people. This is what Insigniam calls ‘being straight’ about what’s so. Secondly, the people of Kohl’s needed to hear and share the wins that were happening all over the company … doing so was a real win.

Gass reflected on the past year and shared, “Being surrounded by the best people is never tested like it is in a time of crisis.” She made sure that Kohl’s executive team focused on company morale, as it was all about empowering and supporting the multi-level leaders throughout the company. But the success Kohl’s experienced was not grounded on what the executive team did during Covid, it was actually the work Gass and her team did the years prior to 2020. She shared that creating an empowering and team-centered environment at the store level before the pandemic helped Kohl’s to get through the crisis, especially when they needed to furlough people.

In simple form: being grounded, practical, and finding ways to be inspired is a powerful recipe for leading an organization and for getting people through a crisis of untold magnitude.

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