In her latest ‘Lonely CEO’ column, Cate Luzio explores how certain leaders are tackling new challenges and discovering hidden opportunities brought to light by COVID.
The new workplace has made leaders adapt quickly to leading remote teams through digital tools, and while there have been many challenges for leaders that come with this shift, there have also been opportunities; I like to call it “the upside of the pandemic.” For some, leaning on their teams in ways that they hadn’t before and, for others, unlikely partnerships have become necessary for growth or survival. While we continue to hurdle the obstacles handed to us by this crisis, it is remarkable to watch certain leaders tackling new challenges and discovering hidden opportunities in the process.
“Since I started the company in 2008, we’ve always operated like entrepreneurs, leading with passion and commitment to excellence. So, when the crisis started, we were prepared to act quickly, with an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Bertha González Nieves, cofounder and CEO of Casa Dragones, an independent, small-batch tequila producer with a passion for creating exceptional ultra-premium sipping tequilas. We have seen many companies struggling to engage their workforces remotely, enable digital platforms quickly or establish new ways to engage and connect with their customers. Casa Dragones isn’t one of them.
Under the leadership of González—the first woman “Maestra Tequilera,” or tequila master—the company was able to quickly shift online for both employees and customers. “We lost a big part of our business overnight with the closure of hotels, restaurants and bars. We also had to close our offices in NYC and Mexico City immediately to protect our teams. We started working remotely and focused heavily on digital and our retail business. In fact, technology has enabled us to work closer than ever [as a team], which has had a positive effect on the health of our culture and team,” González explains. However, she quickly realized digital wasn’t just an opportunity for her teams. Casa Dragones launched a “Cocktails at Home” program, small grants for out-of-work bartenders in exchange for original content online, a sustainable “cocktails-to-go” program and introduced its newest sipping tequila, Casa Dragones Añejo Barrel Blend, online, a first for the brand. Says González: “Launching digitally while we were all working remotely was a true shift as a company; it’s made us stronger as a team, more committed than before and the market reaction has been really exciting.” This isn’t surprising given González’s focus on delivering the best quality product and experience for the Casa Dragones customer.
Like Casa Dragones, Ellevate Network, a global community of women committed to fostering and promoting gender equality in the workplace, led by CEO Kristy Wallace, relied heavily on in-person events and experiences as part of its business. And at the onset of the pandemic, only 15 percent of Ellevate’s workforce was fully remote. Yet Wallace knew she had to adapt quickly for her staff and the Ellevate community. “We’ve always had a workplace that supported remote work situations and know that for women in particular, flexibility is critical. We were also able to pivot to fully digital events and currently host over 80 events every month nationwide including roundtables, speed mentoring, networking and more,” says Wallace. She noted that her 2020 strategy had originally been tied to digital, but “while unexpected, the impact of COVID-19 on our programs has accelerated at a pace at which we are achieving our strategic goals.”
Ellevate has continued to expand digitally throughout the crisis, however, Wallace expressed that while they had to move quickly to engage their community, employees are a top priority. “We have many initiatives aimed at ensuring that employees always have the opportunity for recognition and visibility.” Those initiatives include a weekly peer recognition award, daily recognition on their internal Slack channel and weekly all-hands meetings, encouraging teams to present their work and receive acknowledgment of their impact. “As a CEO, I strive to reach out to employees that I may not get one-on-one or small group time,” Wallace says. “This ensures the informal networking relationships built in the workplace continue.” And she takes a similar approach in leading the Ellevate community—hosting regular roundtables for corporate executives, reaching out to Ellevate chapter leads, and driving support and collaboration through discussions focused on advice and insights. Thinking of yourself as a customer has never been more important than when in crisis.
For both González and Wallace, the transition to digital has not only provided their staffs with increased flexibility but also brought teams closer together and delivered the ability to reach their customers in a way that is not dependent on physical location. However, companies like Piermont Bank—a woman-founded, entrepreneur-led middle-market commercial bank based in New York City—focused on digital from the onset. “Our team wasn’t remote before the pandemic; however, our fully digitized platform enabled our team to go remote very quickly,” says Wendy Cai-Lee, president and CEO. “When we built Piermont in 2019, we set out to change the face and pace of banking, bridging the best of fintech with traditional banking. This foundational focus has proved to be critical, especially during the pandemic, and it enables our team to continue to deliver and grow while being remote.” As a new player in the financial services space, Piermont’s ability to leverage its digital platform quickly for its teams was way ahead of traditional banks. Their ability to be nimble and efficient internally, accelerated their opportunity to deliver for clients. “We have an advantage of being the new bank, where we don’t have to worry as much about our existing portfolio, and we have more capacity to help clients navigate the crisis and recession,” Cai-Lee says. “We can structure customized solutions to help our clients weather difficult times.”
For each of these leaders, transparency, honesty and vulnerability has been critical to their ability to find the upside during this pandemic, as well as look for new ways to partner and collaborate. “I believe culture is the most important thing,” Cai-Lee adds. “Piermont is woman-founded and entrepreneur-led, and our team is diverse by design. To think multidimensionally and take all perspectives into consideration helps to create an open communication environment. I am transparent with our team, so they are aware of the direction we are heading. Partnerships are very important to us, and we are actively looking for good fintech partners to improve our efficiency and client experience.” Wallace agrees on both. “Internally, I’ve always led from a place of honesty, vulnerability and approachability. During the pandemic, this has continued. I also feel that partnerships and collaboration are critically important. Individually, and as a company, you don’t need to navigate these times alone. Finding and having partners with shared values and complimentary business attributes can help accelerate impact and growth.”
When a company has a transparent leader, authenticity follows, and González is nothing short of authentic. “All of our partnerships and collaborations have always been genuine and started organically. The one thing that all of our collaborations have in common is that I consider every one of them to be friends. That’s really part of the DNA at Casa Dragones,” González explains. “For us, we are always looking for ways to provide high-quality experiences, engage with our customers and teams and innovate. That’s a constant that won’t ever change.”
While the pandemic has placed many obstacles in front of this trio of leaders and their companies, their ability to pivot quickly to digital, support their teams remotely and leverage partnerships, has presented advantages that they might not have seen before. Yet, it seems to me, these CEOs will always move forward and find the upside, even in the midst of a global pandemic.