J. Crew’s CEO And Kyndryl’s Global HR Talk About Core Business Principles
Tiffany Dufu, founder and CEO of women’s leadership training organization The Cru, decided that if she was going to interview J.Crew Group, Inc. CEO Libby Wadle in front of an audience, she had to come to the stage wearing something from Wadle’s retail chain. With only 10 minutes in her schedule to find a new dress, Dufu confessed to the associate helping that she would be interviewing the woman’s boss and was nervous. To Dufu’s surprise, the associate responded, “Oh Libby? No need to worry– she’s totally cool,” and assured Dufu that the conversation would be terrific.
“That’s such a rewarding story to hear,” Wadle replied to Dufu. “The best part of my job is hearing those moments and those stories. For us, it goes beyond the clothes. The clothes are important, and you look great. But it’s really about how you feel and those experiences, right? and how she made you feel,”.
Dufu did indeed interview Wadle wearing a J. Crew dress for a conversation at the Forbes Power Women’s Summit in New York on Thursday, about how to build a positive company culture, empower employees and lead with empathy. They were joined by Maryjo Charbonnier, global human relations officer at Kyndryl Holdings
No matter whether your business is 65 years old, like J.Crew, or a startup like Kyndryl, Wadle and Charbonnier agreed that protecting your core business comes down to the culture you build and the principles you use to guide you forward.
The economic turmoil created in part by the pandemic sparked nearly 1.8 million women to drop out of the workforce. But as Dufu, Chabonnier and Wadle told the Forbes audience, all leaders are required to rise to this difficult occasion. Here are their best tips:
Build a Positive Culture
“For us, the silver lining was thinking about our culture in a holistic way. And it’s not just like offering snacks,” Wadle said, alluding to the ways that certain company cultures were deemed “cool” because they offered employees food and alcohol. “I think it has come down to how we offer our associates and our community an opportunity to embrace their lives and balance their lives in a way that makes sense for them,” she said.
J.Crew Group was among the first high-profile national retail stores to file for bankruptcy during the pandemic. In May 2020, it filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 during the Covid-19 pandemic. J.Crew Group owed between $ 1 billion and $10 billion to over 25,000 creditors and was able to reach a deal to restructure $1.65 billion of debt by converting it into equity. In September 2020, the company announced its exit from Chapter 11 bankruptcy and said in a press release it was “well positioned for long-term growth.”
Wadle recalled how the pandemic affected everyone but noted that it was also a learning experience and, to a degree, allowed for some team bonding. “We saw things going on in the background of the Zoom calls that we would have never known about before; the cats jumping on the computers, the kids crying, and it just opened up this whole life of people that you may have worked with for 10 or 15 years,” she said.
“At the end of the day, you know your team, your culture, your community, and when they are motivated and happy, and they are their most productive. So I think that’s been a big part of, I’d say, evolving our culture for our group,” Wadle says.
Use Technology To Empower Employees
Currently, 32% of full- and part-time employees agree they are “actively” engaged, according to data analysis by Gallup, American employees have a record low engagement level.
As the global HR leader at Kyndryl, Chobannier is responsible for 90,000 employees at the one-year-old start-up that focuses on providing technology services to some of the world’s biggest corporations. In November 2021, International Business Machines Corporation, also known as IBM, announced the separation of its managed infrastructure services business to Kyndryl, meaning the startup would continue as an independent company. The spinoff made Kyndryl one of the world’s biggest IT startups.
She revealed that the company will launch a technology project called “powering human progress” to allow employees to talk about their skills and what they want to accomplish in their careers. The idea for the service came from Chabonnier’s belief that no employees should feel like their colleagues have no idea what they do each day. Invisible work like this can especially affect women in the workplace and their potential for advancement. “I think particularly for women in technology, we’re at a tipping point in the world right now to really tell us about your skills, advocate for yourself,” she said.
Find Power in Community
Wadle described a recent leadership team offsite where J. Crew Group executives answered questions about what they needed in order to thrive at work.
“It was powerful,” she said, “because we figured out a way to connect based on who we are and what we need. And together, I think those kinds of exercises just make you more powerful as a team.”
She also recommended that leaders get to know all the people within their company’s business units, because “you get to know your community [and] you get to know what’s important to people.” This doesn’t just mean what’s important to them at work, she said–get to know their personal passions and hobbies, too.
“Being able to connect to things outside of just the product we sell [means] something to people,” Wadle said, and “that energizes them about working for that company.”
Leverage The Power Of Empathy
Dufu spoke about the recent movement of rank-and-file employees finding their power by forming unions. A report by the National Labor Relations in July showed an increase in union election petitions by 58% since January 2022 alone. As recently as Thursday, the head of 13 railroad unions reached a tentative agreement averting a national rail strike that could heavily affect the US transportation network.
Dufu’s suggestion for navigating this environment? Leading with empathy.
“Employees want that voice, they want to be heard,” Dufu said. She advised the leaders in the audience to “take the time in our days to really listen, and listen thoughtfully because I think we’ve seen leadership come under such a stress test right now.”