So much for the status quo. As the past two years have proved, unpredictability is now the only thing that business leaders can predict going forward.
Case in point: According to the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospect report released in January 2021, the global economy shrank by 4.3% in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis has cost governments, business leaders, and consumers $24 trillion in debt, the Institute of International Finance has estimated. And even as the commercial world roared back during 2021, the welcome but rapid rebound brings with it new complications: skyrocketing operating costs, compounding supply chain challenges and mounting labor shortages.
But perhaps the most transformative effect of this world-changing event was to press a giant reset button on how countless industries operate — and how modern professionals live, work and do business. For example: Technology jumped forward 10 years in just 90 days during the pandemic, say researchers at McKinsey & Company, putting growing pressure on businesses and their leaders to accelerate the pace at which they evolve.
While change and disruption can be uncomfortable, these forces can also prove powerful catalysts for growth and innovation. In the midst of these ongoing challenges, Kellogg alumni continue to lead by example — launching new products and services, and engineering winning business strategies and playbooks that point the way forward in a post-pandemic world.
To find out what it takes to win despite disruption, Kellogg magazine touched base with five distinguished alumni leaders to discover how they found ways to thrive during the past two years. Their insights reveal how tomorrow’s leaders can learn to more effectively overcome setbacks, bounce back from adversity and steer past challenges. They also provide essential insights into how the future’s scrappiest thinkers can build bridges to opportunity, no matter how much the business world changes.
“Going forward, you have to expect the unexpected, maintain a growth mindset and embrace uncertainty — all while making a point to actively communicate and more closely collaborate with teams.” —Lisa Earnhardt ’96, Executive Vice President, Abbott
Of all industries affected by COVID-19, healthcare may have experienced the most sudden and seismic shift, with the use of technology and online-based health solutions growing by a factor of 38 in just 15 months, according to a McKinsey report on telehealth trends. With hospital beds in short supply, caregivers sorely overworked and medical providers reeling from massive drops in spending in elective procedures amid the pandemic, Lisa Earnhardt ’96, EVP for medical devices for Abbott, found herself operating at the forefront of change. “Necessity is the mother of invention and reinvention,” she observes. “We had no other choice: It forced us to innovate at speeds we never thought possible.”
Abbott, a 130-year-old company with more than 100,000 employees, developed and commercialized multiple disease-testing solutions in a matter of months — processes that ordinarily take years to develop. The company had to make decisions faster than ever, with limited information about the virus, and scale up quickly to meet demand. However, having a common rallying cry to stop the spread of COVID-19 proved hugely transformative for the organization, Earnhardt says, noting that Abbott rolled out 12 different types of COVID tests in record time — from lab-based tests to self-administered rapid tests for use at home, schools, and workplaces. “It brought us all to the table in a very meaningful fashion, where everyone was willing to roll up their sleeves and say, ‘What can I do to help?’”
Since the start of the pandemic, the company has produced more than one billion COVID-19 tests across testing platforms. Even for a well-established market leader, that achievement took herculean effort given the challenges of collaborating in a remote working environment, the increasing strain on global workers and skyrocketing customer demand. Still, a slight shift in thinking was all it took to move mountains, she says.
“While it may seem counterintuitive to executives used to using very thoughtful, methodical approaches to analysis, you can make decisions very quickly with the right people around the table,” Earnhardt explains. “We also discovered that with flexibility and a hybrid approach to working with teams around the globe, we were extremely productive. The secret to staying one step ahead of change is to keep listening, to lean into productive risk-taking and to respond more rapidly. A lot of success comes down to learning by doing — and staying well attuned to the needs of your customers.”
Earnhardt also recommends that leaders hoping to stay a step ahead of change lean into scenario planning and take time to think through the possible impact of rising trends or unexpected events on their business. For example, major selling points for the BinaxNOW rapid antigen test include its low price point and high portability compared with other solutions, as well as the fact that it allows consumers to test for COVID-19 at home and get a result within 15 minutes. The key when designing new strategies and solutions, she says, is to start by changing the lens through which you’re viewing any given challenge.
“People and businesses tend to be creatures of habit, but things work differently in times of great change,” she notes. “Going forward, you have to expect the unexpected, maintain a growth mindset, and embrace uncertainty — all while making a point to actively communicate and more closely collaborate with teams. The pandemic has highlighted the need for continuous learning and the need to adapt very quickly. As a leader, you won’t always have all the answers, and that’s OK. The important thing is how diligently you can problem-solve in the moment, and how resilient you can be.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATTHEW STAVER
“We try to bucket choices into different categories and make decisions faster based on those categories, while making sure that every choice we make stays true to our vision.” —Mark Frank ’07, co-founder and CEO, SonderMind
As the pandemic has worn on, stress and burnout have come to the forefront of workforce concerns. According to industry experts, mental health support went from a nice-to-have for many companies to a true business imperative. More than 80% of employees say they’re experiencing mental health issues, and workers who don’t believe their employer supports their mental health are nearly twice as likely to consider a career change, according to studies by Lyra Health, meaning mental healthcare will only become more of a corporate priority going forward. Witnessing these shifts from the front lines was Mark Frank ’07, the CEO and co-founder of SonderMind, an online service that connects patients with therapists for in-person or virtual sessions.
“Historically, mental health was an area of wellness that was completely set aside and stigmatized,” he points out. “Over the last two years, our nation realized there was an impending crisis that needed fixing here, and there’s been an explosion in interest. Thinking back five or six years ago, we thought there’d be more work for us to do in helping erase the stigma of mental health treatment. In recent months, as it turned out, our work has been more around increasing patients’ access to care and reducing inefficiencies as well as addressing growing competition in the mental and behavioral health industries.”
Frank credits a strong company culture that’s driven by a well-codified and deliberate set of values for the firm’s ability to rapidly pivot and adapt to pandemic-driven challenges. In addition, he says, part of SonderMind’s resilience came from embracing the need to adopt a more forward-thinking approach and make greater investments in transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. These efforts culminated in the acquisition of data insight firm Qntfy — a process that took just four months to complete, a fraction of the time of standard corporate acquisitions. “Going forward, data science is one of the areas that I think will have a massive impact on the field of behavioral health, as will predictive modeling,” he explains. “We’re looking to provide solutions that help patients get to optimal clinical outcomes with the highest level of clinical efficiency in the shortest period of time.”
Within just a month, between early March and April of 2020, 93% of mental healthcare appointments moved to take place online, a dramatic shift from an industry in which in-person visits with providers had been the norm. It paid to be nimble, efficient and focused, Frank says. When the pandemic first hit, for example, SonderMind tasked its software engineering teams with accelerating the rollout of its video-based solution, which had been in development but was not poised to debut yet. The team pulled together with a relentless focus on this single goal and launched the product in just 12 days. Achieving similar successes when it comes to hiring, engineering and planning requires business leaders to be very clear about their priorities, Frank says — and very nimble when it comes to instituting new decision-making processes and systems.
“It’s important to have a really clear North Star goal as a company and be more responsive to changing customer tastes and competitive landscapes,” Frank points out. “We think of decisions in terms of one-way versus two-way doors. One-way-door decisions are hard to reverse. But two-way doors can be changed and improved upon. We try to bucket choices into different categories and make decisions faster based on those categories, while making sure that every choice we make stays true to our vision.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROGER KISBY
“One of the shifts for me since COVID’s onset is that I am more likely to encourage my teams to take on the biggest, scariest challenges — especially if we expect that something great will come out of it.” —Ukonwa Ojo ’05, global chief marketing officer, Prime Video and Amazon Studios
Seeking comfort and entertainment amid the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown conditions, viewing audiences increasingly turned to at-home streaming services, with the number of subscriptions passing 1 billion worldwide in 2020. With streaming services now generating half of all TV views (a figure evenly split with broadcast channels), Ukonwa Ojo ’05, global chief marketing officer for Prime Video and Amazon Studios, found herself and her company unexpectedly sitting at a crossroads. “There’s been a tremendous amount of disruption in the entertainment space,” she explains. “The pandemic helped accelerate the adoption of streaming, and we experienced strong momentum. However, we also experienced challenges with COVID-driven production delays and more entrants in the streaming space.”
Fortunately, says Ojo, she and her colleagues were able to evolve in tune with the market by putting the focus squarely on changing customer needs and by adjusting content development and marketing strategies to match. “We were able to successfully navigate the environment by staying completely obsessed with listening and responding to the needs of our customers,” she says. “We also complemented our content slate with the acquisition of movies [that were originally] intended for theatrical release, which increased the entertainment escape for our members at a time they needed it most. In addition, we innovated our marketing campaigns during the height of the pandemic to meet customers where they were, at home and online, with more virtual events and communities, social media stunts and programmatic campaigns. As a result, Prime Video drove awareness and interest for our movies and shows, which increased our number of streamers to 175 million around the world and the number of hours of streaming by 70%.”
Still, learning to get comfortable with being uncomfortable will only become more important as a leader going forward, she says, noting that we live in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. That means that tomorrow’s decision-maker must be willing to take more chances. As Ojo puts it, “In the face of disruption or change, it’s always easier and less risky to retreat to the familiar, but we must resist that temptation. Learning begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
It also means business leaders will have to stay well attuned to what’s happening in the market — and fiercely positive in the face of unexpected setbacks. “At Amazon, we obsess over the customer journey and data such as trends, patterns, viewing behaviors and audience feedback,” she says. “But also, seeing how many of us have been able to adapt and remain optimistic through the pandemic made me feel that no challenge is insurmountable. If anything, since COVID’s onset, I am more likely to encourage my teams to take on the biggest, scariest challenges — especially if we expect that something great will come out of it.”
Going forward, she advises leaders who want to successfully navigate business challenges in 2022 and beyond to become more attuned to the shifting needs of both end users and colleagues. At work, that means leading with empathy, collaborating actively and being even more communicative. “Compared to pre-pandemic times, I definitely take more time to check in with colleagues and see how they’re doing,” she notes.
Ojo predicts businesses will also have to push themselves to take more risks — especially from a marketing standpoint — and observe, measure and learn from the results of those risks. “We live in an attention economy, and we are constantly competing for the attention of our consumers,” she says.“Tomorrow’s marketing leaders must understand what I like to call ‘the math and the magic.’ We will need creativity (magic) to cut through the clutter and earn attention, and we need to leverage analytics and technology (math) to ensure it is efficient and effective.”
Ultimately, while no one can accurately predict what the business landscape will be in any industry in five or 10 years, she says it’s important to innovate, consistently push forward and not waste time second-guessing yourself. “In my work as a CMO, I don’t worry about failing. I put the focus on creating innovative and cutting-edge campaigns that connect with viewers, even if there are myriad challenges to face up to. As a business leader you need to have a vision for where you want to take things next and work your very hardest to get there, not letting challenges, naysayers or anything else get in the way.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JONATHAN SPRAGUE
“Staying ahead of the curve isn’t about drawing on a particular skill but rather a combination of skills that sit between art and science, management and leadership.” —Sam Shank ’04, co-founder and CEO, HotelTonight
The field of hospitality and lodging also took a major hit during the pandemic, with nearly 1 billion hotel rooms going unsold during the first 11 months of 2020. Challenges were especially pronounced for Sam Shank ’04, head of commercial team for Airbnb and co-founder and CEO of HotelTonight, a service that matches travelers with hotel rooms on short notice. Because both companies serve a varying range of locations and providers, Airbnb and HotelTonight not only fielded a variety of healthcare-related questions and concerns from customers — they also had to adapt their strategies to address a complex maze of travel requirements and restrictions, an increasingly demanding and perplexed customer base, and an unpredictable business landscape.
Shank says a wide range of talents can help business leaders mix and match tools to find clever solutions when faced with monumental problems such as a pandemic. “Staying ahead of the curve isn’t about drawing on a particular skill but rather a combination of skills that sit between art and science, management and leadership,” he explains. “If you’re lacking in these areas, or out of practice, it’s important to be deliberate in sharpening these skills and getting new and outside perspectives. Tomorrow’s leaders will also need to be able to change elevation, or the scale of their focus, frequently. In other words, to be able to understand details while also being able to direct an entire company at enterprise scale, and to go from espousing corporate mission down to helping review a new feature, all while being additive to the teams who live and breathe each of these areas of work.”
To accomplish these goals, leaders need to understand that change and advancement are inevitable, he continues, and view impending changes as opportunities rather than obstacles to avoid. For example, Shank says, rather than thinking about how his teams can return to the office as soon as possible, he has instead focused on how to redesign operations around the future of work. That could mean providing a hybrid mix of remote and in-person work, he says, with flexible scheduling that’s personalized to individual staffers and offices that are designed to facilitate specific needs like collaboration and team-building.
In addition, it’s important for tomorrow’s leaders to maintain velocity and be able to think fast on their feet, he emphasizes. “Speed of execution is a force multiplier, and nothing kills productivity or morale more than locked or idle teams. One of the key ways I’ve described my role is that as chief velocity officer, I help teams make decisions, determine a course of action and get back to focusing on executing. I also prioritize spending time helping teams build systems that prevent bottlenecks in the first place.”
For Shank, that means taking time to personally immerse himself in emerging fields and talking face to face with target customer audiences (including Gen Zers such as his teenage boys) to get a sense of how they consume information and make decisions. It also means remembering that not every decision you make as a leader has to be transformative to make a pronounced impact on your business. “Innovations don’t always need to be breakthrough advancements,” he says. For example, one of the most memorable parts of the HotelTonight app is the final step before booking a room: a prompt that requires users to trace a picture of the company’s bed-shaped logo with their finger on their phone screen to avoid unwanted bookings. “It’s become an iconic part of the product that differentiates us,” Shank says. “But it started as a simple idea by a designer and engineer who wanted to ensure people didn’t accidentally book a hotel. They built this feature in a week, and it went on to become a very special and innovative part of the business.”
Adapting to the challenges of a post-pandemic world often relies on the ability to be more clever or ingenious — not necessarily being better resourced, staffed or funded. What’s more, you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel to make an impact. Setting clear goals, tracking progress regularly and transparently across your company, incentivizing goals and learning rapidly from day-to-day hits and misses can prove a real game-changer. As Shank points out, “Empowering teams to come up with practical innovations to solve small problems can sometimes yield great results.”
“As a leader, it’s essential to constantly communicate a framework as to how you expect the organization to operate during times of uncertainty. In addition to leading with practicality, that also requires you to lead with flexibility, empathy, and compassion.” —Stephanie Gallo ’99; CMO, E. & J. Gallo Winery
The food and beverage category is another major space that was rocked to its core by pandemic-related disruptions, experiencing a drop of $22 billion in out-of-home food and drink sales, and double-digit dips in brand values, according to industry watchers. Stephanie Gallo ’99, CMO of E. & J. Gallo Winery, is all too aware of these impacts. She remembers the spring of 2020 as the moment the country’s largest family-owned winery ripped up its operating playbook and rewrote it on the fly.
“We pivoted our entire organization overnight,” she recalls. “For example, when the pandemic began, we saw the rise of virtual happy hours, online wine tastings, and in-home experiences. Happily, innovation is one of our core values as an organization, and we realized it was important to lead with flexibility, empathy and compassion. Customer drinking habits, shopping behaviors and media consumption patterns are constantly evolving. That means we have to adapt in order to stay relevant, drive continued growth, and keep audiences engaged through new brands, products and experiences.”
E. & J. Gallo has experienced many pandemic-era disruptions, Gallo says, including changes in generational habits and in online retail trends. Business leaders can more readily adapt to these shifts by developing deep empathy for their consumers and surrounding themselves with colleagues who are more representative of the diverse audiences that they serve, she notes. Key skills she recommends cultivating as a leader include curiosity, critical thinking, fearlessness and a mindset of continuous learning. “Keeping pace with the changing competitive landscape requires you to put yourself out there, keep an open mind and identify with your consumer,” she says.
But successful leadership also comes from the heart, Gallo says. On the one hand, the most critical characteristics for future leaders are an agile mindset and the capacity to adapt, she emphasizes. But on the other, leaders also have to be able to put themselves in the shoes of their employees and target audiences if they want to stay flexible and resilient in the face of unexpected events or challenging periods. “As a leader, it’s essential to constantly communicate a framework as to how you expect the organization to operate during times of uncertainty,” Gallo explains. “In addition to leading with practicality, that also requires you to lead with flexibility, empathy and compassion.”