C-store Industry Leaders Rise to the Challenge of the COVID-19 Crisis
NATIONAL REPORT — The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has changed all aspects of daily life in America — how we work, how we shop, how we live, and how we lead.
As retailer and supplier companies in the convenience channel continue to work toward recovery and a post-COVID-19 world, leaders from around the industry joined Convenience Store News this week for a webinar where they shared their thoughts on leadership — not only the role of leadership during the pandemic, but also leadership in light of other issues facing the business today such as social justice.
"I've heard people refer to the last five months or so as a time we've all experienced 'the great realization.' I think it really captures all of what has unfolded over the last several months," Sarah Alter, president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women, said during the webinar entitled "TWIC Talk: The Leadership Imperative." Sponsored by Altria Group Distribution Co. (AGDC), TWIC Talk is an extension of the Top Women in Convenience (TWIC) program, the first and only convenience store industry awards program that recognizes women making outstanding contributions to their companies and the industry.
According to Alter, there have been two great realizations, strategically and culturally, from both a business perspective and a leadership perspective.
"If the digital world wasn't a foundational element of your business model, it sure as heck has become one. If it was just an extension or you were just dabbling in the digital world, it completely flipped in order of importance and priority," she said of the strategic impact.
As for the cultural impact, leaders now need to have a heightened awareness and empathy for their team and their customers, she noted.
"Now more than ever, your employees and your customers are seeking community. How can their company take care of them? But even more important, how can there be community provided for them, not only from a physical health perspective but always from a mental health perspective?" Alter explained.
One of the many challenges the convenience channel and its leaders have faced during the pandemic is how to stay open as an essential business while keeping employees and customers safe, echoed Jayne Rice, managing director and director of institutional sales, marketing and investor relations at Brookwood Financial, the parent company of Yesway and Allsup's convenience stores.
This challenge is magnified by the lack of consistency around rules and direction from the government at all levels and government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she added.
"We operate across nine states for Yesway and 14 for Brookwood. There is very little consistency as to how those rules and laws and suggestions have been enacted," Rice said. "It's been a challenge for any of the leaders in this space to really understand how those rules have continued to evolve. They are changing definitely on a weekly basis and sometimes on a daily basis. How do you react to that in the stores while continuing to stay focused on keeping customers and employees safe, which is the upmost imperative?"
Deb Hall Lefevre, global chief technology officer and senior vice president for Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc./Circle K, agreed with those challenges and added a few more. For instance, the ongoing uncertainty around the pandemic and its lasting effect on the channel and changing consumer behavior.
Another challenge Couche-Tard is facing is finding bright spots. "In the spirit of let no good crisis go to waste, one challenge we have — and we are really challenging ourselves — is how do we keep the silver linings of the pandemic? Stronger teamwork, being faster to market — those are really important," she said.
Rising to the Challenge
At AGDC, the focus has been on quickly getting grounded in the facts, and monitoring the implications of COVID-19, which change on a daily basis around the country. Alicia West, vice president, Region Sales, for Altria Group Distribution Co., compared it to making a plan while the train is moving.
"What does good leadership look like at a time like this? I think good leadership looks like good leadership at any time," West said. "The same qualities that helped strong leaders stand out in the pre-COVID environment are standing out today, but they become magnified in their importance."
Rice echoed that the crisis has highlighted those in her organization who have stepped up as leaders, which she said is human nature.
"Some people like to rise up in the face of a challenge and others shy away and leave it to others to follow," she said. "We've seen a tremendous outpouring of leadership across the ranks, from all levels of the organizations, of those who have really stepped up and responded well to the managerial challenges that we are all facing when it comes to social distancing, managing from afar, endless Zoom calls, meetings like this, travel restrictions."
At the same time the convenience channel is grappling with the health crisis, it is also working to embrace the calls for change amid rising social-justice concerns.
What is the role of leadership when it comes to social justice, and is it a workplace issue?
"For me, the answer is really simple: If it's a human issue, which it is, it impacts our employees, it impacts our communities, and I think that certainly makes it a workplace issue," West said.
In order to thrive as a community, it is imperative to understand one another's issues broadly, she pointed out. "To not understand those social justice issues that are deeply impacting our employees on a personal level, we miss something," she said, adding that there is an opportunity to identify opportunities for systemic change that is needed for all employees to thrive and achieve their full potential.
The current movement can be a real catalyst for leaders to take their words around supporting inclusion and diversity and put real action behind those words, West explained. This can be done in several ways, including:
- Looking at where a company's time and money are spent;
- Being transparent and accountable; and
- Identifying who your organization is and what its brand is, both in terms of what you stand for and what you stand against.
An on-demand replay of this webinar, "TWIC Talk: The Leadership Imperative," is available here.