Showing leadership in a crisis

What leaders can learn from Galen Weston's human approach to crisis management.

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This story originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of strategy.

It’s rare for a crisis to affect every brand at once. And at the outset of the pandemic, many CEOs responded with similar messaging – both in the measures they were taking to flatten the curve, and in promoting a sense of “togetherness” while being apart.

But what made Galen Weston, executive chairman of Loblaw Companies Limited, truly stand out from other company heads – as they all released a salvo of email communications in the early stages – was his personal, human approach.

“It was like he was talking to people individually,” says David Kincaid, founder and managing partner at Level5 Strategy. “The thing that really impressed me was he was one of the first corporate leaders to actually try to engage Canadians – and I say Canadians, not shoppers or Loblaw loyalists – with reassuring leadership messages.”

Loblaw owns the largest privately held database in the country, PC Optimum, which Weston used to affirm the company’s brand vision and identity, while offering comfort and reassurance to concerned customers. He did this by admitting to current (and future) fulfilment issues at stores and also by acknowledging the importance of keeping the sick and vulnerable top of mind. Weston signed off each message with “Be kind.”

The executive also admitted to needing more staff to cope with increased demand and that they would be properly compensated, which galvanized the industry to follow suit and increase hourly wages. On April 1, Weston wrote: “I know there are some really long lines at the cash registers in certain stores as we try to manage social distancing. Right now, we are looking for some solutions to help ease that congestion. So, hang in there.”

Weston has been successful in connecting with consumers because his messaging is based off of the company’s vision statement, “Live Life Well,” supporting the needs of Canadians by improving their health and wellbeing, says Kincaid.

Once COVID-19 hit, Loblaw “didn’t change the vision, they reinterpreted it and that, strategically, is the spine of any great brand.”