Chaotic change, accelerating diversity, and listening with our hearts

Written by Ann Francke OBE Tuesday 27 October 2020
Ann Francke OBE speaks to Salman Amin, CEO of pladis, about the many challenges of running a global business during Covid-19
Ann Francke OBE, CMI's CEO

In times of crisis, the nation takes comfort in some of its favourite brands. Salman Amin, who I’ve known since our time working together as brand managers at P&G in Germany, is chief executive of pladis, one of the world’s leading snacks companies and the name behind popular cupboard-filler McVitie’s. I recently spoke to him about the complexity of managing a global business during a major crisis, whether that necessarily spells the end of long-term planning and the positive management legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Living and breathing purpose

The shift from on-the-go snacking to in-home consumption has benefited Pladis considerably, as the rise in our collective stress levels have prompted consumers to reach out for their favourite and most comforting brands. Despite McVitie’s 180-year heritage, Salman is by no means complacent. Future success depends on continuing to build that trust between consumers and the company’s brands. “That requires doubling down on our focus on innovation and getting under the skin of what kinds of products people want to have,” he says.

A company’s purpose is the experience consumers have when they interact with its brands, but it’s also the experience of colleagues when they come to work and the experience stakeholders have when they interact with the business. “Having a clear purpose not only describes what the company does and its future strategy, but it also explains why the company matters,” Salman says. “I want everyone who interacts with us to understand how we go about delivering what we promise every day, in a socially valuable way.”

Managing complexity

Rather than falling back on a one-size-fits-all prescription, adopting a principles-based approach to managing the uncertainty of the pandemic has been incredibly helpful to Pladis. The company established its four basic principles, and it’s down to the general managers around the world to decide how best to apply them based on local needs.

“Priority number one is our people and our communities,” Salman explains. “The second principle is to deal with this as one Pladis, because we’re all in this together.” Transparency and trust come in at number three, followed by the need to be decisive – albeit with a high degree of agility. “If you wait for the perfect data to come in, it never comes,” Salman adds.

Once your core principles have been established, you have to trust your teams to do what’s best for their specific markets. “They know what's best for each one of our markets because they’re on the ground and understand the local conditions, the local regulations and what governments, communities and colleagues want you to do,” Salman explains.

Handling chaotic change

The uncertainty of the Covid situation has made it impossible to plan for any one certainty. Salman believes that against a backdrop of constant change, being upfront with colleagues and communicating quickly and frequently has helped Pladis weather the storm.

It isn’t necessarily about having the final answer. Instead, what’s important is building a healthy tolerance for ambiguity, being agile and remaining transparent throughout the process – even if you don’t have the answers. Transparency includes being honest about business performance, particularly because at such difficult times, job security will inevitably be high on the list of employee concerns, Salman says.

The end of long-term planning?

The uncertainty thrown up by Covid-19 is not a reason to abandon your forward-planning. Pladis has recently completed both its strategic plan for the next three years and its operating plan for 2021. “You have to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time,” Salman says. “We are fairly clear on what next year is likely to become. That doesn't mean there won't be unexpected challenges.”

The trick is to have enough agility in the planning process.

There is also a temptation for businesses to focus unduly on risk, Salman believes. “As I look to the future, I see more opportunities than I see risks. As long as the opportunities are greater than the risks, we will find a way to get to our goals.”

The need for resilience and empathy

The pandemic has had a profound impact on the qualities that are needed in an organisation, Salman explains. “Resilience and empathy will play a very large role in how successful we are and how we as leaders help to reduce the pressure on our colleagues.”

As technology renders interactions with colleagues largely transactional, employee wellbeing needs to stay high on the agenda for senior management. This involves finding the right language to understand what teams are feeling and the stresses they’re under, even when you’re not in the same room as them.

Salman believes that over the coming months and years, mental health challenges will inevitably come into sharper focus. “Our ability to recognise those conditions, reach out and make it easy for our colleagues to open up about what they’re feeling will be hugely important,” he says. A different kind of balance between working in the office and working at home may prove to be an important part of that.

Accelerating diversity

On paper at least, Covid-19 has forced more inclusive working practices, such as greater flexibility about where, when and how you work. However, research shows that it has hit women and ethnic minorities the hardest.

Building greater diversity across Pladis remains one of Salman’s top personal goals. It requires clarity about your goals and how you measure progress, he says, adding that he sees his role as setting the right conditions for success, “to make sure folks understand why this is important for us”.

Having an inclusive culture paves the way for diversity, he suggests. Regardless of where you sit in the business, it starts with individuals believing that they’re doing the right thing, rather than worrying about whether someone else agrees with you. “If you’re inclusive, then you can have those courageous and brave conversations and call out any problems,” he advises. “Small steps over time become big movements.”

Listen with your ears and your heart

For Salman, the pandemic has reinforced the need to listen, “not just through my ears, but through my heart”.

He advises us all to pay closer attention to those around us. “Really listen to what people mean, not just what they say,” he says. Active listening helps you to understand more deeply and more significantly, allowing you to change your plans if something you’re doing is not working. “Never be too proud to change as things change or as you learn new things. Listen first and never judge,” he urges.

You can watch our conversation in full here.

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