Leadership Revealed, Lessons Learned

It's not easy taking the helm of a company in the middle of a pandemic, but this CEO was able to draw on his leadership experience to right the ship.

Timing is everything. In March, after a career as a pediatrician, public health official — including service as an Admiral in the U.S. Public Health Services Commissioned Corps — and Assistant Secretary of Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and leadership roles at Walmart, I was named CEO of Herbalife Nutrition. I took the helm at one of the world’s largest nutritional products companies during the worst pandemic in a century.

Like many executives, I drew on the lessons I learned during my multifaceted career to manage and lead during the crisis and to support our team members, partners and customers. Having managed a range of safety crises from four major hurricanes and the nation’s first-ever anthrax attack, I have learned some critical lessons about steering a ship in the middle of a raging storm. 

Leaders Lead by Sharing Clearly Defined Goals

When a crisis hits, leaders need to share clear goals with their stakeholders. What is your vision for the company? Without stated goals, your key audiences may feel that there is no game plan to help your company or organization manage the situation. At Herbalife Nutrition, we immediately needed to make sure our employees could safely perform their jobs and that they had the necessary resources to either work in an office or factory, or the tools to set up a home office. We instantly put into place health protocols that included increased scheduled cleanings and modified socially distanced workstations, among other precautions. As an essential service, we needed to make sure that our food and nutrition products would continue to reach our customers who depend on them for their health and well-being. We worked tirelessly to safeguard our supply chain, quickly pivot where needed and continued to operate to meet demand. 

Leaders Communicate Openly and Clearly

When crises erupt, it is natural to spend a lot of time with your senior leadership team and board to figure out the next steps. As a leader, you want to confirm there is buy-in at the top, and everyone has clear marching orders. But, while leadership teams are grappling with the path forward, your most valuable audience — your employees – need to hear from you immediately. You don’t have to have every answer to reach out to your team and tell them that you understand that this time is hard, that everyone is feeling the pain and that we are here to support one another and most of all, that their health and safety is your top priority. This message is critical to convey as soon as possible, while supply chains are examined, and critical decisions are made. Once a plan is created – in this case – from where our employees would be working, to adapting to increased demand to being deemed an essential service – key audiences must be communicated with frequently and transparently.

Leaders Are the Calm in the Storm

Everyone looks to leaders to get their cues — even your senior team. Having served as a senior vice president of health and wellness for the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, leading a team of over 65,000, I grew adept at communicating clearly and ensuring that when emotions were running high, I was the one who maintained composure. I found that my confidence had a direct impact on those around me. Never forget that everyone looks to the person at the top to set the tone, and in a challenging situation, leaders need to lead by example.

 Leaders Serve Others: Their Team, Partners and Customers

A strong leader focuses on understanding and serving the needs of others. During a crisis, it is imperative that the person in charge never loses sight of how the organization is serving its audiences and never takes advantage of the crisis. Leaders need to think not just about producing products but making sure that workers are safe, and protocols are developed and shared.

Our role in helping independent distributors through the current crisis was perhaps even more complicated than our role helping employees. Most of them work alone or on small teams. Because they are not employees, our leadership levers are limited to influence, trust, inspiration mentoring and guidance. We don’t get to order them into battle. However, we needed to give them a sense of confidence and direction to assure growth in the business. Right from the outset, we advised our independent distributors to recognize that their community relied upon delivery of the same healthy nutrition products in their communities around the world that they received before the crisis. We encouraged them to innovate and find temporary solutions to the disruptions and dislocations in their communities. We encouraged our independent distributors to lean forward and step up their engagement with their teams, customers, and communities. We assured them that we would not let go of their hands in the storm. We assured them they were not alone.

Sometimes with the desire to respond with a sense of urgency, we cut corners or forget to take a moment to listen, to read the room, to seek input and gather feedback on our ideas.

Crisis leaders are often granted unprecedented, unilateral authority to make decisions, but it is actually even more important that the leader try to be as inclusive as possible as this generates trust and buy-in. At Herbalife Nutrition the entire company exists to support our independent distributors as they serve their customers and build their businesses. During the crisis, our Distributors where our single biggest source of business ideas and innovation. Much of what they taught us will be continued long after this crisis has passed.

Leaders Give to Those in Need

The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the food insecurity challenges that plague the world. Feeding America reports that approximately 54 million people (1 in 6 people) may experience food insecurity in 2020, including 18 million children (1 in 4 children). Leaders have a responsibility not only to support their employees and customers, but also to help aid underserved populations around the world.

As a global nutrition company providing food, health, and wellness products to millions of people in 94 countries around the world, we are in a unique position to help our communities during this time. Last year, we launched Nutrition for Zero Hunger, a global initiative focused on providing healthy nutrition and nutrition education to communities worldwide. In April, we announced that $333,000 of the $1 million pledged to World Food Program USA’s Emergency Response Fund would aid coronavirus pandemic relief efforts. These funds, gifted through our Nutrition for Zero Hunger initiative, will support the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) efforts in responding to supply chain and other logistics issues related to the virus.

Crises test all of us – we find out how strong and how resourceful we are, and we are reminded to think about those most in need. Now more than ever, companies and organizations need leaders with a clear vision, who communicate effectively and act decisively. I know that the global community will survive the pandemic with leaders that give others hope, direction and most of all, a path forward.