Podcast

Lauren Stiebing 15 June 2020

Flexibility in the Workplace During the COVID-19 Crisis with Shannon Curtin

“We have shifted our investments to ensure we don’t get into a liquidity crisis we can’t get out off”.

This is one of the pieces of advice that Shannon Curtin, CEO of New World Natural Brand, gives us in this episode of the Career Success Podcast.
After working for companies such as Walmart, Walgreens, and Coty, now Shannon is now the CEO of an emerging star-up in the natural beauty sector.
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, Shannon and her team have learned the importance of flexibility in the workplace: learning to cope with extraordinary circumstances to allow employees to work from home without decreasing the business productivity and results.

Topics covered:
– How to adapt to new ways of working
– How to plan to go back to the office after the COVID -19 crisis
– How to find new ways to communicate with your team and to listen to your team

Shannon Curtin:

We have shifted our investments to ensure that we don’t get into a liquidity crisis that we can’t get out of. That was important. We shifted our investments. Everything focused on our D2C business and growing that.

Lauren Stiebing:

Hi, I’m Lauren Stiebing, and welcome to this episode of The Career Success podcast. COVID-19 has been a huge disruption for a lot of businesses and required a different approach to business and leadership.

Lauren Stiebing:

Today, we’ve invited Shannon Curtin, a veteran within the retail and consumer goods industry, to discuss with us how her and her team have managed through these tough times and why she believes they will be even stronger in the future. Shannon has worked for fortune 500 companies such as Walmart, Walgreens, Coty, and she’s currently the CEO of New World Natural Brands. Thank you for joining me today, Shannon.

Shannon Curtin:

Thanks for having me, Lauren.

Lauren Stiebing:

We’re going to take a deep dive into COVID-19 and where we are today. But if you can just give me a bit of background on where you and the company were before COVID-19.

Shannon Curtin:

Sure. Well, actually we turned two years old during COVID, so we were, and still very much are, a startup company. We have five independent companies on paper. However, in reality, we behave as one unit, as one company, working cross functionally because there’s only 18 of us that manages five companies. And there are still 18 of us that manage five companies, so nimble, agile working was prior to COVID, and now we have a very strong flexibility muscle that we’ve acquired and that we’re not going to forget that muscle. I think that’s very important going forward, as what we’ve learned during this pandemic, what it means to humans and what it means to business.

Lauren Stiebing:

And how were you working? Were you working virtually with them previously or was everyone in the office?

Shannon Curtin:

Everyone was in the office, for the most part. We have one company that’s out of Texas, but the rest of the companies are combined in our Chicago location, which is one of the busiest places in Chicago, right over our Union Station and on our WeWork space, so it was the ultimate combination of having commerce and community together. And we enjoyed our space. We love being together. Highly productive team. We’re in the office every day.

Shannon Curtin:

And then the week of March 13th, I announced to the team that we were going to work start our work from home policies starting that following Monday, which is the week of the 15th, the 16th, 17th, 18th, that week that’s ingrained in all our minds here in the states, because it was such a difficult week to watch what was happening right before our eyes, on a human level and on a business level. I keep saying that because both of those are really important to the story on how this shapes and changes us for our lifetime.

Shannon Curtin:

We started the work from home programs that Friday. Said, “Look, this is starting to make me nervous.” Then our governor announced that we were going to do some stay at home, and I made that a much more expansive. And we’re still working from home here in May, and we’ll continue to have a very flexible work environment and our space will change as a result of that come this fall.

Lauren Stiebing:

It’s very interesting for me to analyze this as well, and speaking with large companies, very small companies, midsize companies, all different sizes. Why do you think before COVID-19, why wasn’t it flexible or what was the motivation behind the office base? Was it just because everyone came from a corporate environment and that’s just what was normal or was that ever questioned before?

Shannon Curtin:

Here’s something that I learned out of this. I got my team involved in our decision making for our work from home policy going forward. I sent out a survey to our entire team and said, “Tell me what you feel comfortable with once the shelter in place has been lifted, and what do you like about working together? What makes you most productive? What do you need from work? How can we make everything as accommodating as possible?” Because there’s so many unknowns and variables happening right now. This is new to everyone. It’s a new virus, it’s a new day, it’s a new world that we live in.

Shannon Curtin:

I got the survey back from the team and the top two things were, they love to be social with one another, so they went to the office to socialize and collaborate. It was great to see that they love the collaboration part. And those were the two primary factors of why they enjoyed coming to the office every day. They liked each other and they liked working with each other. Which is a great foundation, as you know.

Shannon Curtin:

Then in the survey, I said, “How many days do you want to work together going forward?” And there was a few people that said three, most people said two, and on a flexible arrangement when we feel comfortable, when we’re ready to go back. So I took that information, because the lease that we had signed with the WeWork space was one year, and that was ending in August, and so September, we’re still going to be in a WeWork space, but a much smaller space. We will have a hoteling system available that people can plug in. If they want to go in, they can. If they want to go home, we’ve given them an allowance to build out their office from home to make them feel comfortable.

Shannon Curtin:

The safety of our employees is paramount to productivity, so they were in that decision with us. They helped me make that decision, and so this feels like a real team effort. Prior to that, why wasn’t there flexibility? I think it was just part of our culture of coming together. This culture that we live in is even if you were sick, you came into the office at one point in our lives, and now that’s just not helpful to anyone. It’s not helpful to productivity. It’s not a safe environment. It shouldn’t be celebrated.

Shannon Curtin:

We have to be smart. We’ve learned a lot by having a new virus come to us. If we can increase our productivity and increase our safety and we increase their ability to choose what’s right for them and give them… They have to follow all the guidelines. If they want to go into the office I required them, and I will give it to them, to have the face mask and the gloves, and to be there. And we need to know the time that they’re going to be there so we don’t have too many people in the office at the same time, we’ll have it appropriately spaced out. But they have the flexibility to work where they feel safe and comfortable. That was really important to them, and that’s important to me.

Shannon Curtin:

I see that across all really big companies saying, we don’t have to work the same way ever again, at least in the next 36 months, and we’re going to give people the flexibility to work where they feel safe and most productive.

Lauren Stiebing:

In your case, where you have, let’s say, a smaller team, it’s not that there are 200 people that need to be coordinated, in terms of that collaboration and making sure that that stays, how are you going to coordinate who works when? Is there going to be a type of calendar that they see? Or are people just going to email together and say, let’s both go that day? From let’s say a planning perspective, how do you think that will work out?

Shannon Curtin:

What we’ve been doing, we meet together as a group twice a week already during this, and that’s been our drum beat. We have a sales meeting every Tuesday that the whole entire organization attends virtually, and then we have a Friday cultural meeting for 30 minutes to 45 minutes every Friday that everyone attends because it’s a lot of fun.

Shannon Curtin:

In the meantime, the drum beat that we establish pre COVID still exists, it just exists in a virtual way. We take everything on a Zoom meeting. If it’s going to be more than two people, we have Zoom, if we have one-on-one, we can do FaceTime or people just get tired of doing FaceTime and Zoom and it’s just a one on one, they can do a telephone call. That’s totally and absolutely perfectly fine. This is what works for us.

Shannon Curtin:

Now, if we were 10 times the size, say getting up to the 200 people, we would have to think through, are we communicating enough where we’re not having any breakdowns? That’s really important. The beauty of having a small company is that you can identify breakdowns immediately and you can work through those. In bigger companies, a lot gets lost if you’re not doing daily communication on here’s our plan, this is what we’re doing, this is how we’re moving forward, in written form and verbal form, in ways that bring the groups together to communicate a message.

Shannon Curtin:

Because right now that is our one human superpower, is the ability to communicate with each other very quickly, and that we have to amplify it and magnify that right now, more than ever, because there are so many unknowns and the business changes… Well, in March it changed every day, but now it changes less frequently than it did in March, but there’s still changes that happen every week to the business. Those are really important. The bigger that you get, the more communication and the more frequent the communication is necessary.

Lauren Stiebing:

What do you feel you’ve really learned? What are some of the highlights of your learnings during this time?

Shannon Curtin:

Well, that amplification of my superpowers. My superpower is asking questions. I ask a lot of them and I ask them frequently. I didn’t know the answer to, what should we do when the ban is lifted? I didn’t want to answer that question by myself. That’s where the survey was born. And the team just thanked me for getting their insight into this decision so they could be part of the decision with us. And in reaching out, again, because we have a small team, I have the ability to reach out and ask those questions. How are you doing? What do you need? How is your family? What can we do to help you?

Shannon Curtin:

Our culture meetings that we have on Friday are a way for also us to communicate about life, find joy, share sadness, and be there for one another. And that’s what’s working for us, is asking the questions, being there, listening. I was part of an organization that, in the past, that sometime listening wasn’t the super power of the organization. And this is where we can all take a fresh start to our leadership journey, because we’re all starting at the same place. This is all new for everyone. No one is in a different position, as far as we’re all learning our way through this together and listening to one another and helping one another.

Shannon Curtin:

In our business, we focus on consumer. It’s the same. Consumer, what do you need? What do you want? We listen through our search functions, seeing what people are searching for on Amazon, seeing what people are searching for on Google, what questions are being asked right now and what we can do to solve those problems. That actually gives us a lot of strength as an organization. When we review that, we’ll say, okay, this is what people are asking for this week. This is what are searching for this week. And what can we do to respond to that?

Shannon Curtin:

Because if they’re searching for this, they need help in this and this is something that we can satisfy on something that we can help them with. And that’s been a really positive focus for the team, because they can put their attention on taking care of others. That’s what our industry is. The beauty industry is deeply caring industry. We are high touch, high service, so we don’t know how to give out medicine, but we give out our own way of taking care of other people. That’s what we do best. So that made the team feel really great is even getting that information in their hands. It felt very empowering to them that they could start crafting stories and writing responses and writing their blogs based off what people are thinking and feeling that we serve.

Lauren Stiebing:

What trends do you think will come out of this that will affect your business directly?

Shannon Curtin:

For us, we’re very fortunate that the natural industry continues to be important to people and clean formulas continue to be important. I think what we were surprised by is that as our country, and across the world, the continuous education of hygiene habits and instilling those into consumers at a very early age to practice good behavior. When you go to a new place, wash your hands, when you come home, wash your hands, when you shake another, we’re not shaking people’s hands, but if you were shaking people’s hands, make sure that you have hand sanitizer. That is going to be a behavior that we have to keep practicing over and over again. And this is really interesting. So the most effective way to wash your hands is using bar soap, soap and water. Bar soap is the most effective. Hand wash is equally, almost, as effective as a bar soap. Hand sanitizer is great in a pinch, it’s not as effective as using soap and water.

Shannon Curtin:

Over the course of the last 15 years, the switch has been into liquid soaps, but now we’re starting to see a resurgence of bar soap and getting back into the bar soap business, especially for home use, for hand use, antibacterial bars, et cetera. So you’ll see more specialty bars coming out, I’m sure of this. Higher end, more premium bars coming out, as well as more multipurpose washes that you can have over your home. Every sink is going to have a wash, we hope, and a bar soap and a hand sanitizer in every car.

Shannon Curtin:

For us, it’s important that they’re clean formulas, that they have green manufacturing processes, that when someone goes to recycle it, they can, and it doesn’t end up in the ocean. That trifecta of clean, green, and blue practices still go into the way that we create our products and whatever trifecta another company has, goes into their products. And at the end of the day the consumer says what’s right for me and what I’m looking for. And a lot of people still choose products that are free from some of the harsh chemicals that are out there. And they know that they’re equally effective, but they just need it because of their skin type. They may have a certain skin condition, or they’re going through a certain treatment that they can’t use certain ingredients. So that’s important for us to continue to bring these items forward in a very innovative way.

Lauren Stiebing:

For your business specifically, why do you think your business will come out of this successfully?

Shannon Curtin:

That’s the very first part, is that you have to believe it. And I believe that we can, and will, be better because of it. We have shifted our investments to ensure that we don’t get into a liquidity crisis that we can’t get out of. That was important. We shifted our investments. Everything focused on our D2C business and growing that. The majority of our brands were born on D2C. That really helped from the get go.

Shannon Curtin:

We were in the process of updating and revamping all our user experiences on our websites and doing some things that we were going to do over time, and we reduced that time very quickly to now. That’s important. If we end up in a situation where 80% of our doors close again, we have a very healthy store called our own. That’s really important. And that’s important to any business at this point. It’s very wonderful to have distribution and retail stores. You get to be there on shelves, be there for consumers so they can have a higher experience, but if that’s taken away again, or it’s modified, it’s our job as the brand owners to ensure that the best user experience and the best brand experience they get is within our own store.

Shannon Curtin:

We’re focused there and focused on the channels that are open, and that’s all our e-commerce partners, and the doors that are open and making sure that we’re working with our partners, that they get what they need. And the doors that are closed, we’re even working harder with the buyers so they’re ready to get a new way of interacting with customers out in the open, figure out how to do this. How do we grow our business again? It’s very difficult for retailers to be closed as long as they have been, and for them to start creating a safe environment for consumers to come into, knowing that we can’t touch anyone the way that we used to, can’t have testers like we used to. So it’s going to be a very transformational, revolutionary period for the beauty industry right now. New, wonderful things will happen for the brands that embrace this moment that are very good at expense control on the things that are not necessary.

Shannon Curtin:

We don’t need to travel right now. We don’t need to do things that we incur our own cost on. We stopped that right away. And focusing everything back on consumer makes us think differently about where they are in their journey and how we can help them along the way.

Lauren Stiebing:

Well, Shannon, thank you so much for your input and for sharing your experience through these uncertain times, the past months. I hope that our listeners have found this educational and motivational at the same time, to know that they’re not alone in this.

Shannon Curtin:

Thank you, Lauren. I appreciate it. I hope you have a great afternoon. Stay safe, stay healthy, and I wish you all the best.

Lauren Stiebing:

Thank you. You, too.