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Leading and Learning Through Uncertain Times

by Catherine Cole

by Catherine Cole


If there is ever a time to rethink and enhance ongoing capability building, now is it. As businesses scramble, executives for both small and large companies are faced with how to sustain operations over the foreseeable future, when we have no idea how long this uncertainty will last or whether we have seen the worst of it (predictions say we have not). As we move to a business critical mindset, we also need to think about “essential workers”. We need people to keep the wheels on the bus but also those who will adapt, innovate and implement under extreme pressure. And we need to make sure they have the right tools and motivations to succeed.

Unprecedented times call for true leadership

It feels that we are currently in a phase of panic, unprecedented times with no script to follow. We revert to tactics for survival, reducing overheads, streamlining processes, chasing down outstanding payments on goods which are already shipped and trying to work out how to mitigate losses on raw materials which are already cut but orders cancelled. These challenges are real, critical and all consuming against a backdrop of constant changing guidance on how to best safeguard your business and your people. Now more than ever, how we react as leaders and how our people cope will determine survival and ultimately success.

Disruption the apparel industry can’t avoid

The apparel industry has been stuck in its own cycle of develop – produce – sell with average lead times of 60-90 days so it’s difficult for us to react when something like Covid-19 hits. For an industry that had already been heavily affected by the trade wars, this feels like the knockout blow. Rewind 1-2 years and the catchy truism was always “if we don’t disrupt ourselves, somebody else will”. Yet it is truly hard to change the status quo with things trucking along as they always have been. This forced disruption that we are going through now is challenging our roles as leaders, managers and even employees. The rules have suddenly changed. We know we are in for a downturn and as companies evaluate costs, the elephant in the room is how many people will we have to let go, or will I lose my job (depending on what seat you are in). Research shows that after a downturn, the companies that have not laid off people tend to do better, the key will be how to retain the skills you need for the future while balancing the books.

Although it might be difficult right now, forming plans for the future is also an imperative, leaders should be thinking post Covid-19. In rebuilding the fashion & apparel industry we have a window of opportunity to not only survive today but also innovate for the future, transforming our outdated legacy ways of working and up-skilling our people.

5 actions for tackling capabilities during the crisis

So, where does workplace learning and long-term employee capability stand in all of this? With the health and safety of employees a top priority, it is a good time to reevaluate the delivery of training and revisit workplace learning plans – and if your company doesn’t have one, create one. Employees may not necessarily have more time on their hands, but their work setting is changing. Our 5-point list below is how to think about using this opportunity to make the most of virtual and/or online training. It lays out 5 key actions for Assessing, Designing (or Redesigning) and then Delivering professional development.

1- Build a Response Team: Put together a team of cross-functional people from L&D or business units to understand the 6-12 months training needs.

2- Focus on Business Critical and Prioritize: As we are already seeing across the industry, companies are re-prioritizing to where they can make an impact. Production lines around the world are being re-purposed for medical supplies. What skills do your essential workers and your remote teams need now and in the next few months. Will they be ready for the new business realities when we do emerge from the grey cloud of COVID-19. Prioritize these business critical skills and also easy wins for converting training to a digital environment. This digital environment can either just be virtual (with a live instructor meeting with learners online) or asynchronous (learners accessing recordings in their own time). 

Our supply chains are being challenged and in an industry that has depended on physical travel to keep the wheels of buying, merchandising, sample creation and approval turning, many are struggling with how to transform these processes to be virtual. Training around 3D transformation and or how to run a Fit Session virtually suddenly become more important. These are two great examples of not merely investing for the short term but for investing in longer-term efficient and sustainable practices to support the business.

3- Start with the Infrastructure: Where are the learners and what infrastructure is in place? Are they sitting at their desktops at home? Do they have adequate bandwidth? This will guide thinking around what technology and formats you need to use. Take a hard look at your own LMS. Is this where they have been accessing their training during BAU times? If your LMS utilization rate is low, this may not be the best place right now to reach them.

4- Engage: Build in human touch and Interactions. Especially at a time when many remote workers are feeling “isolated”, it is a good time to have learning material that allow learners to interact with others in either discussion forums, peer-to-peer feedback, breakout activities for teams and live webinars. Training needs to be social, collaborative and have a personal touch. Using training as team building activities is a great solution to isolation and opportunity for team managers to lead by example by joining the digital cohorts. This strengthens the sense of collective purpose of teams and helps to maintain morale in challenging times.

5- Keep it Simple:  People are faced with a lot of potential personal and professional distractions right now (especially if they are working from home). Offline formats of professional development can afford to have 1-2 days or in-person interaction. Going digital means breaking this down to bite-sized chunks so people can learn while they are doing their other tasks.

Across the world, coaches and trainers are quickly adapting by using tools to run effective workshops virtually. Learners are going to be especially forgiving in this environment since everyone is scrambling so expectations for perfection aren’t there.  It’s not a time for perfectionism but for relevancy and impact

Long-term business sustainability

Study after study shows that learning and capability building is much more effective when it is done in the context of a job. Learning should never be a one-time event but ongoing with built-in opportunities for immediate application. All the more reason that we should use this time of disruption to bring in learning moments that can readily be applied in the context of day-to-day roles. Many of us feel our worlds have been turned upside down – our customers are preoccupied, our distribution and retail channels are shut down, our access to daily provisions is hindered, and maybe we have kids suddenly running around at home that need corralling for any semblance of continuing their education.

Small companies are faced with cash cliffs and large companies face shifting resources and priorities. As an industry, we cannot afford to go into a “deep freeze” until this passes, especially when it comes to our people, skills  and professional development. As contingency plans are put in place, retaining the right people is an important part of sending out the right messages to your teams and fostering a learning culture critical for business sustainability.

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Explore the business cases behind 3D and its best practices

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