COVID-19: The Greatest Test(s) for Retail Leadership in Canada

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By: Charles de Brabant, Executive Director, Bensadoun School of Retail Management, McGill University

I started writing this article in late March watching leaders react rapidly and in many instances, decisively in handling the outbreak in North America & Europe, a couple of months after their Chinese and Asian counterparts. As I was finishing the first draft of the article about 10 days ago, I was wondering whether the timing of this article was not too late. However, these last couple of weeks have been testing Western political leaders as they prepare to open up the economy and will test among others, business, and retail leaders as they reopen their businesses and aim to have them functioning properly and profitably once again. We seem to be in that worrying state of flux in between two phases. As Governor Cuomo said a few days ago quoting Churchill, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

So it seems like a good time to revisit leadership as we move into the long journey to reopen and reinvent our societies, our economies and our retail.

In the political realm, recent weeks have shown the great divide in leadership with shocking displays by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, while at the same time, being inspired by governors like Andew Cuomo in New York and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, and in Canada, by Provincial Premiers like John Horgan in British Columbia and Francois Legault in Quebec. Actually, the most impressive revelation is how much better countries run by female heads of states have done in handling this crisis, from Angela Merkel in Germany, to Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, and to Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan.

In business, especially in retail, leaders were already being seriously challenged before the coronavirus crisis hit. Retail was already going through a period of unparalleled change and transformation, putting even the most successful retailers in some form of “survival” mode. Senior leaders were becoming more agile, data savvy, but also intuitive and open minded. They were more focused than ever on their brands and the communities that they are serving to make the best choices to enhance the effectiveness of their businesses. They were adopting big bet mentalities mixed with test quickly, keep what works, and discards asap what does not. This atmosphere had created a strong tension of exciting times and sleepless nights!!

However, one might say that it was like “spring training in the minor leagues” compared to the tsunami that leaders are now confronted with. We are seeing a number of leaders emerge, not only in retail, that are showing unique skills and qualities to guide their companies, their teams, their stakeholders, and their communities as best they can in these unprecedented times. In this crisis, I have been impressed by so many including Alan Jope at Unilever, Kevin Johnson at Starbucks; in Canada by Calvin McDonald at lululemon and Heather Reisman at Indigo Books and Music; and more local Quebec entrepreneurs like Dominique Brown of Chocolats Favoris, Ricardo and his wife, Brigitte Coutu, and Dax Dasilva at Lightspeed.

In this article, I propose a leadership framework to understand how they have done this and how they prepare the huge challenges that lie ahead. It is inspired by what Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, said during a roundtable of UN Global Compact on “New Leadership for Global Crisis” that took place early April. The fundamental premise of the framework is to master your inner game => master you outer game. It is probably not a new framework, but the attributes and the relative emphasis on each attribute are certainly different, at least in these unprecedented times and an uncertain future.

Master Your Inner Game – “Be the person you want to be”

Covid 19 forced many senior executives to lead and manage their teams, their different stakeholders, and communities remotely. Under the dual pressure of unprecedented times and personal isolation, each leader and their teams have to not only focus on their organizations, but also master her/his inner game. This will not stop as the economy reopens, as it is becoming increasing clear that we are entering a long path to recovery and a new normal, including a new and uncertain future of retail.

As this section is very personal for each individual, I have included elements of my own journey to strive to become the person that I want to be. I decided to do so because for those who have followed my journey, especially battling cancer three times over the last five to six years both in Malaysia and now in Canada, know that I have been severely challenged across these different attributes from health, mental, and even, financial standpoints which are the cornerstones of the challenges facing each of us during the Covid-19. Please take these elements of my journey as an example of how one person has chosen to develop and cope across each of these attributes. It is in no way prescriptive as it is up to each one of us to find her/his own path.

Striving Towards Mental and Physical Wellbeing

“Our bodies are our gardens to which our wills are gardeners.” – William Shakespeare

As many leaders have been working from home and some are juggling at home schooling for their kids, this crisis has forced leaders (as well as most of us) to focus on their mental and physical wellbeing. As we inch towards an uncertain new normal, it will continue to be more important than ever to carve out time to do exercise, go for long walks, do yoga, try meditation to allow you to be strong, centred, and focused in this time of crisis.

Over the last few years, my biggest challenge was finding my own ways towards physical and mental wellbeing. Battling cancer is a very individual journey — fighting an invisible enemy invading your body — similar to the coronavirus. As I had different treatment protocols for each battle, I had to find different paths (or coping mechanisms) to get back to a state of mental and physical wellbeing. This crisis is no different. On working on my mental wellbeing, writing was one of my main coping mechanisms. I started writing a journal and sharing it with others. The writing part helped me understand what I was going through and sharing it, forced to see the glass half full. I can, definitely, tell you in the most trying times, there was always positive moments to cherish. I have continued writing during COVID-19, more on how the crisis is affecting the retail sector and how we can potentially bounce back.

Other things that I have been doing for my mental well being is reading fiction and non fiction, cooking, limiting my intake of news and series, religiously watching the Montreal Canadiens hockey games, and in the past few weeks, discovering the power of meditation. And at extreme times, I have resorted to seeing a psychotherapist.

As for my physical well being, sports have been an integral part of my life since playing competitive squash as a teenager. Through these times, I have alternated between walking, jogging, biking, cross-country and downhill skiing, playing tennis, and swimming. As you can imagine, my physical state has varied dramatically over the last five to six years, from being virtually unable to walk to the end of our apartment to being able to jog 10 km and cross-country ski for two hours.

Over the last few weeks, I have to cope with one new reality – over-zooming. I end certain days unable to focus and see straight. I know that I am not alone. I am trying to space meetings out, making them shorter and taking more frequent breaks. But it still remains a challenge and I wonder if there will not be long term side effects. Only time will tell.

The key is to find your own coping mechanisms to keep you fit both mentally and physically. It takes a good understanding of yourself, taking chances, and being disciplined to do things daily that help you both physically and mentally

Agility and Openness to Change

“I learned to always take on things I’d never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist.” ― Ginni Rometty

Fortunately, retail leaders have had to develop this skill in spades over the last few years. However, now the need is exponentially greater to go faster and take even bigger bets than before.

I am not sure that you can teach agility and openness to change. You can, on the other hand, develop it through experience in trying new things, moving to other places, changing jobs and companies, etc.

My personal journey has been full of changes. I sometimes feel like a cat who has had six to seven lives and has two to three left. I worked and lived in every continent, except for South America. I worked for the UN in Rwanda; as a management consultant in Paris; in learning and development for L’Oreal in Paris and Shanghai; as an entrepreneur in executive search and leadership development in Greater China; as CHRO for one of the fastest growing retail companies in South East Asia; and finally back home in my current position as Executive Director of the Bensadoun School of Retail Management at McGill University.

I don’t pretend that developing agility and openness to change is easy. It remains scary and challenging. However, it becomes easier with time and the more frequently you do it, while developing a great sense of fulfilment.

Building Resilience Over the Long Term

“I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” ― Michael Jordan

Economists expect that this crisis will have effects lasting at least 18-24 months. I see people around me and on TV that are fed up, who want to go back to their normal pre-COVID days. Well, it doesn’t seem like this is about to happen soon, especially with potential for future waves of the pandemic and no vaccine in sight for at least 12-18 months. A baseball analogy would say that we are in the second inning of a game that might go into extra innings. It is, therefore, more of a marathon (maybe many marathons) than a sprint.

My battles with cancer and changes in lives and careers have developed my resilience and my ability to bounce back from adversity. It has also taught me a lot personally. I have become life resilient, but I know that I don’t have the necessary physical and mental resilience to become the CEO of big company or organization.

I look at business leaders that I admired in Asia, like Dirk van Den Berghe, EVP and Regional CEO Asia and Global Sourcing at Walmart, and Alexis Perakis who was President of L’Oreal Asia and now President of the Consumer Products Division L’Oreal Group. I see their level of energy, focus, and determination that they have and know that I will never have it.

Courage and Empathy

“Being brave is not being unafraid but feeling the fear and doing it anyway. When you feel fear, try using it as a signal that something really important is about to happen.” ― Gloria Steinem

“Act as though you already have COVID-19.”― Jacinda Ardern

Successful leaders right now must mix courage to make unprecedented decisions, some of them being the most emotionally challenging of their careers, with an unprecedented level of empathy.

At a personal level, many people have told me how courageous I was in battling cancer. It never resonated with me, but as I was writing this piece and in line with Gloria Steinem’s quote, I realized that I don’t feel courageous, but I have grown less scared in the face in the adversity. As for empathy, I rate myself average, but battling cancer has certainly made me more empathetic. More importantly, I discovered real empathy in four or five of the nurses that have treated me in Malaysia and in Montreal and who are my real heroes, similar to those that we cherish in these times of the pandemic.

Going back to the impressive performance of female heads of state in battling this crisis, I think that there is where they make their biggest difference. Many of female leaders seem to exhibit this unique ability to make courageous decisions with the right blend of empathy. As Uri Friedman wrote in the Atlantic on April 19 2020,

“Jacinda Ardern, the 39-year-old prime minister of New Zealand, is forging a path of her own. Her leadership style is one of empathy in a crisis that tempts people to fend for themselves. Her messages are clear, consistent, and somehow simultaneously sobering and soothing. And her approach isn’t just resonating with her people on an emotional level. It is also working remarkably well…”

Jacinda Ardern was the first to say that “Act as you have Covid 19”, the empathetic rallying cry that has resonated around the world. At the same, like her decisive actions on gun control following the Christchurch mosque shooting in March 2019, she was unafraid to do the same during the coronavirus outbreak. As the Atlantic’s article continues, “… Ardern’s government took decisive actions right away. New Zealand imposed a national lockdown much earlier in its outbreak than other countries did in theirs, and banned travelers from China in early February, before New Zealand had registered a single case of the virus. It closed its borders to all non residents in mid-March, when it had only a handful of cases.”

Beware of the Financial Consequences

One might say that in this crisis, some of us are lucky enough to not experience head on the financial consequences that others have to face coming from for example, job loss from day one and significant healthcare bills.

I can, however, somewhat relate through my cancer battle in Malaysia in late 2016 and its aftermath in 2017. I found out on December 22nd 2016, days before the end of my treatment, that I was not being covered by my insurance under pre-existing conditions terms. My employer at the time showed empathy and helped me out.

And then my contract with that employer ended at the end of January 2017. I was clearly not physically fit to start working again for six to nine months and we were based in Malaysia with no unemployment coverage. By late April, the clock was ticking. Fortunately, with discipline, an extensive network, and luck — some would say luck by design — I got the offer to move to back home to Montreal in my current position.

To Master Your Outer Game –“Be the leader you need to be”

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” — Gandhi

As you continually work to master your inner game, you must focus in parallel on mastering your external game to effectively manage the organization(s) and team(s) that you are leading. It is more important than ever to understand and become the leader that you need to be to guide your organization as effectively as possible in these turbulent times and the uncertain future that lies ahead.

Communicate Effectively

“It’s important to make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”― Barack Obama

It all starts with effective communication. Here, we can look at our politicians for what to do vs what not to do. I would contrast Trump’s erratic, self-congratulatory, and aggressive communication style which I believe, is totally counter-productive and could be devastating for the long term future of the United States. In the last few days, it has become even scarier as the President seems to be abdicating the health consequences of the pandemic to focus on reopening the economy at all costs. It seems to be seconded by a much more calm, cynical, and amoral Senator McConnell.

By contrast, we can look to Prime Ministers in Canada, led by Legault or in the US with most governors, led by Governor Cuomo. Despite being at the centre of their countries’ hotspot, Legault and Cuomo are showing calm, empathy, and incredible honesty and transparency. They keep on message, showing a vision for the future, whilst not being afraid to deliver difficult news.

As the economy and retail reopens, I turn my attention as an example to David Bensadoun, CEO of the Aldo Group, following the news on May 7th that they were placing the company under the protection of creditors. Despite the possible subjectivity of my position, I was impressed by the interview that he gave in the Montreal newspaper La Presse on May 9th. It seemed to perfectly usher the next era of leadership as we move into the slow road back to a new normal. Mr Bensadoun showed humility, empathy and courage by admitting that mistakes were made pre-pandemic and that the actions as a result of his most recent decision will have a strong impact on the employees and their families as you close stores and reduce HQ staff. At the same time, he paved the way forward with a vision for the long term that will redefine the Aldo Group with the aim to make it more effective, more agile, and ready to take advantage of the full potential of an omnichannel presence to best answer the needs of your customers in the new normal. It will hopefully be a model on how to successfully enter the new future of retail.

Act Fast with a Vision to the Future

“Once in your life, try something. Work hard at something. Try to change. Nothing bad can happen. If you don’t do it, nothing’s possible.” — Jack Ma

It is a moment that requires leaders to take bold actions; big bets that are largely untested at unprecedented speed. At the same time, it is important to try: if it works, continue; if it does not, readjust or discard and try something else.

Walmart has been a great example how to execute in pre-COVID times, that is proving very effective during the pandemic. They have:

  • Focused on their core strengths which are their superstores and their operational effectiveness, as they develop their omnichannel capabilities,
  • Developed their digital and e-commerce footprint by taking big bets through for instance their significant acquisitions in the US (eg., Bonobos) and in India with Flipkart,
  • Stopped their historical “do it alone” approach and collaborated when necessary as they have shown in China with significant partnerships with Tencent and JD.Com and in Japan with Rakuten
  • And adapted to the local culture and markets.

This has allowed Walmart to deliver not only every day low prices, but also develop every day convenience. It has made Walmart competitive against Amazon in North America and competitive in other markets, like China and India.

At a more local level, we at the Bensadoun School of Retail Management are in the midst of launching a Retail Innovation Challenge to get teams of university students across Canada to assist business leaders rethink and rebuild their businesses as the economy opens up and we enter the post Covid 19 phase. Starting with the food sector, I have the incredible chance to hear the stories of local retail leaders, like Alex at Café Barista, Sean at Can Am, and Chrissy at Dispatch Coffee. Both Alex and Sean’s business were almost exclusively BtoB focused. As the pandemic started, they lost 90% of their business within days. They pivoted with fully online BtoC in less than a week. For instance, Can Am which principally sold fruits and vegetables to restaurants, hotels, cruise ships, and hospitals pivoted to become an online grocery retailer — with a full line up of products including meat & poultry, dairy, household and hygiene products — in just seven days. It has now become a fully successful business in its own right. The big challenge for these retail leaders is as things open up is to make that these new initiatives keep going and grow into long term profitable business units, as well as working on bringing & upgrading their pre-COVID businesses.

What is clear is that these leaders are all learning fast how to build and lead omnichannel businesses. And as McKinsey put it in a recent study, these leaders are going to have to shift their mindset more and more to “rather than asking what benefits online can offer offline channels, players should ask how their brick-and-mortar presence can support e-commerce sales.”

Engage and Collaborate

“I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.” – Mother Teresa

This crisis is forcing a collaboration broader than seen before, across disciplines, departments, and geographies. It also means engaging our stakeholders and our communities.

On the business side, especially on moving more omnichannel, better response to shifting customer demands and behaviours, as well as different delivery models, one cannot do it alone. So leaders need to get their teams and companies to collaborate to get these ends as quickly and effectively as possible. It can come from bringing new talent in-house, to partnering with retail tech companies like Shopify or Lightspeed, with AI specialists and local specialists for geographic expansion. Walmart showed this well by partnering with Tencent and to succeed in China.

At the same time, to be successful in these unprecedented times, it will mean less focus on shareholders, but more on all other stakeholders of the company:

  1. Like Unilever assisting their SMEs suppliers to survive through loan program;
  2. Taking care as much as possible of employees financially and emotionally;
  3. Working with the entire supply chain partners to recalibrate effectively and most probably source more locally;
  4. And play a leadership role in the community that these companies are a part of.

And Lastly, Leaders Need to Show Purpose and do Good

“Creating a strong business and building a better world are not conflicting goals — they are both essential ingredients for long-term success.” — Bill Ford

Leaders need to be socially responsible — sometimes with positive impact to improve the short term wellbeing of their business and others, to show that we care for their communities. I believe that this will have a much more lasting impact than under normal circumstances. People and therefore, customers, will remember those leaders and organizations that went beyond their scope to help the communities that they are a part of.

Many retailers and brands, like other companies, have done this by producing sanitizers, PPE equipment, and more recently, fashionable masks.

Branding with authenticity and purpose has become critical. One interesting example of what to do and not to do was the sharp contrast in the initial responses by Adidas and Nike. Nike was quick to close stores to guarantee the safety of their employees and customers. Adidas North America initially took a different approach stating that they would keep their stores open to be able to pay bills and employees, in essence putting business ahead of safety of their employees and customers. The backlash was immediate forcing Adidas to quickly do the same thing as Nike and other competitors. But the reputational damage was done. Let’s see how it will play out in the long term.

A couple of noteworthy initiatives from China were:

  • On Women’s day on March 8th, Chando, a local Chinese beauty brand, which launched a short digital movie on the Modern Mulan woman focused on COVID-19 heroes - medical professionals, community helpers, policewomen, volunteers. Jing Daily reported that it already had 7.4 million views by March 10th
  • According to Deborah Weinswig from Coresight Research and an avid China watcher, brands, whose sales associates used WeChat just to check up on how each of their customers was doing during the crisis, seem to have rebounded faster than others.

One of the most inspiring stories is the Master Chef Jose Andres who created his Charity, World Central Kitchen (WCK), at the time of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. During the COVID-19 pandemic, WCK has delivered millions of meals to the homeless, the hungry and relief workers across the US and kept hundreds of restaurants in business.

Examples of Overall Leadership in These Times

Over the last couple of months, I have had the chance to hear and speak to a number of retail leaders about what they are doing and the skills needed to navigate through this crisis.

Two interviews have stuck out in particular that date back to early April, but show clearly how these different leadership skills are being applied to their companies:

  1. Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, and
  2. Calvin McDonald, CEO of Lululemon.

Below are the main points of what they said about their respective company and the leadership actions that they are putting in place to survive during this unprecedented crisis.


As I come to the end of this article, I want to shift to a more philosophical plane by focusing on a business leader, Lightspeed founder and CEO Dax Dasilva and his book “The Age of Union that he published in 2019. It seems prophetic in its timing as I believe that it exemplifies the leadership qualities in this article, while bringing forward many of the core issues that our societies are facing and that have come to the surface during the pandemic, namely aggressive capitalism, growing inequalities, diminished tolerance for cultural and racial differences, and environmental sustainability.

Through his unique personal story, his professional journey building up Lightspeed into a more than $1 billion IPO in 2019, and his community engagement as Founder of Never Apart, Dax has learnt to master both his inner and outer games and over the years, has first become the person that he wants to be and then, the leader that he should be. He highlights four key pillars to achieve this – Leadership, culture, spirituality, and nature. Here are a couple of quotes from his book,

“Every crisis is an opportunity. In the future, we must be better prepared to use critical voices to build new bridges in the face of division.”

“It takes courage to open one’s heart, but when we do, we open a space that can be filled with the strength to be leaders in our own destined capacity, to connect with one another through different expressions of culture, to celebrate the teachings of our diversity, to protect nature as we move into an era of guardianship, and to find the spiritual in the everyday. This is to know the joy of purpose.”

I hope that as it did for me writing it, this article will give you some food for thought in these unprecedented and transformative times to re-evaluate your path to becoming the person you want to be in order to be the leader you should be. There has probably never been a better moment collectively to do so individually.

Charles De Brabant joined McGill University in August 2017 to co-lead the creation of the Bensadoun School of Retail Management (BSRM). He has over 20 years experience in retail in Europe and most recently in China and South East Asia. Born and raised in Montreal, Charles holds a B. Com. from McGill, an M. Litt. in History from Oxford University and an MBA from Stanford Business School. Charles’ focus at BSRM will be on collaboration with local and international industry partners and the administration of the school.   

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