…Though emotional bandwidth is limited now, it’s important for leaders to build their empathy competency and stay connected with employees in a human way. This will clear the path for honest communication to address any issues that may arise.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gena Smith, Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Head of Global Executive & Creative Recruitment for LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
A highly experienced human resources executive, Gena ensures that LVMH is best in class at selecting, developing, and retaining senior executive and creative talent. During her tenure with LVMH she has helped to further develop talent at all levels of the organization, including through attracting accomplished senior-level executives, instituting learning and development programs to prepare executives to meet business needs, and promoting mobility for high performing executives across the LVMH brands. She has led Diversity &Inclusion and gender diversity initiatives for LVMH, such as EllesVMH which included the Regional CEO’s signing of the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
I grew up in Texas. It was always my dream to work in the fashion industry in New York, but I didn’t think it was something that could be my reality as a first-generation college graduate. But during my time at University of Indianapolis, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Greece, which was a turning point in my life. It made me realize I had a passion for people and culture, and I saw for the first time just how vast the world is. During my time in first Crete and then later Athens, I decided to pursue international business. I changed my major and found opportunities to continue my education abroad. That was what really put me on this career path in international fashion and HR.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Well certainly this year has been interesting, to say the least. It has been an inflection point with so many concurrent crises, but it wasn’t until the murder of George Floyd this spring that it became critically important to not just support our employees, but to take the time to have open and honest dialogue during a time when so many were suffering. So, with our Chairman and CEO, we hosted webinars and focus groups to listen and learn and care for our team. Supporting diversity and inclusion has always been a priority for LVMH, with long-standing initiatives developed with Chantal Gaemperle (LVMH Executive Vice President, Human Resources & Synergies), and learning from our talents directly has made me feel even more passionate about driving change and ensuring continued education for myself and our employees. I’m certainly not an expert, but I think I’m much better informed and I really attribute this to the open dialogues that we had with our employees who were brave enough to share their personal stories with us.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I admit that I’ve made so many mistakes, though I’ve been fortunate to be in organizations that allow employees to make mistakes so long as they learn from them. That is most certainly the case at LVMH. We’re so proud of our Maisons’ (brands) distinct heritage, and we know that in order to remain aspirational through so many generations, we have to be open to new ideas and give people the space to explore and learn new ways of doing things; as leaders, we have to encourage creativity and risk-taking.
Early on in my career, I would attribute many of my mistakes to going too fast, not asking questions, trying to “prove” myself. Sometimes it’s better to bite the bullet and admit you don’t know something and be open to coaching. This allows you to learn, save time, and make sure you do the work properly. Have humility to admit when you need help and make sure to surround yourself by people who are interested in helping you learn and grow.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Burn-out was already an issue for employers pre-COVID due to the fast-paced environments we live in, but we’ve seen such an escalation of this with the even higher level of intensity day-in-and-day-out, and isolation just compounds the issue. Ultimately one of the more important aspects of building one’s career is also establishing personal boundaries that contribute a sense of balance. That is even more challenging now, but I believe that it is a shared responsibility of employees and employers to identify and communicate boundaries. As employers, we must respect these boundaries and ensure that our leaders are respectful of these as well.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?
More than twenty years at this point!
Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?
1. Staying connected in a human way.
Though emotional bandwidth is limited now, it’s important for leaders to build their empathy competency and stay connected with employees in a human way. This will clear the path for honest communication to address any issues that may arise.
2. Maintaining energy and managing fatigue.
With the long road ahead, it is crucial for employers to prioritize the mental health of themselves and their employees, making sure they feel supported and encouraged to seek rest and time off when needed.
3. Creating balance.
When the “office” is always steps away, employees need to take control of their experience and create balance in their life. Whether that is making time for wellness and restorative activity like long walks, lunch away from the computer, or a mid-day workout, individuals are primarily responsible for longevity-building practices, but it is the employer’s role to respect time set for those behaviors.
4. Managing time and priorities.
With no end in sight for blended, if not fully remote, work, it is critical to actively control for workload and manage priorities. This guidance should come from managers, who should allow for inputs from the team.
5. Determining KPIs.
For some industries, KPIs have always led workstream and employee benchmarking, while others may be setting these metrics for the first time. Whatever the situation, KPIs are more important than ever and can align expectations during an uncertain time. Managers should ask themselves “Does my team know what is expected of them?”
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
It’s obviously a difficult time for all employees, managers included. We’re in each other’s homes, we’re meeting each other’s children and pets and houseplants and it’s a complicating new dimension. There are increasing demands on our patience and empathy now, but these are two highly valuable competencies for all leaders in 2020. In so many ways, Covid-19 and the social crisis we are experiencing is pushing supervisors to almost become therapists, which most just aren’t qualified to do. To support their growth in this area, LVMH has launched three new trainings on resilience, trauma, and empathy fatigue to encourage leaders to bring a personal awareness and empathetic ear to conversations across teams. These kinds of professional trainings to increase awareness and refine personal skills can be very helpful, especially while working remotely.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?
It is so much harder on Zoom to truly understand how people feel and often employees are much less likely to speak up if there is an issue they’re dealing with, further compounding the unknowns in challenging conversations.
It is important for managers to build a strong foundation of clear communication before issues arise, increasing the frequency of touch bases and building that relationship so at the point when behaviors need to change, there is an expectation of an understanding and collaborative environment.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Clear communication is so critical when managing remote teams as we don’t have the same physical and verbal cues which inform our reactions in these more challenging conversations. My recommendation would be to make every effort to have these conversations via Zoom call to allow for a dialogue, but if that is not possible, then a feedback email should also detail a path to improvement and allow for questions and input from the employee receiving the feedback. I have to say it’s my least favorite method; it’s very hard to convey the right message and tenor over email which can also lead to misunderstandings which often can further exacerbate the problem.
Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is getting used to working remotely?
One unique challenge ahead is the new proposition of managing blended teams, with some employees working together on location and others working from home, either due to childcare needs or potentially even health issues. This is likely to further compound the feelings of isolation in remote workers, and they could potentially fear retribution for their need or desire to remain home while others return to the office. It will be even more important for managers to watch out for competition and insecurity while building an inclusive environment. The work of managing remote teams will not end with a partial return to office, quite the opposite. It will continue to be a critical role of managers to be empathetic and work with each employee to determine the best path ahead for that individual, and as the collective team.
What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?
In addition to empathetic leadership, I think it’s important to create opportunities for people to have impact. People want to feel impactful in their jobs, but also in their communities. Within our EllesVMH group, a professional development initiative, we created a partnership with United Way and Coalition for the Homeless wherein LVMH employees could volunteer virtually, supporting women re-entering the workforce after their lives were impacted by domestic violence. Not only were we able to support these women, but our employees felt empowered and impactful as a respite outside of the day to day stressors of work.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
What I love most about my role at LVMH is that not only am I helping to deliver on our values through the talent we hire, but there’s an opportunity to support our communities. We can develop initiatives, like our student program, “Success in the Face of Adversity” that has supported more than 1,500 students in underserved communities through development sessions, mentorship and empowerment via virtual panel discussions with LVMH leaders.
In supporting that talent pipeline, I’ve been able to serve on the board at Parsons for the last four years as well, which speaks to the creative recruitment side of my work. If our creative organization needs to be ahead of the curve, then it is the students within creative schools who are driving the future. And the only way to really identify what is needed for the future is for businesses and universities to come together to solve these future creative problems, so it’s an opportunity for me to contribute to the students but also to contribute to the future of the curriculum.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-prize winning reporter, has said to maintain excellence in everything you do. That really resonated with me as some version of that has guided my own career. Our own behavior is really the only thing you can control, which is especially true right now. We can’t control the environment that we’re in. We can’t always control our managers along the way. There are so many things outside of our control, but we absolutely can always control how we show up and how we deliver our work. You need to set the highest standards for and hold yourself accountable to them. It’s not about your boss, your peer, your colleague. It’s about you and how you want to show up.