Workshop Week: Gillette CEO Gary Coombe on Leadership in a Pandemic

11 Jun 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

With Beyond Sport’s Workshop Week fast approaching, content partner Sport Industry Group sat down with Gillette CEO Gary Coombe to discuss the role he’s taking in leading from the front as the sporting world emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic.

At Workshop Week, Coombe will be speaking on the Future-Looking Decision Making panel, and here he spoke to Sport Industry Group about the way in which his organisation – a major global sport sponsor – took action over recent months, how their adjusting to new norms, and how the leadership shown can provide a blueprint for all moving forward.

Thanks for joining us Gary. First of all, how have you and your organisation been affected over the recent months?

It has certainly been a challenging period for everyone and I’m very proud of the way our organization has managed through this so far – showing courage and agility, embracing new ways of working and the care they’ve shown not just for each other but for their communities.

I think what really helped was having incredibly clear priorities for everyone to work towards. Our approach was first, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our people. Second, to continue to serve our customers who trust and rely on our products.

And third, to support our communities through the crisis – being there for the people who’ve always been there for us.

As a brand heavily involved in sport, how did you have to adapt your plans to face the loss of sport across the globe?

No doubt this is a challenge - sports marketing in a world with no live sports and no events. But - again - we find ways to innovate and adapt. First, Gillette was a very early entrant into eSports and Gaming and that has certainly paid off. We had an established presence with partners and activity that we could ramp up.

The growth in this space was impressive before the crisis but it has exploded since and we’ve been delighted with our work there. Second, we’ve adapted our partnerships with traditional sports as well.

Take the NFL draft for example… this became bigger than ever for a US (and global) audience starved of live sporting action – the viewing figures were unbelievable. We had a whole experiential activation planned for the live event, so we had to quickly pivot and change the plans – in a few short weeks our team had partnered with a group of the rookies, and created a TV advert and set of digital content all from home… with the players doing interviews over Zoom and filming themselves shaving etc, which we could cut into copy ready for the big day. Remarkable agility.

And I think the other dynamic we’ve seen through this period is switching from live sports content to people getting more access to sports stars at home, behind the scenes, in their ‘normal’ lives with family and coping with the pandemic in the same way everyone else is. Far less polished and produced advertising content, to more real, authentic access – and I think people have really enjoyed that – so where we have partnerships with teams or athletes, we can help bring that to people.

How do you feel your organisation has displayed innovative leadership, particularly as a major sport sponsor?

Looking beyond the pandemic, the tragic events that led to death of George Floyd and the protest movement that has followed has put racial equality front and centre. Equality in society is a topic we’ve focused on for many years across gender, sexual orientation, people with disabilities and race. Brands need to play a role in these issues and use their voice to advocate for positive change – and this applies to our sports partnerships as well.

Raheem Sterling is one of our latest Gillette ambassadors and we’re proud to support and work with him not just because of his talent on the pitch, but the work he does off it. Our ‘Made of What Matters’ program with Raheem, Ian Wright and Football Beyond Borders is all about advancing equality, taking a stand against racism and providing young people a better opportunity in life.

We’re doubling down on these efforts in the UK and our work with the NFL in the US to use our brand influence and our partnerships to be a part of meaningful and lasting change in society.

How have you been forced to adapt your own leadership style?

We’ve all had to embrace new technology especially in how we communicate with our organisation at a time when communications and staying in touch was so important.

I’ve also tried to be mindful of the different challenges people are facing through this. Whether it be concerns for their own health or caring for family members. Or employees finding the courage to still come into our factories. Or people trying to balance working from home with childcare and home-schooling. Or employees who live on their own who, for 12 weeks or more, are just missing basic human interaction not through a webcam. Or more recently, listening to and supporting our colleagues who are feeling so much pain, and anger and fear due to the racial issues in the US and beyond.

Leadership is about serving and caring for your people - we take care of them so that they can take of our business and our customers - and that’s never been more important than through the incredibly challenging recent months.  

What lessons has the business/yourself learnt moving forward?

I think we’ve learned a lot about the strength of our culture and our organisation in supporting each other and rallying together in a time of crisis - which I’m very proud of. And we’ve learned how fast we can move and how quickly we can adapt. We are a big business and a big organisation and sometimes we can be too slow… well, we’ve proved what’s possible now in terms of speed and agility, so there’ll be no going back to old ways of doing things. Fast will be our new normal.

What do you think the business will do differently moving forward as a result of having to adapt?

What I believe has become even clearer is that businesses and brands can no longer just rely on providing a good product. Brands need to stand for more than the delivery of their functional benefit (like the best shave in the world) - they need to step up to help their communities when they’re in need, they need to be willing to talk about their values and what they believe in, and they need to have a point of view on the issues that matter to people in society, even if some will disagree. This is the power of purpose in brands and business.

We’ve seen this through the pandemic in the way that brands and business stepped up to support their communities. And we’re seeing it in the US and around the world with the protests against racial injustice and the groundswell of support for action towards equality.

Brands and businesses - especially major advertisers - have a powerful voice in society and that comes with a responsibility to use that voice for good - to advocate for equality and push for change. And the same is true for sports and sports partnerships. Shared values are more important than ever before. Using our voice and our influence to make a positive difference in society is now a requirement not a nice-to-have. It’s a role we all need to play. It takes courage and you will face some criticism, but it is the right thing to do.

Brands are arguably the most pervasive force in the world for business growth - and they can also be a force for good. Not everyone will agree with a brand’s point of view and we must accept that. But if intentions are good, brands should step up, take the heat, and keep going - and those good intentions will eventually prevail.

How important is it that we discuss innovative leadership at Beyond Sport’s Workshop Week to ensure we use the pandemic as a way to learn and develop?

I’m really looking forward to the discussions. We are in a public health crisis and, most likely, a very serious economic crisis too. Businesses and leaders will need to innovate and adapt to win in the future and none of us has all the answers - so forums like this to share ideas and experiences and learn from each other are vitally important. There’s a great lineup of speakers from the worlds of business and sport and I’m excited to join them.

General Passes to Workshop Week will be available to the Sport Industry Group network at a discounted rate of $115 (around £95). To apply the saving, please click HERE, select General Pass and then add discount code SISpotlight (please note this is case sensitive).​