As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Hendrix.
Katie Hendrix serves as the Director of Communications at Novolex — a U.S.- based leading manufacturer of plastic packaging and products. Hendrix is responsible for overseeing internal communications, marketing efforts, and brand management. Initially starting as a Manager of Talent Acquisition & Communications in 2014, Hendrix has successfully implemented numerous initiatives in her efforts to modernize the way the manufacturing company attracts a younger workforce, engages employees at all levels and encourages sustainable practices from the bottom up. Hendrix’s successes include:
- Creating the “Green 411” –a newsletter that empowers employees at all levels of Novolex’s workforce to inform themselves about Novolex’s sustainability efforts, and steps they can take to protect the environment in their lives outside of work.
- Modernizing and elevating Novolex’s hiring and employee communications capabilities to attract a younger workforce by creating a systematized internship program focused on attracting and retaining young talent in the manufacturing industry.
- Organizing a women’s initiative aimed at empowering and educating women in manufacturing while bridge the gender gap in the industry.
- Spearheading creation of an internal app that quickly become a staple of Novolex’s internal communications strategy, permitting the company to disseminate information on operational updates early in the coronavirus pandemic.
Prior to Novolex, Katie was an Assistant Marketing Manager for Hanesbrands Inc., where she promoted Hanes’ C9 brand to consumers through direct collaboration with Target in an effort to create brand and consumer appropriate in-store marketing. Hendrix was also responsible for coordinating a cross-functional team of sourcing managers, designers, merchandisers, product managers and operations managers to develop new products.
Hendrix earned a bachelor’s degree in Art History and Classical Civilizations from Duke University, followed by a Master of Business Administration in 2009 from Wake Forest University’s Graduate School of Business. She resides in the Greater New York City area.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I am currently the Director of Communications for Novolex, a foodservice and manufacturing company with 10,000 employees across North America and Europe. I live in New York with my husband and three kids ages nine, eight and six.
After graduating from Duke, I thought I wanted to go to law school and took a job as a legal assistant at a law firm in Durham. After two years, one thing was for sure — I did not want to be an attorney. I felt the pull to provide creative solutions to day-to-day issues. It was around that time that my husband, who served as a Special Forces Officer in the Army and was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, was notified that he would be deploying to Iraq for 15 months. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to change career paths and I applied to business school.
After graduating with my MBA, I began working in marketing at Hanesbrands, where I was responsible for managing one of their Champion athletic apparel lines. Focused on branding and pricing, the majority of the role was that creative problem solving that I had wanted, working closely with internal and external stakeholders. I joined Novolex in a Human Resources role but when I transitioned into a communications role at the company, I noticed a lot of parallels between what I had done in product marketing at Hanesbrands and the messaging that I was now conveying towards both employees and external audiences.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Several years ago, I was supporting our Closing Ceremonies for our annual summer internship program. I’d made nametags for the attendees and distributed them as everyone entered our opening dinner. I handed our Chairman and CEO his nametag and his jaw dropped. I’d spelled his last name incorrectly! Grinning, he pointed out the mistake. I smiled politely and sarcastically said I’d be sure that the interns who made the nametags would get an earful from me!
I was extremely embarrassed — he clearly knew that I had made the nametags — but we laughed it off together. The misspelling could have caused our company leader to respond in a belittling way, but his low-key reaction reminded me that mistakes happen and to not let the insignificant ones get to you. He also demonstrated how easy it is for a good leader to help maintain a positive workplace.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When I worked at Hanesbrands, my team was small and agile, and I had an amazing manager. She gave me a great balance of coaching and responsibility. She highlighted my successes to the executive leadership team and helped me learn from my mistakes. When working with her, I always felt heard when voicing my ideas or dissent. She was a leader that I never wanted to disappoint, but I also never felt like she was looking over my shoulder. What made her such an outstanding leader was her ability to consistently provide mentorship through setting an example of hard work and always expecting the same from me. It drove me to always push myself.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The COVID-19 crisis has really shined a light on the need for robust and consistent communications both internally and externally. Our company was extremely proactive, which allowed us to communicate vital information to employees quickly. It was important that the entire Novolex Family knew that our executive leadership team was working to guarantee their safety, that we were doing what we had to do to ensure that their jobs were secure at the onset of the crisis, and that our management was willing to personally make sacrifices to ensure that the employees and their families were taken care of.
In the beginning, we were all unsure of what was happening and what the long-term impacts might be on our business, but our employees needed to know that we were closely monitoring the situation and listening to experts as we put in place a series of guidelines to help keep everyone safe. We sent out our first all-employee communication about COVID-19 in January 2020 and established an internal COVID-19 info webpage and email address. These platforms were closely monitored to ensure we were responsive to any concerns and questions our employees might have.
Within days, I helped to accelerate the launch of an employee app that we could utilize to reach our employees without company email addresses, seeing as a large majority of our employees work hourly shifts in most of our 56 manufacturing facilities. To better distribute information to our corporate employees, l also re-vamped our internal SharePoint site.
Once these channels were created and updated, we were able to not only use them for delivering important information, we also leveraged both to encourage employee engagement and connection. Employees shared stories of product donations to food banks, photos of their “I am essential” employee shirts, the first plexiglass structures going up as part of our safety measures, and kudos to teams keeping their spirits up despite fears about the virus. We were also able share the ways in which we were adapting our business to serve the frontline personnel doing lifesaving work in hospitals across the country. Many communities were in dire need of face shields and gowns for medical facilities and we were able to quickly adapt our operations to produce millions of units of PPE. We saw pride in our business and our team was able to see the critical roll they were playing every day.
The crisis changed the manner in which we communicated internally in other ways as well. We produced weekly CEO videos that aimed to unite our team, communicate timely information and provide COVID-19 updates. These videos often included “shout-outs” from employees and relevant department updates from leaders. Personally, I found that I was constantly learning as we imagined new ways to lead and what our employees needed from us. I moderated (virtual) CEO “small chats” with all managers across business units and we continue to hold weekly plant leadership calls that give managers the opportunity to get clarity on all of the new policies as well as create unity among leaders at all levels.
With many school districts closed to in-person learning or on partial schedules, many of our Novolex families are managing virtual learning at home on top of their jobs, a difficult task with a variety of costly challenges including inadequate internet connectivity and lack of technical and traditional schooling resources. In order to ease the burden for our families with students in grades Pre-K through undergraduate college learning from home, I helped develop and administer the Novolex Virtual School Assistance Program. The Program offered $100 to every employee with school aged children to be used towards purchases of items such as mobile hotspots, computers/tablets, printers and any other item needed for school learners. We were thrilled that many employees signed up for and were supported by the program.
One of my key takeaways is that in a crisis, communications is essential, but most effective when paired with measurable action. Had we only increased the cadence of our communications to employees without increasing our executives’ visibility, the result would have likely been a prevailing perception that leadership was out of touch. However, I believe the actions we took were essential in ensuring that our entire Novolex Family knew we were going to support them during this challenging time. Communications told the story of how we were doing it.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
The beginning of the pandemic was unique and difficult for everyone. Like many, I was managing a demanding job as well as caring for my young school-aged children. Living in New York, the gravity of the situation was clearly visible. The importance of my contributions at Novolex drove me. We are all finding our way to help out in the pandemic and my efforts to help our 10,000 Novolex Family members navigate their professional and personal lives safely kept me going.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Helping people feel safe and supported so they can come to work is critical in “normal” times as well as during a pandemic, though the type of safety and support may change. In the beginning of the pandemic, people were scared. We had to provide all of our employees with letters classifying them as essential workers so that, in some cases, they could legally leave their homes. Many people didn’t know what was safe, let alone what was permitted under local stay-at-home orders and other mandates. I found myself consistently trying to empathize with our employees and match tone and message to what I thought I would want to hear.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
One of the unique challenges of the current pandemic is that we are isolated. Even among those who must be present in their place of work, we lack simple human connection that is as simple as a warm smile from a co-worker. As leaders, this creates a real challenge. More than ever, leaders need to find a way to be visible and connect. Your message has to be honest and transparent through the good and the bad and above all, people need to feel like we are in this together — that they are not alone.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
All companies have had to deliver hard news during 2020. Novolex is no different. Our communications team has worked hard to be honest, empathetic and supportive of our employees as much as possible.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Now more than ever, we all need to be flexible and dynamic. We must be disciplined in our decision making, but willing to step out of our comfort zone to keep forging ahead. Mission-driven leaders require the capacity to meet the organization’s objectives and intent without being rigid and inflexible.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Some of the mistakes I’ve seen stem from when companies operate in a bubble and don’t seek out subject matter experts or alternative voices when making decisions. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are essentially no experts on running a modern company during a pandemic. The ability to take in research and intelligent opinions from trusted advisors is imperative to making good decisions during difficult times. Lacking creativity in developing these decisions is also a misstep that I’ve noticed. In difficult times, leaders cannot simply stick with their old playbook. It lacks authenticity and demoralizes teams.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
In a crisis, we don’t have all the answers, but a failure to act is avoidable. This starts with creating a culture that fosters idea sharing and transparent communications. Novolex was primed to act quickly when the pandemic hit. Our engineers and innovation team quickly banded together to create new products and reach new customers. For example, we pivoted to manufacture PPE — face shields and isolation gowns — when we saw the need even though we had never produced such products before. It was because of our innovation-based culture that we were able to succeed in these endeavors.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Be agile. Everything we know about doing business changed in 2020. Had we not been agile and adapted to each new challenge thrown at us, Novolex would not be in the steady state that it’s in today. Being able to adjust to each new regulation or health scare continues to give us the ability to work and communicate with our workforce by monitoring each state regulation and making relevant information easily accessible to our plant leadership teams. Our messaging has been agile, and we have adapted our tone, frequency and content based on what our employees needed to hear. Our Operations teams showed great agility as they embraced new designs and processes to manufacture unfamiliar PPE products while our Procurement team pivoted their focus to new, difficult to find, bulk PPE orders for our teams to use. If we had stayed stagnant, we would have failed.
Be humble. Humility is always an important trait for an effective leader — it allows teams to mature without being dictated. No one is an expert in running a modern business in a pandemic and it’s important that leaders are humble enough to hear outside ideas and allow teams to make decisions based on what works for them. This inspires confidence from the inside out, which helps align people with decisions naturally.
Swift decision-making. COVID-19 changed the world overnight, necessitating businesses to act extremely quickly. When states started to shut down, our leadership team promptly acted to understand the new regulations and get essential information out to our teams. This helped us avoid confusion that would have resulted in harmful downtime. Our Production teams were able to be nimble and manufacture items that our engineers had just developed — an unprecedented timeline that was vital to our success of breaking into a new product line.
Show (and feel!) empathy. It’s important to remember that as a leader, you’re really working to support your team. It’s hard to lead without putting yourself in the position of others — especially when we’re all experiencing a new world at the same time. It’s important that our employees understand that we’re all in this together and, like them, we as leaders are uncertain of the future but are working non-stop to make the right decisions. Empathy is difficult to fake, and I am fortunate to work with a leadership team that is genuine in theirs. This makes my job easier!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In light of the recent loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, it’s only appropriate to share one of my favorite RGB quotes: “Fight for the things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” As leaders, we’re nothing without our team. To come together, we must all feel the same drive. My constant focus is bringing together our Novolex Family so that we can continue to work together safely.
How can our readers further follow your work?