It has been an interesting start to 2020. With COVID, many of us sat in isolation, solitude and stillness, facing our hidden selves for the first time. Others were jolted into work-life-responsibilities of caregiving, childrearing 24-7 and productivity in a crisis, leading to an intensity of living, unfathomable.
Then came the emotional breaking point of Black Lives Matter where systematic and structural oppressions that kept our lives rote, woke something within us to question the world around us and if our sense of purpose was in alignment with the new world unfolding. How could we survive, thrive and realize in an atmosphere that was telling us otherwise? This is where founders of Live Your Potential, Jean Kim and Lilit Simonyan decided it was time to reignite hope and seeds of leadership in all of us by continuing with our previous series on Women Who Lead.
More than ever, we have seen women from all backgrounds step up to the plate during this pandemic to unite, reform and lead us into our new normal. One such leader is Gerber Plumbing Fixtures LLC President, Janet Oh.
Janet Oh’s impressive portfolio expands over 17 years. Her people-first principle has established her as a highly sought leader who leads through innovation, compassion and empowerment. Her global teams have continued to thrive across an ever-changing landscape, especially now. In fact, you can say, Janet Oh’s leadership style naturally addresses ‘up in the air’ moments that see chaos as opportunities for creativity, collaboration and transformation.
In addition to being the President of one of the world’s largest (and highly successful) manufacturers of plumbing fixtures, she is also the proud (and passionate) President of KPWA (Korean Professional Women’s Association). KPWA is a non-profit organization whose aim is to inspire, mentor and lead young professionals, fostering a positive influence through mentorship and leadership programs.
I recently had the honour of interviewing President Janet Oh and was inspired by her insight, steadiness and continued leadership during this pandemic. Our conversation touched on motivating others during uncertainty, self-care, leadership during a crisis, and being a female leader during our current socio-geo-political climate. Below are her thoughts and her wisdom.
Given the current times, how do you keep your employees motivated through times of uncertainty and anxiety?
Right from the get-go, I established a climate where my employees had to feel comfortable, calm and safe. How I did this was by checking-in. My checking in was NOT a checklist but weekly calls to my teams and individuals. My calls would be mid-week to see what zone they were in emotionally. As a company, we also conducted staff surveys to see where they were in regards to anxiety (just like the climate of the world, it too had risen). In conversations, I would check in to see if they were having a stressful week, what they were feeling, what is currently going on in their lives and what resources did they need to access so that they could further balance their lives during this crisis. I always want my team members to feel valued, seen and heard. In fact, I know there needs to be a balance amongst the spectrum of my employees. Seeing them and honouring them as individuals, I allow them to voice concerns but also provide solutions that they think will help shift. My company’s culture is one where everyone is an asset – they possess talent, leadership and creativity even in times of crisis. As a leader, you have to be prepared for leading during a crisis and managing these crises as they pop up. That means work for the employees shift from one of tactical to engagement. For example, in January we saw that factories in China were beginning to close due to Covid-19 but in North America, it was business as usual and the demand for goods had risen dramatically. What was created was a global shortage of goods so I listened to what problems mattered to my team in this scenario and focused our energies on problem-solving these issues. The results were we were able to adapt and pivot moment by moment.
In a time when it feels like so much is on pause, how do you, as a leader, prepare to move forward?
First of all, let me tell you, we have been busier than ever so we haven’t had time to pause. We have had to move forward regardless. I do not have a crystal ball to predict the future but what I can give as a leader is time and assurances. Many of my team members want to know when things are okay and when things are not. So my way of communicating is twofold – one is through honesty and the other is through consolidating research. In order to move forward, I have to understand what is going on geopolitically, economically, socially and financially at both a local and global level. That way I have a pulse on what is going on and I can communicate effective plans to the various audiences connected to Gerber (from teams to consumers). If I don’t know the answer, I defer the question to the expertise I have. One thing is for sure, I acknowledge and relay that COVID happened and has changed who we all are. And because we have had to move forward with this new normal, we are opening up to new ideas of productivity, such as the hybrid workweek, where there is a reestablished work environment that takes into account home and work.
What, if any, has this pandemic taught you about the kind of skills and strengths required of a leader?
Build trust. The privilege of working in different roles for 17 years with this company is that I view my role as elevating the team. That means trust is a huge factor and as a leader, you have to trust me that I am going to be your voice. Another skill is to be a good listener. I have always set up a climate for water-cooler chats where I listen and have no judgement of my employees making them know that I am approachable and genuine. In fact, with the pandemic, I am always equally accessible any time of the day to chat and nothing is off-limits. Why do I do this? It fosters talent amongst my employees and we end up working together. The work environment becomes a place where everyone is feeding and growing. That way we keep the talent and our work culture becomes stronger. In fact, I enjoy engaging with a variety of people. I find it strengthens my emotional intelligence and literacy so that I have a better understanding of what lens my employees are looking through. Lastly, going with the flow. This allows us to be mindful of the presence of the unknown with optimism.
As a woman in a male-dominated industry, do you feel there are leadership traits that women uniquely bring for crisis management?
I have to say, working in this industry for the last 17 years, I have been able to witness it change with many women now taking on Senior Executive positions. But I would like to expand my answer shifting focus from women to multi representational positions of leadership. Leadership is not singular. We need leaders that represent all genders and various groups, that way you will be able to resonate with a wide variety of people and communicate more effectively with everyone in mind during a crisis. Therefore the role of women would be part of this group dynamic of leadership. I believe the greater involvement of women would give you a broader perspective of crises and you have a more complete solution that will resonate with more people. Diversity leads to a multitude of options when looking at problems.
In this stressful time for everyone, how do you ensure your own well being, physically and mentally?
Initially, because of the nature of my role and my global responsibilities, my days were melting into nights and I was not sleeping well at all. I was working with teams in North America during the day and then in the late hours, I would be in Asian Pacific time having remote meetings. I was snacking all day, eating a big meal at 7pm, getting back on line for calls at 8pm until at least midnight. It felt like I was operating from a 24hour clock! I realized I was less effective with the engagement of my teams and had to shift my self-care routine. I started to eat more consciously and would shut down my laptop at 6:30pm, jump on my yoga mat and do at least 1 hour of yoga flow. There are still evenings where I am on calls but that 1 hour of self-care provides time to diffuse and release to carry on feeling rejuvenated. I also created opportunities to reset by socializing, connecting and reconnecting with various people (creatively because of COVID) so that I could feel engaged with the world around me. I believe self-awareness is knowing who you are and understanding how you operate as different strategies work for different types of people. I always reflect on what energy are we using and how do we replenish in both ourselves and others to ensure well being and mental health for all.
Janet Oh is a humble leader of these changing times. She has been able to pivot when needed, empower her team to thrive and reflect on what shifts need to be done to move alongside uncertainty. This interview does not capture the altruistic, reflective and kind nature of Janet Oh which I had the privilege of engaging with. Janet Oh is truly a woman who leads, fully and completely.
Thank you to President Janet Oh for her time and wisdom as a leader, especially during these unprecedented times. You can find Janet Oh on her non-profit organization https://www.kpwa.ca/.
(The following interview has been edited for Live Your Potential)
Sephra Khan is a lifelong educator who is open, curious and deliciously happy! Always seeking to cultivate more awareness, flow and creativity in people. Practices and educates on an integrated, balanced approach to life (one that is holistic, diverse and inclusive). She is currently a guest writer for LIVE YOUR POTENTIAL.