Patience, empathy, and listening skills helped Connecticut business leaders guide their companies through the coronavirus pandemic.

“One of the leadership traits I would suggest is really, truly listening,” Robin Fiala, vice president for sales and marketing for Otis Elevator, said during CBIA’s May 26 When Women Lead conference.

COVID lessons: (Clockwise, from left) McCarter & English's Moy Ogilvie, Bigelow Tea CEO Cindi Bigelow, Otis Elevator's Robin Fiala, InCord CEO Meredith Shay, and Medtronic's Valerie Finarty.

“A lot of us think we listen, but I think [the pandemic] has taught us to listen and engage with not just our employees, but our customers, and in our case, our riding public, in ways we never had.”

At Bigelow Tea, patience was key, president and CEO Cindi Bigelow said during a panel discussion moderated by Moy Ogilvie, managing partner of McCarter & English's Hartford office, that also featured executives Valerie Finarty of Medtronic and Meredith Shay of InCord.

“Several lessons were learned about what was needed and the first one was patience,” Bigelow said. “All of a sudden, all of us were dealing with an emotional spectrum we had never addressed before.

“We had to look at all of the emotions and bring everyone together.”

Employee Safety

For Finarty, Medtronic’s vice president of operations for surgical innovations, empathy was paramount because the pandemic affected workers differently.

“It’s impacted our team members, our families, whole communities, in ways that previous crises haven’t,” she said.

So for Finarty—and all the panelists—ensuring the safety of essential workers became the priority.

"The pandemic taught us to listen and engage with not just our employees, but our customers, in ways we never had."

Otis Elevator's Robin Fiala

“Our first, immediate challenge was protecting the health and safety of our workforce and ensuring we had a safe workplace,” she said.

Good communication was also important, Finarty added.

“The message may be tough and not what they wanted to hear, but bringing forth facts in a humble and truthful way was appreciated and helped establish trust long term," she said.

'Don't Panic'

Shay, the co-owner and CEO of Colchester-based custom netting manufacturer InCord, said compassion steered her decisions.

“If I lead by making decisions out of love instead of fear and allow the rest of our company to make decisions that way, everyone could be happy with the end result knowing that we did the best with the information we had at that time,” she said.

"If I lead by making decisions out of love instead of fear and allow the rest of our company to make decisions that way, then everyone could be happy."

InCord's Meredith Shay

And while patience, empathy, and passion were important, so was never letting anyone see you sweat, Bigelow said.

“Don’t panic,” she advised. “They can’t see you not being able to deal with everything that’s coming your way.

“For me, it was showing a steady hand leading the ship while constantly reassessing and showing that we’re going to be okay.”

Challenges

The pandemic had a disproportionate impact on women, as Ogilvie noted, referencing a recent McKinsey & Company study.

“Three major groups have experienced some of the largest challenges: working mothers, women in senior management, and Black women,” Ogilvie noted.

Fiala said women comprise more than one-third of global executives at Otis, 40% at the company's U.S. operations, and noted the company’s recent commitment to reach gender parity on the executive level by 2030.

"Three major groups experienced some of the largest challenges: working mothers, women in senior management, and Black women."

McCarter & English's Moy Ogilvie

She encouraged companies to adopt practices Otis uses, including resource groups and mentoring, to help women advance.

“Put them in situations where they can connect with others to learn,” Fiala said.

“Giving people that network and those lifelines to brainstorm and learn from is even more critical right now.”

Gains 'At Risk'

Finarty said Medtronic has made great strides to attract, retain, and promote women.

“But the pandemic’s burdens being shouldered by women, particularly women of color, is putting some of those gains at risk,” she warned.

Companies, including Medtronic, must consider a schedule that allows some work from home, Finarty said.

"The pandemic's burdens being shouldered by women, particularly women of color, is putting some of those gains at risk."

Medtronic's Valerie Finarty

“Our workforce is going to expect more flexibility with a hybrid model, and I think in particular women will be looking for that.”

Bigelow Tea worked with outside agencies during the pandemic to help workers in areas including childcare.

“We’re a small enough family business that we were able to hopefully do whatever was necessary to help get through this pandemic [with] job security and offering services where available,” Bigelow said.

'Unique Situations'

Shay said InCord, which has roughly an equal number of women and men in each department, realized the pandemic affected employees in different ways.

“It was a big lesson learned for helping people get through really difficult, unique situations and understanding it was going to be different for every single person,” Shay said.

“But we had to do it together. That was the only way we were going to get out of this.”

"I have a greater awareness and I'm trying to think about more inclusive solutions than are currently on the table."

Bigelow Tea's Cindi Bigelow

Bigelow said she and other employers have always had their employees’ best interests in mind, but the pandemic has highlighted the need to do that even more.

“I have a greater awareness and I’m trying to think about more inclusive solutions than are currently on the table,” Bigelow said.

Finarty agreed.

“One of the things that has been brought to the forefront is having those conversations with employees about how they’re feeling, how they’re doing, and also providing the resources and communication that it’s okay not to be okay sometimes,” she said.


When Women Lead was produced by CBIA and made possible through the generous support of Medtronic, with additional support from Cigna, Raytheon, and Stanley Black & Decker.

Further support was provided by Barnes Group, ConnectiCare, Crystal Clean, Ion Bank, Liberty Bank, Marmon Electrical, RSCC Wire & Cable, Shipman & Goodwin, Bigelow, CLA, Dominion Energy, Fuss & O’Neill, Kamco, The Lee Company, Thomaston Savings Bank, and Tower Laboratories.