C-Suite Agenda

COVID-19 – Your Chief Innovation Officer

“COVID-19 became my Chief Innovation Officer.”

Diane Sullivan, CEO of Caleres, described the 90% drop in revenue of her $2.8 billion global footwear company as a near-death experience. She credited innovation as the reason the company survived and thrived. The COVID challenge drove innovation and made Caleres a stronger company.

Caleres owns a portfolio of companies making household name-brand shoes including Sam Edelman, Allen Edwards, Naturalizer, and Dr. Scholl’s. Retail customers stopped shopping at brick-and-mortar stores for months and the ratio of online and in-store buying dramatically changed. Diane Sullivan reinvented Caleres as a company – its business model, its financial model, its brand, and its culture.

You know the story. Drop a frog in a pot of boiling water and it will jump out. Put the frog in cool water, turn the heat on, and the frog will not realize the danger until it is too late. Change, both opportunity and danger, is always underway. The challenge is recognizing change and what it means for the organization we lead. COVID was an in-your-face change. Leaders who quickly recognized that the welfare, even survival, of their company was on the line drove innovation to respond to the COVID threat. Leaders who resisted change hoping for a quick return to normalcy fared poorly.

Diane Sullivan is the Chairman and CEO of Caleres
Diane Sullivan is the Chairman and CEO of Caleres

Gradual shifts in customer preferences, competitor strengths, supply chain risks, or marketing/sales channels are harder to recognize and hard to relate to operations today. And, we resist changing what we are doing. 

You measure success by operational results of the company this week, this month, this quarter, and this year. As the leader, you are also responsible for preparing the organization for success next year and the next several years. If you have not already done so, make COVID an innovation officer for your organization. Pull your leadership team together and ask what you have learned from the challenge of COVID about your company and the competitive environment in which it operates.

Going forward, do you have the right:

  • competitive strategy?
  •  financial strategy?
  • business model for making a profit?
  • leadership structure?
  •  brand image?
  • value proposition for your customers?
  • value proposition for your employees?

Whether you have been thrown into the boiling water of COVID or are Sears Roebuck facing a gradual change in customer buying preferences, you must innovate or your organization will fail.

Your job as a leader is to champion the search for changes to the fundamental drivers of your company’s success and spearhead the required changes to the way the company operates today so it will be successful tomorrow.


Written by Rick Williams.

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Rick Williams
Rick Williams is Managing Director of Williams Advisory Partners, LLC. He has a breadth of experience as an executive and board director for technology companies including medical technology, software, and financial services. Rick is a nationally published thought leader. His soon to be published book entitled “Create the Future – for your company and yourself” is a “how to field guide” for leaders who want to think creatively about where to take their organization. Rick Williams is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on LinkedIn.