How lululemon’s CEO, Calvin McDonald, Has Navigated the Pandemic to Date

With a purpose to elevate the world by realizing the full potential within every one of us, lululemon athletica – the technical athletic apparel giant out of Vancouver, Canada – has sought to live up to its values even in light of major widespread adversity in 2020. With a solid track record as an employer, having made the Glassdoor Best Places to Work list four years running, CEO Calvin McDonald, who has a 96% approval rating on Glassdoor, had momentum on his side going into the pandemic. But continuing to build and grow a company during a global pandemic, including via a major acquisition, would be particularly challenging for anybody, and at a minimum requires having highly effective systems in place for continuing to strengthen employee engagement and company culture. 

Glassdoor’s Marielle Leon caught up with CEO Calvin McDonald to get his perspective on running a global business during a pandemic, how to keep your people feeling safe and looked-out for, and what the company is thinking about diversity and inclusion going forward. 

Marielle: What do you do to foster employee trust and engagement – especially in light of having a distributed workforce as a result of COVID-19? Talk to me a little bit about your COVID response.

Calvin McDonald: I think honesty and transparency are the most important parts of fostering trust. Decisions have to be made in good and hard times, and whether we make tough decisions or easy and exciting decisions, I want our people to know that what I know in that moment is truthful. And honesty and transparency are the qualities that I aspire to lead by. The impact I hope to have is that people are motivated, energized, excited, and love working here. I instill that across our management team so that it becomes a part of the culture for everyone, so that we are all leading from a place of trust and honesty.

Marielle: Right. And how has that changed with a remote workforce? How have you been able to continue fostering that employee trust and engagement that you’ve talked about as so important during COVID?

Calvin McDonald: As a leader, I had to pivot and think differently about how I show up and how I communicate. Under normal conditions I would have been in the office, walked the floor and gotten the chance to bump into people and have spontaneous conversations. Typically, we’re having meetings, I’m getting on planes and going to markets and sweating with our local teams, or just walking the store with them – getting out internationally. Then that gets all cut off. I had to rethink how I communicate and how employees see me and how I hear from them. And that’s probably been one of the biggest shifts and changes.

Marielle: What are some specific ways you’ve managed to connect successfully with your people?

Calvin McDonald: I’ve been doing a lot of smaller group calls to create more personal dialogue. I do a weekly video now where I share some updates on the business. There was an energy and adrenaline out of the gate, and then you fast forward seven months and now there’s a mundane, sort of Groundhog day–type mentality. That’s evolving. It’s separating personal and professional, and it’s difficult. It’s hard to bring the professional self into the personal home. That’s why keeping people’s energy up and focusing on connectivity as leaders in a variety of different ways is what you need to focus on.

Marielle: How have you instilled a sense of security in your people during this time? 

Calvin McDonald: Communication and being more transparent than ever has been key. Because people – in particular at the beginning – were really looking for answers: What’s happening? Is my job safe? Can I have confidence in an uncertain time? What are we going to do and how are we going to respond? It’s about providing that transparency and constant communication and showing up consistently and as personable as possible, meaning they can see you versus just read your words. 

Marielle: I know that in the past when you were at Sephora, something that you really valued was being an accessible and values-led CEO. How have you put people first throughout this time, and are they able to reach out directly to you?

Calvin McDonald: Yes, what I love is that people reach out to me through a variety of ways, email being the predominant means of communication. But equally in the last few months and this year, there’ve been a number of challenges for me as a leader, coping being one. We established guiding principles out of the gate to lead us as an organization. We knew we were going to face uncertainty, tough decisions, and we needed a compass. I wanted to establish a compass for myself and the organization. And here’s what we said: 1. We’re going to stand by and protect our people. 2. We’re going to balance our time on both managing for today, as well as thinking forward, because what we do know is our stores will reopen and the business will need to accelerate – and I wanted to balance our share of mind. 3. We’re going to continue to invest in the future. We’re going to continue to think about disruptive innovation and growth. 

And those guiding principles really led us through the first few months of COVID where we offered pay protection for our people, which was very unique in the marketplace. We continue to pay our rent to support our landlords, and we didn’t cut any orders with our manufacturing partners. That’s just a few examples of how we made good on our guiding principles. And then we invested in Mirror, an acquisition of $500M during a global pandemic as a means of investing in our future. So those principals showed up really well. Then the conversation changed with the murder of George Floyd and shifted to diversity, systemic biases, racism in our communities.

Marielle:  Tell me about how you pivoted as a leader from focusing on working through the challenges of COVID19 to focusing on diversity and inclusion, the cultural conversation, and the future?

Calvin McDonald: As an organization, I think the leadership challenge changed in terms of: Where do we enter the conversation? How do we enter the conversation? How do we engage internally and externally, when we have traditionally been a brand that did not leverage our platform much externally in this way? To figure out how to speak out for what’s right externally as well as internally, we had to really evaluate who we are, who we want to be, and where our opportunities are. And so jumping into that conversation, while at the same point trying to manage through a global pandemic, was quite frankly a very challenging and reflective time as a leader and as an organization. I share this because that is one of the areas where my focus has shifted. As a result, I set up weekly – sometimes two or three times a week – calls with employees that identify themselves as Black or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities to just be in the conversation.

It’s an honest conversation around their experiences and opportunities. We shared our commitments around inclusion, diversity, equity, and action, (IDEA), but I still wanted to hear from our people. So staying true to who I am as a curious person, I wanted to understand and invest – get into the details so I could lead that way. And being accessible in those conversations was incredibly rewarding. And again, just my style of what I believe leaders need to be today, which is, not just accessible, but if you truly want to drive change, you have to lead it. And you lead it by being authentic and really hearing and understanding what the challenges are of the organization and the people within the culture.

Marielle: With diversity, equity, and inclusion very much on everyone’s minds right now, I wanted to ask you about the IDEA work I’ve heard about at lululemon. Can you tell me what that’s all about? What is the thinking behind it, and what some of the key roles you’re hiring for there?

Calvin McDonald: For sure. We’ve had a leader of diversity inclusion before, but our work in IDEA – which stands for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Action – broadens that perspective and an opportunity to really recognize the balance of not just inclusiveness and diversity, as well as equity and this notion of obviously acting upon all three. And so that’s a bit of a shift for us in terms of how we address those three inequities and important ones to touch on. Pay’s one area that we’ve taken at an equitable position and we’ve led the industry in gender pay parity. And we met equitable gender pay a few years ago, and every year we report that. We’re equally committed to that across diversity. But also just within the organization, from how we hire to how we mentor and how we promote, we’re really looking at the systemic biases that could potentially exist inside the organization, not intentionally, but the impact biases could have. And that’s been one of the learnings for me – really understanding and separating intent versus impact.

The culture at lululemon is one that I fell in love with early on because there really is this genuine passion to help others achieve their full potential and how we do that is obviously what we do every day. But sometimes the intent didn’t line up with the impact. It took self-reflection as an organization on how we can do better to recruit with diversity at the forefront, how we can do better to become more inclusive, and then to ensure that we have equity across all aspects of the organization, not just in pay. This is really the conversation we’ve been in, the commitments we make, and the role that this team’s going to have, part of our Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Action team, not just in North America, but globally. So it’s really leaning in from an investment standpoint on resources to broaden the team and the conversation ensuring that we’re driving the change that we wanted, to have the outcome that we’re all aligned to.

Marielle: Do you plan to publicly share your goals, percentage of your diversity numbers, to reflect the population?

Calvin McDonald: We’ll definitely share the numbers on our progress. To be honest, we haven’t established set goals. We may in the future, or we may not, there’s a lot of discussion around whether setting goals is the right outcome versus the key initiatives and the goals that will lead to a more appropriate outcome. So, we haven’t yet fully landed on hard metrics, but we have definitely landed on the transparency of metrics of where we are and being held accountable to progress and that we will make available to both internally and externally.

Marielle: You’ve spoken in the past about purpose; that to perform at the highest levels, people need to see how they fit as individuals into a company’s greater purpose. We’re passionate about that at Glassdoor, obviously. How do you make sure that people at Lululemon feel connected to your greater purpose as a company?

Calvin McDonald: I think that’s one of the most exciting opportunities for any business – to have people come to work, 1. because they believe in something greater than themselves and, 2. that the impact they make will extend beyond just, in our case, selling apparel. I believe that begins first with clearly articulating what the purpose is – and believing it and having it be your North star. It’s one thing to have words written on a paper. It’s another to have those words mean something and truly be driving and guiding the organization. Then, you recruit individuals who are equally inspired. And then you have to live it and show up every day. 

I mean, we have 20,000 employees – if, as a leader, you think of just the kilowatts of energy that generates and how you deploy that energy to not just drive the business performance, but to drive the vision and the creation. Ultimately as leaders, that’s the biggest unlock and an opportunity for us all. It’s to make sure that people are coming to work and utilizing that energy as effectively as possible and deploying it in a way in which you benefit, they benefit. And we’re a publicly-traded company obviously so the results benefit there as well. I think there’s a balance that you can achieve.

Marielle: Now to some slightly lighter questions: what type of people do like to hire and why? I mean, it sounds kind of obvious that you like having people in your organization who you feel a greater purpose, but is there anything that you can expand on there?

Calvin McDonald: Yes, for sure. I’ve shared this before, but my management style is: I’m a very competitive person and I like to win, but how I win matters to me. I like to win through others. I look for a management team, leaders, and individuals that share a similar approach – people who want to win as a team. I’m curious, I love to debate, but in the debate comes good discussion, which leads to co-creation. So, I want to win as a team. I want to co-create as a group. And I look for leaders who have similar values and show up. 

We want people who appreciate the Sweat Life. We describe the Sweat Life as “sweat, grow, connect,” which is about the balance between physical fitness, emotional fitness, and human connections through the community. And we look for people who share that value, who are curious, who want to win, co-create wins through others. These are some of the key important driving factors. And we’ve been fortunate to be able to bring in some pretty exciting, talented people who share that, who want to have an impact and be a part of a team that’s innovating and creating.

Marielle: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today. Is there anything else you want to add or touch on?

Calvin McDonald: You asked good questions! I think in my general sense – and it’s likely the same for any leader – is that it’s been the most challenging year from a leadership perspective: reacting to the global pandemic crisis, instilling confidence in an organization and people that were trying to understand the impact on their own lives, their own family, friends. So how do you instill that confidence while at the same time realize that you’ve got a business to run and keep people focused on pushing forward and doing it in a way in which they had never done before? It’s been about holding onto the culture of the organization, bringing in, recruiting new people while building on existing relationships.

And then shifting to the appropriate, but challenging self-reflection of diversity and inclusion and what’s happening in communities globally, particularly in the U.S. and how to address and enter into those conversations as a leader, and to listen and do it as a white male – it’s challenging. So I think it’s been a year that will show us what makes great leaders great. And what I try to hold myself accountable to is flexibility. It’s about having the curiosity to listen and to adapt and recognize that you don’t always have the answers. It’s about showing up in an authentic, transparent way and just being in the conversation. People want real people.

The world of social today has broken down any barriers that put any type of leader or celebrity on a podium and inaccessible. I don’t always have the answers, and sometimes I’ve got dogs barking in the background and kids screaming and complaining about homework. I am reflecting as a white male about white fragility and what I can do differently. And I’m trying to think through operating when stores are closed. And ultimately, people just want to see real. And I think it challenged us all – and me – to show up real, but equally inspiring confidence and honesty. And honesty is the easy one, but it’s been a challenging year for that. But it’s grown and stretched me more than any other incident ever. And it’s not done yet. The year is not done.

Marielle: Fingers crossed.

Calvin McDonald: Yes. It was great to meet you. 

Marielle: Likewise. Thank you so much.

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