As part of Vietcetera’s ongoing series of discussions with women in business leadership roles, we spoke with HEINEKEN’s Le Thi Thu Hien, Vo Ho Bich Tram, and Holly Bostock about coping with, and leading through, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
It goes, almost without saying, that the pandemic has changed just about everything. When Vietnam was grounded to a standstill after months of strict movement rules, the game has changed for all kinds of businesses, but for a company like HEINEKEN, social distancing campaigns, curfews and lockdowns have forced a total rethink in the way they carry out their daily business.
Ever keen to learn how leaders really lead, particularly through testing times, Vietcetera caught up with three members of the HEINEKEN Vietnam team to hear about their experiences over the last 18 months, the obstacles they’ve had to overcome, and the moments that have instilled pride throughout this time.
Since joining HEINEKEN as a university graduate eleven years ago, Holly Bostock has risen to the position of Corporate Affairs Director. Her colleague Le Thi Thu Hien is at the other end of the spectrum, having joined the company in April 2020 as Traditional Off-Trade Channel Manager. Vo Ho Bich Tram on the other hand has spent almost three years with HEINEKEN. She joined as an Asia Pacific management trainee and has since climbed the ranks to HR Business Partner at the company’s brewery in Tien Giang province.
Three women in leadership roles, one huge multinational company, and a pandemic to manage through. Here’s what they had to say.
How has the pandemic changed the nature of your work?
Le Thi Thu Hien: My very first day on the job was at the start of Vietnam’s first national social distancing campaign, so my onboarding was carried out virtually, and I only got to meet my team in person one month later! I guess you could say I’ve been navigating the pandemic ever since I arrived.
But certainly, the role itself has changed with the pandemic — frequent travel to meet with local sales teams has made way for much more market data analysis and of course digital meetings. I actually don’t think we’ll go back to so much physical travel in the future even beyond the pandemic, except when it can have a real, significant impact. However, the one big challenge as a manager in this environment is an increased need to speak up more, to air your thoughts when working remotely and virtually. It’s so much harder to read everyone’s body language and reactions in a virtual meeting. So, I have adjusted myself to become more expressive during meetings that I participate in and slow down and encourage my team to speak up during meetings that I lead.
Vo Ho Bich Tram: As an HR business partner, I like to think that my core value lies in unlocking the potential of our people and the organization no matter the environment. However, there’s no doubt that the pandemic has brought a lot of uncertainty, from regulatory to behavioral changes. So apart from leadership, culture and capability building, there has been a much stronger emphasis on Health & Safety. Weekly People meetings have turned into daily People & Safety meetings. These allow us to make faster and more agile decisions to adapt to the situation. I’m very lucky to work with a great brewery manager as well as a dedicated and skillful team, so we’ve managed to get on with things in the face of the pandemic. We’ve found new ways to connect virtually, and also focused on building trust via empathy, and ensuring that people’s well-being is being taken care of.
Holly Bostock: The scope of my job hasn’t changed, but the way I do it has. Now more than ever it’s about being mindful of the context we’re living in. The way we plan things has to be more considered and more agile. We have to challenge ourselves constantly, questioning whether or not we’re doing the right things the right way. But the most important thing that we have to convey during this time is that we’re all in this together. Whether that’s our employees, or business partners, or our customers, we are going through this difficult time together and we will come out of it together.
Have you adopted any specific company strategies or initiatives to navigate the current environment?
Holly Bostock: The main strategy is to stay true to ourselves and to our core values — respect for people and the planet — and our sustainability agenda of “Brewing a Better Vietnam”. But on top of maintaining our core values, we need to stay ready to change our plans, including commercial activities, to fit the environment. Technology has played a big role in bringing us closer together, allowing us to not only communicate virtually but also take virtual visits to our breweries across the country.
I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve been able to keep pushing forward with new and exciting products and initiatives. A great example is how we launched our latest innovation of Tiger Beer – Tiger Platinum - where we engaged with consumer ideas to crowdsource a new beer. We invited consumers to co-brew three new beers with us, then let them vote for their favorite one to become Tiger Platinum – the first wheat beer that we launched in Vietnam. The Tiger team has showcased their creativity and versatility when switching to e-commerce, as well as digital channels, throughout this entire campaign.
Thi Thu Hien: Thankfully the digital transformation had taken place at HEINEKEN Vietnam well before COVID-19, but it's definitely accelerated even more now. For the sales department alone, we already had online systems in place to review, approve and track our programs which prepared us well when COVID-19 took place. One of our biggest initiatives that have helped navigate things right now is our B2B app which allows our retail customers to order 24/7 and has enabled our sales teams to implement promotions in a more interactive and efficient way. We also recently opened a new role of Digital & Technology Director in our Management Team to help us bring our digital and transformation agenda to the next level.
Times like these reinforce the stake we all have in our society. How has HEINEKEN supported the Vietnamese community at large amidst the pandemic?
Holly Bostock: During this difficult time, we want to do the right thing by all of our stakeholders, and this includes the community we exist in. We decided to donate medical equipment to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Ho Chi Minh City. This includes ten ventilators and 24 patient monitors. Our trade union has also donated one High-Flow Nasal Cannula (HFNC) system to the District 12 Medical Center in Ho Chi Minh City, where our Hoc Mon brewery is located. Personally, I’m really proud and inspired by our people who have chosen to voluntarily support their communities in their personal time too — delivering food, giving blood, donating medical supplies, or talking to self-isolating patients and connecting them with doctors. I think this reflects the ethos and spirit of the people we work with.
Of course, your company has a vast amount of business partners in the community who are also facing pandemic-driven challenges. How are they doing and how can HEINEKEN support them?
Le Thi Thu Hien: Indeed, our business partners include distributors and outlet owners such as restaurants, beer clubs, bars, grocery stores, supermarkets, and convenience stores. All of these are coming under massive strain at the moment, particularly in the south of the country where they’ve been closed. Since last year when we went through the first wave of COVID-19, we have taken practical measures to support our business partners, such as constantly adjusting incentive schemes and supporting them with inventory control. Our management team and sales leaders have also spent time visiting our business partners in person (whenever allowed by the local safety guidelines) to understand what they've been going through and how we can help.
What about your brewery staff? How can they be made to feel secure about both their health and their livelihood at the moment?
Vo Bich Tram: In a way, the pandemic provided us with an opportunity to re-evaluate how we connect with and care for our people, from the leadership at the top of the company to the brewery management, to the grassroots employees. At every senior meeting, we’ve asked, “How would I feel if I were in their shoes?” This “people element” has to be a pillar of every decision we make. Despite our business being impacted by the pandemic, we have a special support scheme designed for employees who are affected by centralized quarantines, packages for those who work on the ‘3-on-site’ scheme, and a program called ‘HEI-life’ to continuously find ways of looking after the four dimensions of employee well-being — professional, emotional, social and physical.
The thing I’ve learned the most through weekly check-in calls with employees is that they care deeply about the business as well as their job and their family. Many of the individual calls I’ve received when there’s been a new directive issued by a local authority are asking, “Will the company be ok? Can we continue to operate?”
On that note, HEINEKEN has arranged for employees to stay at or near the brewery to ensure alignment with the pandemic prevention regulations. Can you share more details about this decision and the results so far?
Vo Ho Bich Tram: Yes. It’s all about keeping people safe and able to work while keeping up with production demands. As the number of positive cases in Tien Giang began to really shoot up in June, we found more employees being stuck in lockdown areas. Some were unable to return to their homes in Ben Tre and Long An province. As My Tho city is very small, every time a ward went under lockdown, we lost between three and five employees. We realized that at the rate we were going, we wouldn’t have enough technicians to keep up with production demand. We went ahead looking for hotels and requested the local authority in Tien Giang to let us execute a combination of both “3-on-site” (staying at the brewery) and “1-road-2-venue” plan (arranging for our employees to stay at nearby hotels), to ensure both the safety and comfort for our people.
We conduct 2 RT-PCR tests within 14 days before employees enter the ‘3-on-site’ and “1-road-2-venue” plan, then every week after that to ensure employees are clear of the SARS-COV-2 virus and continue to remind and advocate not only for individual’s safety but for the collective safety of groups and families.
What lessons have you learned about being a leader during this time?
Holly Bostock: For me, this is a perfect opportunity to show your humanity and compassion. I think people of course want leaders who are strong and optimistic, but people also want imperfect leaders. I feel that this is a great time to show your vulnerability and connect with people across different departments and across different levels in the organization. I believe that you should lead by example and share when you are not having a good day. By sharing the same day-to-day reality that everyone is facing, you can also show how we are all going through this together and encourage each other.
As a leader, it’s also important to physically put yourself in the same situation and show appreciation in person whenever and wherever possible. My visit to our Hoc Mon brewery in Ho Chi Minh City (when I was still able to) – was to put myself in the shoes of our people and show our brewery colleagues that we are with them on the frontline. The big focus now of our leadership team is how we show care to our team, how we say thank you and show appreciation to our people when we are all in a different but difficult situation.
This is the type of leader that’s emerging from the pandemic.
Le Thi Thu Hien: I think it’s important to understand the heightened pressure that your team is going through during this time. Regardless of your leadership style, it’s crucial to dedicate time to connect with and care for your team members on a personal level. Ensure that you understand the personal situation that they are going through to extend your support if needed. Become even more accessible so your team feels more comfortable reaching out to you via a call or a text message.
Another takeaway for me is the importance of clear and consistent communication. Working from home can increase the risk of miscommunication so it’s crucial to prepare thoroughly before giving directions.
Vo Ho Bich Tram: The first lesson is that it’s often the intention that counts. There might be flaws in the plans and in decisions, but communication and understanding play a huge part in keeping our employees informed and engaged. In return, we’ve received their full support to get us through this difficult period. The second lesson I’ve learned has given me a different view on leadership. I used to think being less experienced than my colleagues was a disadvantage, but I’ve come to realize that people are more open and comfortable to give me feedback, which gives me more chances to improve. Being a young leader means that I get to lead and learn at the same time, as leadership isn’t always about taking the driver’s seat. For instance, for people-related topics, I contribute by giving the team advice, while for unfamiliar topics such as health and safety, I find myself being coached by the Safety team leader and company doctor. I think there is no perfect style of leadership, and that no single person has all the answers. It’s important to have that connection and trust in your team to reach our goal together.
DISCLAIMER: All photos were taken before the fourth outbreak.