Jul 20, 2022

Why Empathy is the Most Important Tech Tool in Today’s Economy

Velia Carboni, VF’s Chief Digital and Technology Officer, was a guest speaker at the annual Collision Conference, one of the most sought-after technology conferences in the world.

The discussion, entitled ‘Why Empathy is the Most Important Tech Tool in Today’s Economy’, was facilitated by news anchor Elaine Reyes of CGTN America.

ELAINE REYES (ER): Hey. Good morning everyone. Happy Tuesday. We are just getting started and we are going to have a really fun conversation. I had the opportunity to meet Velia last week online and what a great leader. I wish I could work for you.

VELIA CARBONI (VC): Thank you.

ER: So Velia, you work for VF Corporation, a lot of recognizable names and brands in your company. Just give us a little bit of an overview about your company and what you do.

VC: Great. I've been at VF for about four years. We're a global apparel and footwear company with brands that many of you may wear, I hope, or will after this session. [We’ve got] Vans®, The North Face ®, Timberland®, Dickies®, Smartwool®, icebreaker®, and six other brands. So we're a portfolio company. We’re global, based out of Denver, and I oversee our digital and technology organization. I have what I call the most exciting job in the company. We get to lead a lot of the transformation and support of our brands, one of the things we'll talk a lot about today. There's a lot around technology, but the other part of that is the culture change, that's as important as a lot of the work we're doing to drive innovation and technology.

ER: We're focusing on empathy today, and it's not a word that I normally, or many people may not, associate with tech and the tech industry but talk to us about why it's been so important. Was it important before the pandemic? We’ve obviously all gone through a lot of hard times in the past two years and what it means right now.

VC: Sure. So I'd probably say that I've always been one of those leaders that likes to lead with a lot of the human side of what we do. I do believe strongly in strong culture teams; we’ve got a heavy lift. I think about what my team does, and we're a 24-by-7 shop, so it's pretty grueling in terms of a schedule. A lot of what I believe that COVID brought to life even more so, is the need for human connectivity. The need for us to lead differently than what we did historically in tech, where it was very project-focused. When you think about what our job is, we're bringing to life experiences to delight our consumers. I think whether you're talking about empathy with the way we lead, and then also the way we deliver the consumer experiences - you have to have that heart and feel of what we're trying to drive. Yes, it's about products but equally as much about the experiences that we're trying to drive. It's that combination of the two things coming together to really deliver the right consumer experience.

ER: So walk us through some of what you experienced with your teams as the pandemic came online and the thing that you were hearing - you're also a working mother - and the things that you were experiencing. How did you manage all of that while still trying to work?

VC: Yeah, and that's how transparently it's been a challenge, right? On one hand it gave people an opportunity to reconnect with some things … for many of us always on the road traveling, sometimes you don't make that soccer game or you don't make something else. This gave the opportunity back for us to make that family side, or friends, whatever it may be, whatever you were passionate about, a priority. The way that we really handled it is ensuring that we have connectivity with our employees, whether it was text messages or WhatsApp, whatever it was. What was important was the frequency of the way we started to really communicate as a team. It wasn't always about formal staff meetings. It was more those frequent touch points I'm a big believer in. And I do this, not just with my directs. I'm in touch with maybe sometimes too many people in the organization, my directs would say, but it's important to keep a pulse of what's going on with folks. I think sometimes it's just that message to say, “You having a good day? How's it going?” It's not always about a project, “Hey, are we delivering on time?” I think we just have to make things a lot more human than just more ‘the rigid corporate approach’ to communication.

ER: You mentioned in our previous conversation ‘accessibility’.

VC: Yes.

ER: How can you make yourself accessible as a leader to people on your team or other teams when we're such - when we're in this, “Go go go. Get everything done.”  How do you do that?

VC: I'll say, I'm a hard driver; we run a pretty tight ship, but I think it's the informality that we have as a leadership team, in my group, of being more approachable. I give out my phone number sometimes a little too much, my admin will tell you. I like to be in touch with folks and I think you need to keep a pulse on your organization even when we're not in the office, because we're very remote and flexible as an organization. It's about walking the floor and just talking to people and knowing what's going on in their own lives. I like that human connectivity.

I feel like it helps me understand the potential of the person, and sometimes push that person into something that they didn't think about. You have to get to know people. I'm all about digital, I've been in digital for over 20 years, but I think there's nothing like human connectivity and it doesn't have to be face to face. It can be in many forms. We just all have to treat each other as fellow humans and I think sometimes we've walked away from that.

ER: Do you think the pandemic has changed companies? Is VF Corp. one of the only ones who leads with empathy or do you sense that other companies are coming around? What do they need to do? And what would be your advice to someone hoping to change the culture at the workplace?

VC: I always say just be human. Be down to earth. I never changed who I am because of the role that I’m in, and I think more companies and more leaders need to embrace that leadership style. I think there's a lot of mixed things going on in the industry right now.

You see people forcing people back into the office. Even at VF we’re mixed on that. I do think in some roles, it's more critical to be in the office. But for what we do as an organization, for me it was more about retaining the great talent that we brought on over the years. I was willing to say, I'm completely comfortable with remote, people are working harder than they ever have. And that's the one boundary that we need to figure out for folks. Sometimes when you're working from home, you feel this obligation to work the extra couple hours a day. I think we haven't nailed that part, which I do want to figure out how, so people get better balance. Companies  have to make a decision. I think it's a change in mindset. I fully trust the folks on my team, we’re delivering, we’re a 24/7 shop. I'm okay not seeing people every day, but I am very much into the, “We’ve got to have more connectivity than staff meetings or periodic project check-ins.

ER: Right, because we're at this really interesting time right now. Given the economy.

VC: Yes.

ER: Given where we are with a lot of people going back in the office. I know my parking garage is always full at work too. So, when people were able to sort of achieve that work-life balance as much as they've ever had. And now you've got to dial it back, - are people dialing it back to come back in?

VC: We’re mixed. I was in Europe last week with our team. I had an amazing five days. We worked 14-hour days, we had great dinners, it was wonderful, but I don't need to do that every day, nor did the folks on the team. It's about meaningful time in the office when we want to get the teams together, whether it’s for a program kickoff, or whatever it may be. It’s not an everyday thing. It's that balance that we as leaders have to remember. It's not like the old school. I remember when I started working it was only about face time in the office. Times have changed. We’ve got to trust our people in power. People do the right thing. I think the most important thing is to encourage your team to push harder. Happy employees tend to do that, and tend to be more productive. I think that flexibility is really important. I'm protecting it.

ER: Love that. Let's jump off on happy employees. And again, this term of empathy, and turning that into what they need to deliver. How is that used in the product that you deliver or the experience that you were trying to give your consumers? And as you've seen the landscape change with what people are going through right now?

VC: I'd say one thing that we've done is changing who we are as a team, and being representative of the consumers we’re delivering these experiences for. That's been a big driver of more diversity in our organization. We started a design practice. We do a lot around really understanding what that consumer wants, how they want to be spoken to, and then, more importantly, as we start to do more around the data and analytics work that we have underway, it's really how do you drive that more individualized experience over time? We're doing a lot to really understand more the psychology of how that consumer wants to be spoken to. There are so many channels, from social to email to online to our membership programs that have been very successful, to now the metaverse coming our way, and in-store experiences. We have to try to understand what's right for that one consumer. And how do you do that at scale? …

I think people get really excited. It's not just about launching a new platform. It's more about what we are driving and what's the opportunity with that new tech platform that we're delivering that I think's been our game changer.

ER: Can you give us an example of a recent project that you've done? That I might even recognize online.

VC: In the membership space, I'm really proud of what we’ve done at Vans and The North Face. It became not about discounts; it became more about, “I want access, I want to know what new products you're creating, or I want access to content. The North Face, last year, pulled out all these old archives of films that were created: these crazy rock climbers, and mountain areas, and all this other wild stuff. And it was just that ability for people to relate. COVID made people want to feel connected to something. This is not just our employees, but our consumers. The beautiful thing that happened in these membership programs, was it became about so much more than discounts. You become part of a society that you opted into because it was like-interests, hobbies, work, whatever it may have been. It is really exciting to see that come to life.

ER: I know, I personally, when I'm like, scrolling and looking for an experience, for me lately it's been what makes me happy or smile. Like, I'm looking for any bit of happiness out there. And nostalgia, I think a little bit. Nostalgia for pre-covid times, and times I hope to bring back soon.

VC: Yeah, that's it.

ER: If you could answer this one sentence for me because you mentioned this and this really struck me: You can't win in digital and digital experiences if…

VC: I think if you can't empathize with who you're trying to solve for. It's very hard. It becomes very robotic, and very standard. For me, it's really about understanding the emotion of what drives folks. I do this with employees and I feel the same way with consumers. We have to understand what drives that person to want to be. And one size does not fit all. We’re a portfolio company, but we can't create the same thing for each brand, because each brand has a very different consumer. Yes, we can scale the technology on the back end but it's the way we bring that to life. It's really about getting the emotion of what you're trying to solve for.

ER: If you had any advice or tips for folks trying to create, I think I mentioned this earlier, but trying to change culture inside the workplace is very difficult and it really is much easier when it starts at the top. How do you start for those trying to change the culture?

VC: It's a great question. At VF we're a company with a lot of legacy; we've been around for over 100 years. We were a wholesale manufacturing company, and this digital thing was happening. You have to be willing to be in it for the long game. It does not change overnight and it might not change in all parts of the organization. As a leader I am passionate about my culture vision, and I just kept driving. When I joined VF, I inherited an organization … fast forward four years and people have been re-energized. I think you just have to be willing to keep trying different things, it’s not a perfect formula. There's not a text. You have to feel what's going on and you may have to pivot your strategies, but, I just, I kept going. …

The biggest advice I'd give everyone is don't leave anyone behind. If people want to go on the journey, you have to be inclusive. I had to bring the people that were in my organization for 25 years that maybe didn't have digital experience, but had passion and interest. I rescaled, which I strongly encourage for anyone that has teams that have been there awhile. Re-scaling is a great way to culture-build because it gives everyone an equal opportunity to jump into the game and I think that was also a big game-changer. And now we're seeing more of that change happening in other parts of the organization. I'm proud to say, I think we led a lot of the charge at VF in terms of transforming, and now you see a lot of people talking that same language. It's hard, but go with your gut and keep trying new tactics.

ER: But do you think that's allowed your company to keep its good people and keep folks who were trying to figure out if they wanted to change careers or leave for a better opportunity? How much does culture play a part in keeping someone there? Especially when we see so much change right now.

VC: I don't want to jinx myself. It's like when your kid’s not sick and you say, “Oh they're never sick,” then you end up at the doctor the next day. Culture is a big driver of why people stay or not stay. I think we all have meaningful work. I mean, we're working on some really cool things, but you can work on a lot of cool things in a lot of different companies. I think the culture part [is important]: people feeling empowered and being part of a team, it may sound corny to some, but you feel like you're part of a cause, and the way we partner with the brands and you're driving to win on that consumer experience, it creates a whole different energy. So I think people are energized. Culture has good footing for people to want to stay.

The other thing I would say is I'm very big on pushing people beyond their comfort zone. I never lived a linear career. I think people should try new things and if we can keep people fresh and we can keep moving people, then you're always learning something so then you really don't have as many reasons to leave.

ER: Final thoughts on this issue. And then I want you to kind of look forward and see and give us sort of your best crystal ball outlook on where you see the industry going. So two-fold: Let's kind of wrap up the empathy and any lasting advice you have for folks and there are your thoughts as the digital and technology officer.

VC: On the empathy side, I'd say just be great listeners. Always have a pulse on what's going on in your organization. And it doesn't matter the level; I could care less about hierarchy and I think my colleagues that are in the room would tell you that.

Really getting to know your organization at all levels to understand what's going on is really important and I've never lost sight of that. There's nothing better than just having that information and being okay saying when you're wrong and being able to pivot. We don't always get it right, and that's okay. That humbleness to move on is really important.

As it comes to where I think the world is going. That's a tough question. I think there's a lot in the press that we all read every day of these new universes that will all be partaking in which we and our kids explore today. It doesn't matter where the consumer experience goes, whether it's metaverse or the physical world we live in; it's about driving the right experience and still having that emotional connectivity. Because why would you buy our brand versus a competitive brand? Human connectivity is really important whether it's with your employees or consumers, and I firmly believe keeping your employees happy will help us continue to innovate and show up in these different places.

Experience with product will always win. I get excited about the metaverse and where it's going and crypto and everything else I can throw out there. Yes, we're partaking in all that, but I think don't ever forget about the world that we live in now because that's a big part of what we're delivering on now too. So it's finding that balance.

ER: Velia Carboni. Thank you so much for joining us and having this conversation.

VC: Thanks. Appreciate it.

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