Leadership In The Face Of Adversity

On February 24th, I faced one of the biggest leadership challenges of my career. While we had feared the inevitability of Putin dispatching Russian forces into Ukraine, it was impossible to fully anticipate the impact of this war and the resulting misdirected global attention. 

From challenges come lessons

As the CEO of Stoli Group, an organisation with roots in Russia – vodka’s birthplace arguably – I was, of course, concerned about backlash. However, more importantly, I wanted to be sure that as an organisation we took quick, decisive action to let the world know where we stood. As a former Royal Marine Commando, who spent 18 years in and out of conflict, I know the importance of moving quickly and standing up to aggression. 

I walked across the virtual hall to our founder’s office prepared to have a frank and candid conversation about the importance of speaking against Putin. It turns out, this is one battle I did not need to win, as we were clearly aligned. The next step was to spread the word internally. I called a global town hall to let our employees know we were unequivocally opposed to the invasion of Ukraine and that we would quickly mobilise to secure safe havens for our Ukrainian employees. The next few weeks were a whirlwind as we educated the globe on our Latvian produced vodka (since 2000) and our exiled founder (since 2002); relocated Ukrainian employees, partners and distributors and their families; announced a rebrand to remove the Stolichnaya name and to exclusively use Stoli, and established a relationship with Chef Jose Andres’ WCK Foundation to provide meals on the ground at borders. 

Reflecting on this challenge, what stands out is: 

  • the interplay of my experience as a Commando with my time spent corporate brand building;   
  • the test of our values, vision and teams; and,  
  • the spirit and passion of our employees around the globe. 

The importance of taking action in a time of crisis

As a Commando, I learned early the importance of taking action in a time of crisis. In shocking situations, individuals and institutions are often understandably frozen in place. However, inaction inevitably leads to further trauma. In the military, we are trained to conduct operation rehearsals or wargaming to anticipate upheaval; ensure alignment on every mission, and redeploy individuals as needed. This training helped prepare our teams to react to Ukraine across multiple functions including human resources, communications, operations, and finance. And, of course, establish new teams to focus on the humanitarian crisis which obviously continues and will for some time ahead. 

Corporate brand building intersects with military tenet in that, when done well, it is bold, action-oriented, and data-driven. Thankfully, over the past eighteen months, we had put together a team that was built on this marriage between military and corporate brand building ethos.           

When I joined in 2020, my first order of business was to establish a mission of becoming the most powerful and sustainable ultra-premium portfolio in the industry by 2025. To achieve that vision we knew we needed the right teams, which required hiring the best of the best. To achieve that goal, we set out to hire the Class of 2025, not people just good enough for today but contributors who would be the stars of tomorrow. We brought in new staff in the US and around the globe. These teams are built of elite forces. Individuals who are effective, can move at pace, and align with our mission. Trained in military practices of planning in dynamic environments, situational analysis, and leadership, they were ready to be tested.

Liberate your spirit

Perhaps most importantly, the takeaway from the past month, is that the Stoli slogan “Liberate Your Spirit” aptly represents our employee culture. In this crisis, we have been reminded of the value and fragility of democracy – that it is worth fighting for and it is not negotiable. It is abundantly clear that our teams live these principles. And, sadly, because of the many members of our corporate family that have been directly impacted by the Russian invasion, this humanitarian crisis has hit us harder and brought us closer together as an organisation.   

Final thoughts

The war continues as I write this, and there is no doubt there are more dark days ahead, where we will again be tested, as we face the unknown. Still, we must continue to work toward making moral and ethical decisions that are fact-based and insight-driven; support one another through these challenging times; stay focused on our mission, and do what we can to weed out injustice. I have no doubt that we will continue to build on the military and corporate brand building strategies that have served us well.    

About the author: Damian McKinney is the global CEO of Stoli Group.

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