What it truly takes to walk the talk

Nisreen Shocair on why companies should motivate their employees to stand together and take care of one another for the good of business


If we are to confront and change today’s many issues related to economic and social unrest, and environmental concerns, company brand promises must be backed by actions.

Yet when people hear the words ‘mission and vision’, in the context of setting corporate direction, it often induces a sense of dislocation. Of course, such statements can be a powerful means to codify an organisation’s sense of direction and purpose. However, if the language used is vague and not tethered to anything truthfully meaningful, in the way a company operates and conducts its business, then it becomes an empty recitation.

Conversely, when pragmatic, meaningful and honest language is used to plot a corporate path it then becomes an instinctive rally cry for action and innovation. If an organisation is clearly driven by a strong mission or vision, then it will mean that your employees will live up to it.

  • LBS alumna Nisreen Shocair EMBAG2004, Middle East CEO of YOOX Net-a-Porter, joined Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School and Clare Woodman EMBA2016, CEO of Morgan Stanley’s operations across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, last year as a panellist for our new virtual event series, Think Big. Read her key takeaways here.

When, for example, I took up the role of President for the Virgin Megastore MENA, I discovered a very special organisation, a community of family members if you will. In a business sense, we all benefited from sending customers to one another and growing our respective market share, but we also stood for the same brand purpose. In my estimation, Virgin is a brand where employees truly live and ‘walk’ the company’s purpose, which is ‘to change business for good’.

“Our customers would feel what we practised inside our organisation”

‘Business for good’ was also about inspiring the practice of innovation at Virgin. At Virgin Megastore I set up donations for shelters for victims of domestic abuse, ensuring that returning delivery transports were filled up with toys and clothes which might then be donated to charities, and that we hired people with special needs who would be used, boldly and confidently, in a front of house capacity. We also became leaders in providing wheelchair access and offering what we termed ‘returnships’, offered to both men and women who were returning to work after, sometimes prolonged, absences owing to parenting commitments, or periods of illness.

In sum, there was an unshakable feeling at Virgin that our customers would feel what we practised inside our organisation and that this in turn would benefit the business commercially by attracting the type of customer who would readily see the value of our mission.

Passing on good practice in new opportunities

In my present role, as CEO Middle East at YOOX Net-a-Porter Group, this once again proved to be an instance in my professional life of being fortunate to arrive at the right time. The fashion industry was ready for change and it proved to be the right time to innovate in all manner of ways.

For example, the company already practiced circular business, and so with Lebanon's financial meltdown in full momentum and a staggering 78% of the Lebanese population falling into poverty over the past two years, an opportunity presented itself to do some good, while supporting our own business.

Fashion and clothing is an important business in Lebanon, with Lebanese fashion businesses ranging from the retail of affordable clothing to the in-house production of luxury clothing. Some young Lebanese fashion designers have made their way to major fashion shows in Europe, such as French fashion shows.

Inevitably, though, that industry has been hit by the country’s economic downturn and with this in mind, I encouraged the purchase of unsold stock from suppliers in Lebanon. What this did was stimulate new market opportunities for us in the USA and gave recognition to quality Lebanese products from that market, while generating valuable US dollar revenue for those suppliers.

“Environmental, societal and economic concerns are converging as never before”

Looking out for one another in unprecedented times

Another area of innovation concerns working practices within the company itself, in part hastened and exaggerated by the Covid pandemic. For the fortunate, we have, to a degree, benefited from lockdowns by being offered the opportunity to spend more quality time with our families. I know this to be true from my own personal experience, and have benefited from spending more time than I could ever have imagined with my family. However, for those of our often quite young employees, people who are often very far from home, such periods of prolonged confinement proved to be a real hardship.

I was witness to a number of young people in our business who had never previously experienced such tough times. They were used to very full social lives, to regularly going out, and they were not prepared for the impact of Covid-19. We, therefore, set up a buddy network where we operated a check-in system to make certain that people were well, and coping.

For example, my ‘buddy’ was a young person who was not very used to cooking for himself, so I would check in with him remotely at meal times, and they became sessions where we cooked together.

We live in a time of unprecedented convulsions and disruption. Environmental, societal and economic concerns are converging as never before. Within this context, it can be little wonder that employees and leaders see the importance of purpose in business.

In this time of intensified stakeholder expectations, businesses are correctly focused on how purpose can boost innovation and brand value. However, purpose must be felt much deeper than brand and the bottom line. It must be real and it must be truthful.


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