How Home Depot’s comms director is building for the unknown

To manage her team through disruption from COVID-19 and important conversations around structural inequality in the workplace, Yanique Woodall is discarding the rulebook.

Among the items not on Yanique Woodall’s agenda way back in February, before the coronavirus crisis:

  • Eating lunch at the kitchen table with her three children—on any given weekday
  • Watercolor painting in her backyard with her communications team on video
  • Teaching math and grammar to her home-bound, school-age children

Finding the silver linings in this current crisis is something Woodall, the senior director for corporate communications and external affairs and head of brand communications at The Home Depot, has built into her mindset.

“The pandemic has overturned our daily lives and urged all of us to reimagine what our day looks like,” says Woodall, speaking to us from her home outside Atlanta. “I set priorities for each day and move fast. There are no rules now.”

Woodall’s been fortunate to be working for a company that was among the essential businesses during the pandemic. And Home Depot has been grounded for decades in principles that are helping her and the 400,000 other “orange-blooded family members” stay strong, she says.

As with all communicators, flexibility is not only helpful, but essential to leading through a crisis. Who really knows what next month will bring for you and your team? Woodall describes her current strategy as “building a plan for the unknown.”

Woodall leans into industry insights—whether culled from news articles, research or talking to colleagues in other markets—on a regular basis. These tactics, she says, help her manage to up, over and down the food chain at Home Depot.

“Keep your finger on the pulse, see what’s evolving, understand the research and then share it,” she advises. “Having information and bringing new ideas to the table fosters important conversations.”

Woodall oversees 10 people in her comms department, which is part of a division of more than 100 corporate communications and external affairs professionals. While she misses the impromptu desk-side chats with her team, she is very deliberate about keeping her remote colleagues engaged daily. “You need to be intentional about the informal,” she says. “We can’t be communicators if we can’t communicate with one another first.”

The pandemic, coupled with the crisis around social justice, has underscored how critical communicators are to an organization.  With Black Lives Matter, says Woodall, “it was the reality that we were all confronted with the pain and anguish, and as an organization we could not ignore this.

In addition to donating a million dollars to social justice issues in the past several months, The Home Depot has supported its employees with $850 million in expanded benefits, including adding between 80 and 240 hours of paid time off to employees (depending on age and risk factors), and $100 weekly bonuses for in-store and distribution center employees. When the pandemic first hit, Home Depot froze prices on product categories in high demand, provided masks to healthcare providers and first responders, and donated millions of dollars in personal protective equipment and other products to hospitals, healthcare providers and first responders.

Woodall, who has also held communications positions at 1-800-Flowers, Fujifilm and Avon and has served as adjunct professor of comms at George Washington University and Hofstra, is no stranger to crisis. However, this crisis has changed the game because of the universal nature of a global pandemic. “We’re in the same storm but in different boats,” she says. “We’ve all been in a crisis before, but the traditional rules do not apply.”

While she can easily reel off the list of traits most important to leaders right now—vulnerability, transparency, empathy, to name a few—one of the most important screams for an exclamation point: “Stamina!”.

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