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Distilling Insights - Lessons from Four Pillars

I have always loved Four Pillars for their award-winning gin. As the Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded though, Four Pillars Gin has moved from living in the ‘after work’ part of my brain (hello cocktail hour!) to percolating in my thinking as a workplace psychologist.

One of the early good news stories in this pandemic has been the timely reinvention of gin distilleries to keep staff employed and produce hand sanitiser to keep us all safe. With 25% of their business dependent on international travel, and a significant amount dependent on the vitality of the hospitality industry, Four Pillars faced an enormous collapse in revenue, and had to adapt quickly. With my curiosity sparked, I reached out to Matt Jones, Co-Founder and Brand Director, to see if he was willing to share his recipe for successful change management, and he was so generous he even gave me a recipe for the perfect cocktail (you'll have to read until the end to get that one though!).

We spoke about what it takes from a people, brand and leadership perspective to navigate disruption or crises, and these are the key insights I distilled (!) as organisations move into the recovery stage of this challenging time.

Transparency is key

From the beginning, Four Pillars was committed to being transparent with staff, including with topics that were uncomfortable and with what they didn’t know. Their transparency about what was happening for the business helped build trust, which was critical for staff adjusting to new ways of working and managing the change.

“What prepared staff was open communications around just how difficult the situation was going to be.

We were very open from the outset that we were likely have to ask people to take a cut in pay and hours, and that it would be across the board. We’ve never hidden the pain, we’ve all shared it. It’s then been quite easy to ask people to do the next thing.

“People understand, and genuinely trust, that we’re trying to secure the business, secure the future of the brand, secure their livelihoods.”

Putting people first

Putting people first was another principle Four Pillars committed to early on. This meant that letting people go would be an absolute last resort - cutting back on any discretionary spending and exploring every other avenue would come first. It also meant being mindful of what could be happening for their staff outside of work, and that they had family, friends and partners who may be struggling or requiring them as well.

“If there’s anything we can cut other than people, that’s what we’ll do. That’s people’s pay we’re spending on those things.

It’s been important to ensure we see everyone as people, and understand that there’s something going on for them outside of their Four Pillars experience.”

Personalising communications

With his communications background, Matt understood how important relevant, timely and meaningful information would be for staff during this time. What’s been unique in this crisis has been the increased emphasis on ensuring that communications are sensitive to staff and have their wellbeing front of mind. All e-mails included the details of the Founders for staff to contact directly if they were distressed, and openly acknowledged the difficult circumstances many of them may be experiencing outside of work.

“We’re trying to create a ritual of communicating weekly with everyone and not overwhelm people… because there is something relevant and new and timely and meaningful to communicate (on a weekly basis) at this time.

But we need to be careful that we don’t continue that ritual when there isn’t something that’s particularly relevant, timely and meaningful.

Great communication is giving people what they need, when they need it, in the form they need it, but sometimes what we need is simply a story and a sense of human connection. It doesn’t always have to be transactional.”

Leaders share the burden

As part of their transparent approach, the leadership team agreed that they wouldn’t ask staff to do anything they wouldn’t personally do. From doing different tasks to reducing hours, leaders were visible in sharing the burden that came as a result of the disruption.

“There’s no gap between the founders and the front line.

We are all in this together. If we have to take pay cuts, cut hours, swap jobs or mop floors, we’re all going to be in this together. We’re not going to ask anyone to do something that we will not all do.

No one of them has the answer, but in that collective brain are answers. Your job as a leader is to listen to the voice of the collective, and then synthesise, enhance and play back that voice.”

Chickens in a crisis

Matt observed that it’s important to build your culture in the good times, because the chickens come home to roost in challenging times. The cracks in your culture can really start to appear in times of crisis, and it’s very clear to both staff and customers when they emerge. If you have a strong positive culture, people still understand expectations and how to behave when they are taken out of their usual environments or ways of working. A good culture will also provide a solid foundation for recovery.

“Culture makes it easy to make the right decisions… because it’s natural.

The professional, safe, passionate and ego free working culture we have has helped us.

Trust isn’t built overnight. If you’ve built trust-based relationships with your staff and customers, this is the time you leverage those.”

Growing pains

It’s hard to balance growing with keeping everything that’s special about your workplace. When you grow quickly, there is often a trade off as space is made for bigger and better things.

While their plans for continued growth are temporarily on hold, the Four Pillars leadership team has been proactive in their approach to managing the growing pains small businesses often experience.

Maintaining their strong hospitality culture, creativity and warmth as they grow is important to the Four Pillars founders, and for Matt it is all about embedding them into enduring values.

“You’re either growing or you’re potentially not going to be around for long. The challenge has been to maintain this fragile ecosystem of promoting a growth culture… while preserving our culture of hospitality and making great gin.”

Matt also holds a sense of optimism that is critical for leaders to have and to share at this time. The team is already thinking towards the future, and looks forward to a better normal.

“We believe that when the world comes back, and it will come back, it will want good experiences more than ever.”

Finally, if you were wondering what Matt’s suggestion for the perfect cocktail is:
45mls Four Pillars Changing Seasons Japanese Gin Topped up with Strangelove Yuzu Soda

Drink (and lead) responsibly.

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