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Leadership in crisis: Levi’s leaders focused on company culture and empathy to make it through 2020

February 25, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC

The last year has forced company leaders across all sectors to take a deep look into how their businesses are run. 

In a year of suffering, the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide social unrest have placed a new emphasis on issues like employee health and wellness and diversity and inclusion. At Levi Strauss & Co., CEO Chip Bergh and chief human resources officer Tracy Layney say relying on the company’s culture and focusing on empathy have been key to adjusting through a year of crisis.

“We believe there’s a real linkage between our values and business results… [Because] of our values, it was very easy for us to declare that we’re going to put our employees front and center through this. We’re going to look out for their health, their safety,” Bergh said at Fortune’s virtual Reimagine Work Summit on Wednesday.

A focus on empathy

Burnout has been discussed at length in recent months as millions of Americans juggle the stresses of daily life made all the more difficult in the midst of a global pandemic. 

Bergh said as a leader, listening and understanding the difficulties his employees are living through has been a key factor in guiding the company over the past year. 

“We’re living in an environment where we’re having meetings in people’s bedrooms,” Bergh said. “Having a high degree of empathy and listening I think has been really, really important through this crisis.” 

But it’s not just listening that has helped the company foster an environment in which employees’ health and wellness are central concerns. Layney said it’s about creating a space where employees feel their needs are heard and their feedback is met with an openness to change.

“We really need a place where we understand what [employees’] needs are, and are coming in to provide support,” Layney said, “whether that’s through mental health support or structured time off in our corporate employee ranks to really let folks step back and recharge.”

Taking a stand

The past year has shone a spotlight on the stark polarization in America.

And Bergh said whether it’s about gun control or climate change, Levi’s is not afraid to stand up for what’s right.

The company was recently awarded an A score by the Climate Disclosure Project for its transparency and management efforts in combating climate change.

In 2018, Bergh announced the company was pledging more than $1 million to support nonprofits and youth activists working to end gun violence.

“We talk about profits through principles,” Bergh said. “We’ve really tried to be very, very specific about the issues that we are going to weigh in on, but [to be outspoken] is who we are. And it’s an important responsibility for me and the team to make sure we’re weighing in on the most important issues.”

A moment of reckoning 

One of those key issues is diversity and inclusion, particularly as the past year showcased the lack of diversity in leadership roles at some of the country’s biggest companies. 

In the history of the Fortune 500 list—first published in 1955—there have been only 19 Black CEOs. Currently, there are only four

At Levi’s, Bergh said the pandemic and the widespread activism of the last year brought issues of equality and racial injustice to the fore.

“For us as a company, it was a moment of reckoning because we took a really hard look at where we are from a diversity and inclusion standpoint,” Bergh said. “And when we did that, you know, the ugly truth is we aren’t where we need to be.”

But both Bergh and Layney say that the pandemic has also provided the company with new opportunities, as a shift toward remote work has lifted some restrictions for the San Francisco–based company. 

“I love to think about the opportunities that come out of the things we’ve learned in the last year and how we catapult forward into the future,” Layney said. “Finding pockets of talent that are more diverse than maybe where our headquarters are is something I think is really compelling.”

“I fundamentally believe that a diverse organization is going to outperform a homogenous one every single day,” Bergh said. “The ability to attract employees who will be in jobs that [previously] couldn’t be remote…allows us to reach a more diverse population.”