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How Maria Valdés Led a Multicultural Team at Puma in Different Countries Amid Crisis

Maria Valdés, Pumaʼs senior head of product line management, leads a team with 13 nationalities who are based in three different locations. So itʼs no surprise that the coronavirus pandemic presented unique obstacles. “In a multicultural environment, individuals had different information, interpretations, and their families were affected differently depending on their origin and location, which we could not ignore,” Valdés said. During this time, she explained, communication was vital in ensuring business ran smoothly, which allowed employees to identify their concerns and uncover the things they could do to make a positive difference. Valdés also reflected on the steps business leaders can take to support diverse leadership amid the global response to racial injustice. “The key is to understand how diversity brings bigger opportunities. Companies should encourage leaders to build teams with different backgrounds and skill sets,” Valdés said. “The challenge comes in how to create the best atmosphere and the right culture to leverage their differences. Companies should celebrate those differences, respect them and give value to them.”

Below, the Puma exec also talks what she learned about herself both personally and professionally amid the coronavirus crisis.

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Footwear News: What is a typical day now as work and home blend together?

Maria Valdés: “For me, work and home are things that are always intertwined but during COVID times things got more intense, especially for those of us with small kids. Fortunately, I have a very strong team on both ends — a very supportive husband and a very strong product team that allowed us to find ways to manage workload and have a good harmony at home and at work. The first weeks were intense, getting used to the new norm and adjusting our current product processes in order to keep delivering and staying safe. Constant team communication as well as empathy towards individual feelings/needs allowed us to make the right and fast decision. Every day new information was hitting us, so there was not much room for planning, so we always prepared ourselves for both the positive and negative scenarios. We had to manage virtual development trips and digital sell in meeting all in just a couple of weeks. Home schooling, crosschecking personal agendas and grocery shopping became key tasks, so in many cases, there were not enough hours in the day to cover the to-do list. Today, we start to feel a certain level of normality again in Europe. Teams are starting to be back in the office, kids starting to go back to school, but still part of the world facing the peak of the crisis.”

What have you learned about leadership in a crisis?

MV: “Nobody teaches you how to go through a crisis like this, so your natural leadership instinct reacts first. Personally, I did some self-reflection to analyze my strengths and fears. As a team, I believe one of the key takeaway that made us very successful was communication. That allowed us to understand where we stood as a team, where the concerns were, issues to resolve, things we could impact and what was in our hands to really make a difference. And of course, empathy towards each team members’ personal situation was crucial.”

What are you most proud of since COVID-19 disrupted business as we knew it?

MV: “I think how we managed it as a team. We pushed ourselves to new boundaries to achieve new objectives and we went through each milestone together. Looking back, I wouldn’t have ever imagined we could achieve what we did under such extreme circumstances. We truly discovered new limits.”

What has your biggest challenge personally and professionally been amid crisis?

MV: “Personally, the biggest challenge was at the beginning. I usually commute to work from France to Germany and COVID was closing EU borders so we needed to decide as a family where we would stay through this crisis and we needed to make a decision very fast and without much information on hand. Fortunately, my husband is a professional sport player so trainings and consequently the league were quickly cancelled.  I knew the product engine was crucial to keeping things rolling, so we decided to move with my family to an Airbnb next to the HQ, adding a different layer to our lives on top of the already complicated COVID circumstances. It was particularly a strange feeling when we left the house, because we really didn’t know for how long the journey would last and what was waiting for us — the flat ended up being our home for two-and-a-half months. Professionally I believe the biggest challenge was to keep the balance between business and empathy, because at the end of the day work needed to be done and it was important that we continue to deliver for the future of the brand, but we also needed to make sure people felt safe, supported and in the right conditions.”

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