Terri Leitgeb has had quite the cosmopolitan HR career. Before arriving in her current role as chief people officer at David’s Bridal, Leitgeb held various HR-focused roles with Tesco, the renowned British global retailer, that took her all around the world. In addition to her positions at Tesco, Leitgeb has also worked for esteemed organizations throughout both the US and the UK including Dunnhumby and Novartis.
While her territory may have varied, Leitgeb’s career has had an ironically consistent defining factor: change. “I have been really fortunate to be part of organizations that were going through change, transformation, and growth, and I feel that has really defined my career,” she says. “It’s helped me build a particular skill set, or expertise, in being a business-minded, commercially-minded, HR leader who supports companies throughout shaping their turnaround strategy.”
This professional familiarity with change has certainly prepared Leitgeb for a variety of situations, especially ones that require both adaptability and agility. In early 2020, Leitgeb had to put these skills to use when the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the global retail economy. With the arrival of the novel coronavirus and government-suggested social distancing in the US, employees were asked to work from home, stores were closed, and special events across the country were being postponed or cancelled altogether.
This landed a heavy blow to many trades—in Leitgeb’s case, the wedding retail industry. With many couples forced to cancel their big day, and David’s Bridal retail locations closed due to nonessential business orders, Leitgeb had to kick into high gear to make sure both employees and customers were being taken care of.
As chief people officer, Leitgeb is responsible for all HR operations across the business, including the retail field, distribution centers, and corporate offices—and her “people plan” emphasizes investing in the people who make up the workforce of David’s Bridal. “The focus of my role has been one of trying to create stability and cohesiveness, as well as to determine how we can maintain as much consistency and continuity for our people,” she explains.
Leitgeb strove to maintain this plan throughout the uncertain period of the pandemic by emphasizing positivity and clear communication. “We had to build on what we had done before by keeping things positive, with an acute focus on communications and transparency. Now more than ever we needed to ensure trust between the leadership team and the rest of our company,” Leitgeb says. “With every obstacle comes a thoughtful strategy, an adjusted set of business directives, a new set of goals. We had to focus on the immediate actions but also the future of the company and our people.”
Along with intentional and amplified communications, Leitgeb knew that having the courage to ask difficult questions was vital to addressing pandemic plans. “This pandemic has been a really polarizing event,” she says in her May 2020 interview. “We have engaged in lively debates to make sure that we are balancing the needs of our employees, whose health and safety is of utmost importance, and the long-term financial health of our organization as well.
“This is not simple by any means because most importantly we want everyone to be comfortable, and it has pushed us to be overly thoughtful,” she adds. “Leaders need to have the courage to make the tough calls and stand by them.”
“Leaders need to have the courage to make the tough calls and stand by them.”
Leitgeb’s efforts had to toe the line between being empathetic with customers who have had to cancel or rearrange plans for one of the most momentous occasions of their lives, and also protect her workforce. It is not particularly an easy balance, but once again, that is where agility and adaptability step in.
David’s Bridal rolled out new tech features that would accommodate customers and keep in line with employee safety and social distancing. “We had to make some difficult policy changes, but we also implemented virtual appointments. This has really been a time of innovation for us,” she says. “We had to adapt, pivot, and make changes so that we could help our customers through this difficult time. Our goal was to come up with solutions that not only would solve immediate needs during COVID-19 closures but would stand the test of time and continue to serve customers in the future.”
As Leitgeb is no stranger to change, she believes that the conversations and adaptations ignited during the pandemic can offer silver linings and motivators for lasting change across the business. “We did some amazing things in this short period of time. This prompted us to find new and unique ways to communicate, engage, and serve our customers. And our employees—I have never worked with a more inspiring and hard-working group who care so deeply about making sure our customers have a special wedding day,” she says. “My hope is that this continues to build.”