In Staying in the Game: Leading and Learning with Agility for a Dynamic Future, I share the lessons I learned from some of the world’s most agile leaders across sectors. Based on this work, I introduced a new type of leadership, Embodied Agile Leadership. Embodied Agile Leaders (EALs) embody the values and practices of agile leadership and are attuned to their body as a source of agile learning feedback, energy, and resiliency.
In this spotlight, I shine a light on Chris Mikulski, a leader in an industry that depends on Embodied Agile Leaders at all levels to adapt and innovate in response to constant change. I also draw from a few brief excerpts from Staying in the Game while sharing some inspiring, actionable insights.
A key role EALs play in fostering engagement and agility is to create a workplace environment where everyone feels they can bring their whole self to work and are part of something meaningful and bigger than themselves. Belonging is the foundation of high performance.
Creating Space for Belonging
Few people understand the value of creating environments of acceptance and belonging in business more than Chris Mikulski, the Head of H.R. Americas for H&M Clothing. He has spent his entire work life in retail and shared that “some of the best times in my career were working in a store because of the diverse community you
become a part of.” When I asked Chris to tell me more about the value of creating such spaces in the rapidly changing and highly competitive fashion business, he shared,
[Community] gets you through the challenges and the hard times. And it impacts our ability to be competitive because we inspire each other to do better. We inspire each other to show up. If there’s a connection at the other end of your decision, I think you’re more likely to make that decision with that connection in mind. So whether it’s your favorite person who is closing the store tonight or somebody who you’ve built a bond with is working…you will be more inclined to make a decision that supports their success and to persevere past doubts or obstacles that we sometimes set for ourselves.
At times when companies have scrambled to fill jobs with talented, engaged people at all levels of the organization, H&M has leaned into its “Be Yourself & More” recruiting and career development initiatives, which are more relevant than ever. Seventy-six percent of job seekers and employees reported that a diverse workforce is an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers. Companies that truly value diversity don’t just stop at the head count; they ensure the heads count. Chris described how important this is to him personally and what it means well beyond “words on paper.”
I think naturally, as humans, we seek a sense of belonging in everything we do, even if it’s subconsciously. And I think [H&M] works really hard to build that for people. And even myself, being a proud gay man, being so accepted for that here is never questioned. I never have to have two different versions of myself. Even as a leader, that has unlocked my potential to a magnitude I could not have imagined. So that’s also why I believe so much in this sense of community, sense of belonging, and safety in those things. Because I’ve experienced it, and now I can use my platform to create that experience for others, whatever their unique self is.
EALs, such as Chris, understand that fostering Community requires consistent attention and participation. The business impact is significant because when people experience a true sense of belonging in which their Meaningful Identities are seen and valued, they tend to want to stick around. However, the dynamic of Community doesn’t happen by chance, as Chris emphasized.
It takes work and an ongoing commitment to that ideal because I think it’s easy to look at the world around you and sometimes feel out of lockstep with it. We feel very proud to be these pioneers. I think that’s why people want to stay. I’ve met many people who have been with H&M 10, 15, 20, even 30 years, and then go outside the United States, and it’s 30 or 40 years with H&M. It’s because they’re celebrated as themselves and they feel like they can really contribute authentically. And that’s an amazing feeling.
Commitment to creating space for belonging by EALs like Chris at companies like H&M is critical as the workforce continues to diversify. Chris shared more about what this looks like in action:
If you have blue hair, we want to know what color blue because we love it. If you choose to express yourself through artistic creations and tattoos on your skin, we love that. Whatever brings you joy, I think we seek to intersect with that, not to challenge it or go against it. We want to learn from each person. And I think that’s really the celebration of the multidimensional beings that we all are.
Actively valuing each other’s presence and participation in Community directly inspires everyone to stay in the game. The promise of engagement aligned with purpose starts during the recruiting process. At H&M, the long-time commitment to sustainable fashion is an essential differentiator for customers and prospective employees alike. Chris shared, “If we can get you on the phone for your first interview, then you usually want to join our company because we are values-driven, taking our responsibilities and commitment to people and planet very seriously, pioneering the future of the fashion industry. These are great things that people want to be a part of.”
Embodying an Agile Mindset
The theme of agility and relevancy echoes across sectors led by EALs. For example, in the fashion industry, success depends on staying relevant to customers’ ever-changing tastes. In practice, this means leading with an agile mindset that, once again, values listening, learning, and adapting over planning and control. Chris shared how he and his team embody an agile mindset, “We never get too comfortable with our strategies. We’re agile and changing all the time, minute to minute. We set off on an idea, we test things, we measure outcomes, and when we see a big opportunity, we shift. We constantly shift.”
Staying relevant to constantly changing conditions and to customer and stakeholder needs is the specialty of EALs. They know that to stay in the game they must keep up with the changing rules, players, and emerging technology and trends.
“It’s really about the culture of a great workplace” —Chris Mikulski
When Chris and I caught up more than a year and a half after our original interview, I was curious to hear what had changed. Since we first spoke, the pandemic was largely in the rearview mirror, the economy was rebounding, and jobs reports were healthy. At the same time, some companies and other institutions that have invested heavily in programs and initiatives that promote a diverse workforce and foster cultures of belonging were experiencing a backlash.
I shared with Chris that as an educator and consultant who moves through many of these organizations and is also LGBTQ, I have felt disheartened and even scared that we may be heading backward after so much progress. I was interested to hear how or if this outside pressure was affecting H&M’s approach to diversity and inclusion. Chris’s response gave me hope and lights a path for other organizations grappling with these issues. He began by telling me that he and his colleagues were paying close attention to what was happening in the external environment and at the same time, that it had not shaken H&M’s commitment to their work because:
The strategic steps we’ve taken these past couple of years specifically have been foundational moves. Our commitment goes beyond a celebration for a holiday or a particular event. It’s been in our culture. So now, when there are things like this happening, there are places for our people to go to discuss them and forums for us to utilize as a company to have discussions around these topics. In addition, we’ve been very overt about proactively sharing messages with our colleagues about what they may be seeing in the market and the media about this. Because we want them to know we’re in it forever, we’re really in it forever.
Chris’s response and the work being done by leaders at all levels of organizations like H&M remind us that, while trends may come and go, investing in an inclusive Community and the agility and resiliency it fosters will always stay in style.
 “Explore Careers in Fashion at H&M | H&M Careers United States.” H&M Careers United States, Accessed August 13, 2022, https://career. hm.com/us-en.
 “Glassdoor’s Diversity and Inclusion Workplace Survey.” Glassdoor Blog, last modified September 29, 2020, https://www.glassdoor.com/blog/glassdoors-diversity-and-inclusion-workplace-survey/.
Link to the original article on LinkedIn
AUTHOR PAMELA MEYER, Ph.D. works with leaders and teams who need to be agile and resilient and want to increase their impact for success.