After five years as President and CEO of Sleep Number—a smart bed company with a mission to improve lives by individualizing sleep experiences—Shelly Ibach thought she knew quite a bit about mental and physical health and well-being. After all, the company’s culture is built around the idea that a good night’s sleep can literally change the world.
But in November 2017, Ibach learned a new and difficult lesson about well-being when she lost her husband George to leukemia. After 34 years of marriage, she found the grief and sense of loss almost unbearable.
This level of devastation was unfamiliar to Ibach and she was not sure how to move forward. She knew she needed to heal to function and planned to take a few weeks physically away from work. Sleep Number has a “work for your day” culture, which means team members can work from any location to simultaneously support their personal and business needs. She began working from home and anticipated going to the office at the end of a five-week mourning period. And then, just before her return date, she went to a family fundraiser event. It was her first opportunity following George’s death to be around a crowd of people. The experience gave her a great deal of insight and she realized her feelings were still too raw to function effectively in the office.
“At this event, I remember so many people came up to me and said all these unbelievable things,” Ibach recalled. “While I am sure their intentions were good, their sentiments carried a lack of understanding and in many cases made me feel worse. Death and grieving are difficult topics, and most people are unsure of what to say.” On the drive home, it became clear to her that she needed to figure out how to handle uncomfortable and potentially upsetting sentiments with grace before physically returning to the office and interacting with thousands of team members. She continued to work from home and focus on healing.
As it turned out, the extra week was time well spent. Ibach said she knew how important it was to put her team members at ease; many of them were likely to feel awkward and unsure about what to say. She felt she had to be fully and completely open about discussing her loss, and not necessarily wait for people to approach her. Additionally, throughout the 18-month battle with leukemia, she and George stayed close to her leadership team. Ibach was inspired by their courageous honesty; their candid questions and dialogue resulted in her team understanding and supporting her and George in a manner that was the most helpful to them. So, upon returning, she committed to a series of in-person townhalls to ensure everyone could hear from her directly about the loss of George and how she was doing. “In general, I tend to be a very private person, but this was a time when I knew I needed to push through that introvert side of me and share how I felt. It was real and relatable.”
Those townhalls taught Ibach a lot about herself, her company and the importance of well-being at work. Well-being has always been at the core of Sleep Number’s culture, which is deeply committed to the idea that the world can be a better and healthier place through higher quality sleep. But after she lost her husband, Ibach said she better understood the healing power of sleep at yet another level.
“As the CEO, building an inclusive culture with shared values of passion, integrity, innovation, courage and teamwork has always been paramount. After George’s death, I realized the importance of sharing how I lead through adversity. While I have always understood the value of knowing team members personally, it was clear the entire company would benefit from modeling this behavior. Meeting with the broader team and sharing experiences brought us all closer together. It helped us deepen our commitment to total leadership; caring for all aspects of our lives.”
Those realizations would become critically important when the pandemic struck in early 2020. Like many retailers, Sleep Number—a publicly traded company that prides itself on controlling all aspects of its business from research and development to sales through its own branded chain of 600 stores—was facing great uncertainty.“Prior to the pandemic, we were growing at double digits,” Ibach said. “Then, suddenly, we were temporarily closing 80% of our stores. Thankfully, we had our ‘work-for-your-day culture,’ which meant our technology supported most of our headquarters team members to work from home and we knew how to lead through adversity, accept circumstances and find the path forward. For me, these were well-honed learnings from when George battled leukemia and then died. It was important to ensure everyone had the tools they needed to handle the changing circumstances and emotions.”
Through the early months of the pandemic and following the intense civil unrest that started in Sleep Number’s hometown of Minneapolis, Ibach communicated weekly to all company team members with a weekly email and an invitation for any team member to respond directly, to ask questions or make comments. Ibach and her team also convened “listening” events, open forums where team members could safely ask questions and talk about any subject. “I found the level of intimate conversation around individuality helped people embrace their unique attributes with greater appreciation and inclusion. We stayed close to one another and supported each other’s life challenges in and outside of work. It was really helpful for our teams to talk about how they were handling everything—from distance education to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Throughout 2020, Ibach and her team conducted “pulse surveys” to inform management’s understanding of how team members were coping with stress. The company welcomed feedback and worked to support team members’ needs, bolstering its technology and well-being tools—providing access to a mental health hotline, for example—to keep people connected to one another in real time and provide them with tools to deal with stress and uncertainty. On the third anniversary of George’s death, Ibach wrote a deeply personal note to all team members. “It was a continuation of my grief journey. Grieving is about moving forward and finding graces. I find sharing these graces is both healing and giving.” In that note, Ibach openly shared how deeply she cares about her teams’ well-being and welcomed them to share their personal lives at work as part of Sleep Number’s culture of authenticity.
In July, Ibach held an all-day strategic session with her senior leadership team. “We had a great discussion on how to advance our culture in the areas of DE&I and well-being.” Listening to her team’s passion about building on the company’s foundation of individuality gave Ibach even greater clarity and belief in their purpose of creating a healthier and happier society through higher quality sleep.
As a result, in October she announced a self-described career highlight when she gave all 4,500 team members their very own Sleep Number 360® smart bed. Said Ibach, “This investment in their individual well-being is the ultimate indicator of our commitment to ensure they are their best self.”
Going forward, Sleep Number’s prospects have only improved, even with the continued economic uncertainty of the pandemic. It has introduced new products, with new technology features, and has advanced its sales and digital strategy to “sell and service from anywhere.” The team’s ingenuity, resilience, agility and perseverance all complement their deep shared values around individuality.
“All of this—from George’s death to the pandemic—has taught me the value of being present, being kind and leading with empathy and compassion. As a leader, I need to demonstrate these behaviors every day, while continuing to make courageous decisions which advance our purpose.” This consistency supports Sleep Number’s culture, which celebrates individuality and values well-being. Ibach’s team is dedicated to their mission of improving lives by individualizing sleep experiences and it gives them the confidence to fearlessly forge ahead.
Alex Vincent, Ph.D., SVP, Global Executive Client Partner, LHH