It’s been three months since we closed on the purchase of buying Bolthouse Farms back from Campbells and what a ride! The work has been beyond intense, the team dynamics inspiring on the whole to say the least, the short term business challenges have been extreme ( products of very poor business decision making by the past Campbells management team, but more on that later!!) and the list goes on….
I am so happy to be in this role, at this moment in my professional life, but it’s quite a challenge on all fronts. After more than 34 years in business, and after having spent 6 years here before ( 2009-2015 as Chief Customer Officer) the business issues & challenges are certainly requiring me to bring “all I have” to bear on what we have to handle. I am humbled to have the chance to play a key leadership role at this moment in the 104 year history of Bolthouse Farms and am ready for the twists and turns in the months/quarters and years ahead!
In that spirit of humility, I pass along this story coming from a visit from none other than Bill Bolthouse Jr. , the historic leader of this company and the 4th ( it could be 5th??) generation of Bolthouse Family members that have lead this company from a small family farm in Grant Michigan to a leader in the produce industry today. He and a number of his team members came to visit us in Bakersfield recently; he wanted to see the plant and connect with us as the the current leadership team who have the job to fix a ton of damage caused to the business by Campbells over the past few years. We spent an hour or so in one of our conference rooms, reconnecting and talking about the challenges we are facing and our plans for the path forward before he and his team went on a plant tour. Bill was very respectful and pretty quiet throughout the meeting. After one discussion of a particularly bad decision made by Campbells regarding acreage planning, he blurted out that ….” you’re first loss is often your best loss!” I had never heard that phrase before but in this circumstance , and in so many, it is deeply true!
The specific situation he commented on occurred not quite a year ago when the historic Campbells management team started to realize that they were “long on acres.” The farms ag team came forward to write-off the extra acres and adjust the planting plans for the winter. While it would have had a significant negative P&L impact ($1-$2mm), it was clearly the right decision to make at the time ( remember this as the “First loss”.). Instead, the management team in all its hubris pushed forward with the original planting plan and pushed the organization to “fix it.” Well, right before closing that one decision grew from a $1-$2mm problem to a $10-$12mm mess …. all created because the historic leaders couldn’t see that “your first loss is often your best loss.”
When we talked about that story to Mr. Bolthouse, he talked about how hard that lesson is to learn, but how true it is in agriculture ( and in business broadly!) We all need to work on our ability to recognize when we need to take the “first loss” and not try to push/force/manipulate/etc. the situation to create an outcome that will never come to pass. This is about judgment, patience and perspective and how to deploy them as leaders, not anger, impatience and hubris as failed leadership traits. The next time you are facing a tough situation that might produce a challenging “loss,” pause for a moment and ask yourself if this is might actually be a good “first loss” to accelerate into action!
With over 30 years of business experiences in companies large and small, at times working as a senior commercial executive in the food and beverage industry and more recently in running my own consulting firm that has served 30+ clients across a wide range of industries, I continue to come upon examples where key leads have dramatically affected businesses and organizations by the impact of their actions and/or inactions. While I have certainly had the chance to work closely with talented, impactful and inspiring leaders, the contrary examples abound and are the center of the following essay.
In the spirit of confidentiality, I don’t plan to “name names” about specific individuals in the following paragraphs, but rather to focus on the lessons that I have learned in some key areas where I have personally witnessed senior leaders really blow it! In each of the focus areas I will review actions taken that lead an organization awry and other situations where the lack of action was the culprit to failing results.
Talent: I start with a bias that I have always felt that ‘talent” in an organization is precious, and many organizations have historically treated it as fungible/replaceable/generic as they build their strategic plans. In my consulting work today, I have worked with over 30 clients over the past three years and in every assignment, we have dealt with the lack of talent, or the loss of key talent, or the inability to hire great talent into key roles, etc. as major barriers to growth and future performance for those clients’ companies. I have watched this dynamic paralyze senior leader to NOT (“sin of omission”) replace key senior direct reports who are not performing well in their roles, or who are not living up to the values of the company/organization simply because they were not sure if and how they would replace those under-performers. Senior leaders who are under-performers are a “cancer” in an organization and while it is harder now than ever to find and retain great talent, holding onto mediocre performers in a “hope” that things will get better is NEVER the right move. Have high expectations for your entire team, especially your senior team, and treat them as the precious resource they are to your company/organization, and NEVER tolerate poor performance/behavior for long. Take action and remove those poor performers before they ruin the organization!
Young leaders: Nurturing your leaders is so important and so often neglected. Think about how often highly performing individual contributors find themselves promoted into the role of leading a team for the first time and are so often put into those roles with no additional training/coaching/mentoring, etc. As you can see from my essays on this blog about leadership, I DEEPLY believe that leading teams is very different from managing projects and it takes work, and support to learn to be a effective leader. You can read more about this approach at https://fylegacy.blogspot.com/2009/03/three-impact-points-of-leadership.html. Too often I have watched senior leaders just assume that there is a pipeline of young leaders coming up through an organization, and that there will always be enough talent to fill the organizations leadership needs…. an assumption that is often wrong and always dangerous! Senior leaders need to nurture young leaders and help by teaching/coaching and mentoring them as they move into their first leadership roles and help them find their war through the inevitable leadership challenges that they will face. See more on this topic at https://fylegacy.blogspot.com/2009/05/teachable-point-of-view.html
Succession: This is an area where I have watched senior leaders and boards really blow it! In large companies and small, for-profit and not-for-profit organizations alike, no one wants to take time and think about the inevitable challenges ahead when key executives depart an organization. I have unfortunately witnessed organizations really struggle when CEO’s pass away, or founders become ill, or key executives become disabled with NO succession plans in place. While succession plans certainly don’t guarantee success, the lack there of typically proceeds failure! While there is no underestimating the power of denial among boards and senior teams, a annual review of a succession plan is needed and the unfortunate reality is that too many organizations DON’T even have succession plans for the top executive roles.
Innovation: As a lifeblood of so many organizations, innovation is too often thought about as incremental, episodic, and the domain of one organization ( too often R&D or Marketing.) Regarding the concept of “incremental,” innovation efforts are regularly driven to be additive to the base set of brands/products/offerings. While not incorrect, I believe it is insufficient for long term success. Innovation needs to drive incremental growth versus an organization’s current base of business AND drive to develop new concepts/products/offerings that would make your current offerings outmoded/antiquated and obsolete. In this fast paced competitive landscape, if we are not pushing innovation hard enough, we should be certain that competitors known or unknown will! One added idea on the idea of episodic, it is my experience that too often we think about innovation fitting into the annual business plan and hitting certain commercial windows. While true, we need to think about the concept of “Flow” which is defined as a “steady,continuous stream of something.” the work of innovation needs to be ongoing, and “flowing” in an organization, gaining input and ideas from across an organization and the marketplace, and “flowing” towards the market and shoppers & consumers.
Personal Impact: The reality that senior leaders are watched closely, likened to deeply and talked about pervasively is more true today than ever. All you need to do is read “Glassdoor” and you can see how key leaders are discussed and reviewed. It continually surprises me to see/hear senior leaders complain that they are “under a microscope” and that the level of review and critique is “unfair.” While I am partially empathetic, I am not naive! Senior execs ARE in the limelight, ARE being reviewed in micro detail, ARE being discussed and reviewed on-line and live and that’s not about to stop! My recommendation is to not operate in denial but embrace the truth of that dynamic and turn it to your advantage. Use your personal impact moments “with intent,” (read more at https://fylegacy.blogspot.com/2009/08/act-with-intent-redux.html ) and impact the organization in the direction that YOU choose. Early on in my career I had the chance to work for a number of outstanding leaders, well before the advent of the internet and social media. Even in those “prehistoric” days, these leaders realized they were highly visible and their public actions were often designed to have the organization “learn lessons” or “build skills” in ways that were “taught” in the everyday flow of their leadership actions.
Hopefully a few of these ideas have struck home and can prove helpful. Most importantly, I want to encourage all leaders reading this essay to NOT underestimate their impact, but to look for ways to have the impact that they intend on the organizations they have the privilege to lead!