‘From Command & Control to Empowerment’
Jean-Paul van Londen and Marian de Joode enter into conversation with Lisette Jacobs – director of Lamb Weston/Meijer – with the focus areas of Human Resources, Communications and Sustainability. In consultation with the management, Ms Jacobs has given shape and substance to the transformation of the organization, which together with the American company Lamb Weston Inc. is a world player in the potato-processing industry.
Cooking fries: how hard can it be? Surprisingly challenging, according to Lisette Jacobs. Based in the Dutch province of Zeeland, the potato-processing company works with a raw material that varies annually in terms of both quantity and quality. Processing the raw material into frozen potato products is technologically complex. Subsequently, these products must also be distributed worldwide, with international demand and supply not always matching each other due to the varying nature of the raw material.
Founded on the clay soil of Kruiningen 24 years ago, the company has grown into a multinational with many locations: an organizational tower of Babylon in which everyone must speak the same language. The raw material (the potato) in itself may have already been considerably developed in those years, but the company and the world around it are also changing significantly.
Because Lamb Weston / Meijer, together with NYSE-listed American Lamb Weston, is now a world player in a complex industry – they are the number two worldwide in the potato-processing industry – the organization sees it as its responsibility to actually take its leading role seriously. This is naturally a positive characteristic, particularly because such essential matters as food and environmental domains in which the Lamb Weston® brand operates with high-quality potato products are among the significant global challenges of current and future times. The leadership that Lamb Weston / Meijer espouses means at least as much to the organization and its employees as it does to the entire industry. Because good leaders lead the way, they do not follow the developments but determine them.
In 2017, Lamb Weston / Meijer embarked on a radical transition: a complete metamorphosis of organization and culture. Was there a need to do so?
‘When we reviewed our strategy for the first time in mid-2016, we explicitly defined our company purpose as: ‘Contributing to human well-being through potatoes’. We understood that in order to make an impact, we needed to make sure people were listening to us. This includes having a certain size as a company. It proved important to continue to grow profitably: then, now and certainly in the longer term.
We also discovered that we were reaching the limits of the way we managed our organization. All the external developments – customer demand for more transparency and speed, but also political instability, changing climate and ecology, for example – and the developments within our own company – such as new markets with a different risk profile – meant that we needed to make a significant change. This was our reason to sit down with a small group – our CEO, CFO and myself – and review our company management model. This was the starting signal for our most significant transformation since our foundation in 1994.’
Where do you start such a transformation?
‘Our first question was: what is our company management model, in other words, how do we manage the organization? We distinguished three elements:
- How are we structured and what processes do we have?
- Who is responsible for what and within what framework do we operate?
- What is our method of working, how do we want it to be and which leadership model is needed to achieve that?
That first point, organization design, turned out to be the relatively ‘easy’ part and has now been established, putting our customer at the heart of our business. The second point, governance – we were still informally organized – entails plenty of work, but it comes down to clarifying, formalizing and agreeing on things. The dialogue with the employees involved helps in this respect, and also in the change process. The third point was the biggest challenge. We are actually still in the middle of this challenge.
In the past, we used a command & control approach. This approach ceases to work, however, when the business grows so big in so many different countries and has to deal with all the rapid changes around it. This requires a different type of leadership.
Nevertheless, merely introducing a new leadership style doesn’t work. The challenge is much broader. It is ultimately about a complete cultural overhaul, and about values and ways of collaborating throughout the organization. We moved from an organization with a functional set-up to a matrix organization. From command & control to empowerment, with a leadership model based on this, and in which purpose plays an important role. This does mean that everyone must go along with that change. The three elements of our company management model cannot be seen in isolation. Everything had to be revised.’
You want to move from an old structure and culture to a new situation. Where do you start and how do you give shape and content to this process?
‘It starts with one hundred per cent commitment from the top regarding the transformation: everyone saw and felt the need for this. Before you start on the details of what precisely that transformation means, formulating clear principles and starting points on which you can always fall back is key. That is the foundation, and that is what makes it clear and transparent.
We deliberately opted for a phased approach in the further roll-out and expansion of our company management model. It was quite a lot to handle: everything was being changed. Therefore, we had to make sure that initially a small group – the management – got on board, that they embraced the approach, got the principles clear, and personally went through the change.
Only then did we make the group bigger again and we went through a similar process of change with that group. At first, we started with three and then quickly expanded to a group of seven. Why are we opting for a certain structure, what are the implications for our behaviour? The answer to such questions took time. Then we made the group bigger again. Every six weeks, we sat down with the entire leadership team of around forty people. We organized off-site team building activities and got to know each other profoundly. All roles were dropped in order to create a whole new organization with a completely different method of working.
That also took time because such transitions are based on insight, trust and support. People have to create, feel and experience that. If there were heated discussions and it all became a little tricky, we needed to be able to fall back on the principles of our model on which we had agreed. We are now in the phase of: how do we roll out our working method in the rest of the organization?’
You are referring to principles and understanding them. Can you clarify this?
‘Imagine getting started with organization design: what are the underlying principles on which you base your choices? As soon as these are clear, the responsibilities also change, and the processes change. The working method changes, too. We aim for an empowerment model that enables everyone to get the best out of themselves. The heart of empowerment is principle-centred. You go for the bigger picture – the company and the shared values – rather than for self-interest.
In addition, empowerment is also about self-discipline. I do as I promise, because otherwise I can not be trusted, and everything is based on trust. In other words, which leadership profile goes with such an empowerment model? Which behaviours and characteristics are needed for success?
We all did an individual leadership assessment and shared the results. After the group was expanded to forty, we did it again. Next, individual discussions were held with Bas Alblas, our CEO, and with me. We discussed the structure and principles of organizational design, and also the personal ambitions of our employees. We also discussed the outcome of the assessment. The entire process was rather intense and time-consuming, but also incredibly valuable. Particularly because at the time, something like this did not fit at all within our culture. It then gave us the opportunity to put the knowledge and qualities of our people to use in a sometimes completely different way and in a different place in the organization, and thus to make the whole stronger.’
It also implied a different role for the HR & Communications director…
‘Yes, absolutely. That role became even more personal. And I too had development points. A valuable lesson for me was to stop myself from wanting to communicate on substance too soon in the process. Take people along in the process and tell them why you are doing something – linked to our company purpose – but don’t communicate until you know what it will mean for them. Otherwise, you create even more uncertainty. I have also been very strict with myself about communicating on the basis of the process rather than the outcome. That proved very useful.
When we first sat down with the larger group of forty, it soon became clear: ‘There is unrest in the organization, and we have to communicate’. But what should we communicate? At that time, we were better off not communicating, except on processes. ‘You first have to go through that emotional roller coaster yourself. We have to understand why we do this ourselves and get behind it,’ we felt. Three to four months later, some people said they understood why we were moving on to the next stage only then. By then, they really understood.’
Principles are the foundation of your transition. You mentioned the reason for the organizational change. Is there also a higher principle that connects the whole of Lamb Weston / Meijer?
‘Our purpose is: human well-being through potatoes. It is a big concept that can have many different meanings. Consider, for example, issues such as creating employment (directly but also indirectly with our suppliers), a pleasant workplace, working in a sustainable and environmentally sound manner, profitable propositions for our customers, but also enjoying our products together.
One lovely example came from a colleague. He attended a conference in China and was given a tour of the villages there. What struck him was the obvious difference between villages growing rice and those growing potatoes. Rice requires more water and soil than potatoes, and in addition, the potato is one of the most nutritious crops that exist. Villages that cultivated potatoes turned out to have more stone houses, better machines and schools. The potato yield was reinvested in the community. He saw prosperity. Now that is purpose!’
And what does purpose mean to you?
‘In Africa, we are launching a product based on dried potato flakes. It is still in its infancy, but it makes my heart beat faster. My human well-being is on Friday anyway, when I see how happy my children are when I occasionally bring home products that you can’t buy in the shop. We all have our purpose in that sense. During our assessments, everyone is also asked to state their own purpose pitch. What do you stand for and how do you get everyone else on board? Because if you do that, if you get the others on board, then you mobilize and inspire an organization and you can do great things!’
Purpose is, to put it mildly, popular. Is it not becoming a marketing gimmick?
‘We don’t claim empty words. Our sense of meaning is much more in the things we do. We just want to prove what we stand for. We do incredibly cool things, but many people are not aware, partly because we do not tell them – that is actually something that we have to start working on with purpose activation. Within the organization as well.
The point is: you want that meaning to be in people’s DNA, in our DNA. Only then will it be safeguarded for the longer term. And if you’re going to claim it, it must first be implemented in all its facets. That is not the case with us as yet.
However, the ambition has been formulated: we want to be a leader in the frozen potato category and worldwide – together with Lamb Weston Inc. – the number 1, in order to make a real impact; we want to be an industry leader in the field of sustainability and the employer of choice. This was not so explicit before. A fine example of being the industry leader in sustainability is in Kruiningen, where the steam from our pipe plants has now been diverted to our neighbours. With this circular residual heat system we show leadership in the field of sustainability and show that cooperation pays off. Our people are extremely proud of that!’
How did you gain that wisdom and arrive at that approach? Transitions like that are not exactly an annual occurrence…
‘Do you know what I am very proud of? This transition is truly ours. It didn’t come from anyone from the outside. We talked about it, grabbed some models off the internet and worked it out in a way that suited us best. It helps that we have a strong CEO who kept us firmly on course. This approach was also characteristic of who we are: we are big and international, but our feet are still planted firmly in the clay, as it were. We also managed it without enlisting the help of the big consultants. We found out automatically when things hadn’t been sufficiently clarified, when there were questions to which we didn’t have answers. It was learning by doing. And using the dialogue with each other to get things clear: step by step, a very phased approach.’
We had brought in external expertise for the governance side, a consultant to support change management, and LTP for the leadership assessments, that’s it!
Learning by doing… How do you see and measure the progress you are making?
Let’s look at the number of people we reach, for example. The group of three became seven, then forty and is now significantly bigger, especially after an event we held with one hundred and eighty people: leaders in the top three echelons of the organization. They should now be able to spread it throughout the organization and make it relevant to employees.
We have also implemented physical changes, moved teams to different places, and we try to find each other much more actively. We use roadshows to explain what the departments do and what colleagues can do for each other. We use technology for this and adapt training courses for it. Responsibilities are found ever lower in the organization, so that we can decide more quickly and stay ahead of the curve.
This requires people, of course, who are capable of this and can take the opportunity and get support to develop themselves. In other words, empowerment. That is the balance: being able to absorb daily pressure from the business while giving people space.
There’s another thing that we have learned and implemented: in the past, everything had to be 100% right in one go. Now seventy to eighty per cent is sufficient to start, and if things are not right halfway down the road, we adjust them a little bit. This speeds up the process, leading to even more learning by doing.’
Due to the dry summer of 2018, the potato harvest is uncertain. Is there a risk of regressing to old behaviours as soon as the organization is really put to the test?
‘Potato harvests are uncertain by definition. After all, it is a natural product. We never know what is going to happen, but must always be able to anticipate. The trick is to always make an end product that is consistently high in quality with that changing raw material, because that is what our customers expect from us.
That is why it is important for everyone to focus on our customer. In the past, it was sometimes the other way around. Now everyone in the chain plays their part, including the customer who wants a certain product and with whom we seek alignment. It forces us to work together. People increasingly seek each other out to solve problems and frustrations together, following which everything runs more smoothly and faster.
But let’s suppose there is a crisis situation. Such a crisis situation is an exceptional circumstance, in which you have to make decisions. A few years ago, we would have solved such a crisis at board level, but now we meet in an interdisciplinary manner. We rely on each other and each other’s expertise. And we act within the agreements we have made in the governance structure – this creates clarity. We also know that we may revert to becoming overly sensitized to pitfalls, so every time something comes up we go back to the core, the principles. We can actually use a possible crisis to make the new company management model work.’
Of course, organizational change remains extremely difficult. Does Lamb Weston / Meijer still have steps to make in this respect?
‘Of course, there are still grey areas. The working method, in particular, remains a point of attention. Organizational design is visual but abstract, while governance is about coming to agreements together. Once that’s done, there’s a hazard involved in simply getting back to the business of the day…
That’s why we need to keep repeating the message. Keep explaining why we do it. We organize an off-site event with the broader leadership team once a year. It’s not so much about the business, but about operating as a team and the change process. And again we ask ourselves the question: what are the principles of our company management model, what is not going so well, and what can we do about it?
We also developed a training programme together with Franklin Covey. Everyone goes through this programme. But as we know, training is only ten per cent of real learning. People must be able to learn from each other, and that is why we have created intervision sessions. Technology also plays a role. On which platform do you share best practices?
The challenge is mainly to let the message take root, however, and hold each other accountable for behaviour. Ultimately, we want to be a learning organization. The manager must show exemplary behaviour and intervene when necessary. But also: what does the manager do when nobody is watching?
Even though there are grey areas, precisely because the whole process is so intrinsically ours and suited to us, I know that the chances of success are high.’
What is your advice to organizations that are facing a similarly substantial transformation?
‘The most important thing is: what works for your organization? What are your business, your culture and your people like? What is your purpose as a business, your vision and strategy to achieve it? We have tried to programme this so that it works for us. To do this, you need to have an excellent understanding of how your organization works and where you are headed. And yes: we understand it, we know it, and now we are doing it.’