‘Purpose has to be concrete and tangible’
Jean-Paul van Londen and Marian de Joode interview Geraldine Fraser, Global HR Director at FrieslandCampina. In 2014 she joined the company in Asia. Four years later she moved to The Netherlands. “Getting back closer to the mature home markets of FrieslandCampina has been a bigger adjustment than I anticipated,” she says. “What remained unchanged was the purpose of the company. Worldwide, in more than thirty countries, nourishing by nature forms the basis for the thinking and doing of more than 24.000 employees. Purpose: we don’t articulate it, we live it.”
“FrieslandCampina has always been guided by purpose, even before Hein Schumacher became CEO. I think it is inherent to the cooperative structure and the nature of the business: nourishing by nature was there. Hein has continued to reinforce it, made it concrete and come to life. We operationalized our purpose and made it real. It now really defines why we are here and do what we do. It says who we are.”
“For us as a company it’s clear: nourishing by nature describes our reason for being.”
How would you define the strategic significance of having a company purpose?
“It’s extremely important. A purpose puts you in a place where you have to look at the bigger picture. It enables you to take a step back and ground your decisions and strategy. A purpose also implies a longer time horizon. Rather than thinking of short term results you think about something which is more sustainable and long-term.
It’s also appealing for employees to work for a company with a clear purpose. But there’s always a very fine line… When it’s just words, it’s too abstract and you can’t grasp it or you use it in the wrong way, people can become cynical.”
“Therefore: purpose must not only be substantive, but also concrete and tangible.”
“Our purpose is nourishing by nature. We strive for better nutrition, a good living for our farmers, now and for generations to come. We also look at our products, recipes and ingredients: are they in line with our purpose? And in order to be able to provide that good living we have to be commercially successful and make the right decisions – again in line with our purpose.”
How do you know you have a substantive, striking purpose?
“Someone I recently met said that purpose should be the convergence of three things: opportunity, competence and commitment. According to this model our purpose really captures those three elements. Nourishing is our competence and it is also an opportunity. We have a real commitment to do that by nature through our unique supply chain.”
How do you bring purpose to life and make it concrete?
“The most important thing is to really live your purpose. Is it alive in the relationship and communication with employees, farmers, products, markets, and customers? What is relevant to them and their particular environment and landscape? Nourishment for children for example may resonate much more strongly in Asia than sustainability resonates here in Europe.
By being explicit, you can make purpose relevant to everyone: whoever and wherever they are and whatever they do. It’s not easy. It doesn’t happen by having a great purpose and then just letting it go. You have to orchestrate it carefully and comply with it yourself.”
You have to be a role model?
“Yes, absolutely. As a company as well as an individual. That is why we have developed a leadership profile with the mindset and behaviors we like to have in our organization.
In terms of our leadership profile we look at three different pillars:
- Purpose driven. How leaders behave and decide in line with our company purpose. How they bring the purpose to life for their teams.
- Commercial obsession. The way in which you achieve performance and delivery of results.
- Owners mindset. How you think about your role and contribution with the care you would have if you were an owner.
Over time we are embedding the same profile in our recruitment and selection process; in the way we think about our managing directors and leaders of the future. We are also starting a programme with London Business School focusing on these behaviours. It will be rolled out to all of our leaders worldwide.
We will ask them to reflect on what purpose means to them. How do they live the purpose as an individual and how do they contribute in their daily work.”
FrieslandCampina has almost 24.000 employees. These are just as many personal purposes. How do you connect these various personal purposes with the one purpose of the organization?
“You can’t all have the same purpose or perfectly match everyone’s personal purpose with that of the company. And we don’t want to be an organization of clones; we need to be diverse and inclusive. People can find their own ways to express themselves through the company’s purpose. Also, your purpose may be there without being explicit.
If we can help and enable people to self-discover and live their unspoken purpose at work – just let them be who they are in the best possible way – I think that’s already something great we can do as an employer.”
How do you do that?
“Purpose is not something we’re literally talking loudly about, but it comes up all of the time. We live it, we don’t articulate it. For example: we encourage a dialogue between employees and their line managers.”
“It’s a continual discovery around the individual: what they’re achieving, what challenges they have, what support they need… That constant conversation at a core level does help people to be themselves.”
“That whole aspect of the word nourishment means that it is continuous and you’re looking for growth. It means as an employee you have to want to be nourished, be open to feedback, to growth, to learning.
This translates to management. How do you nourish people who need support? What does it mean in terms of attention, time and energy? You have to think, operate and lead in a different way. We also have a programme called nourishing leadership. It helps you to discover what you are good at, and how you can develop those strengths.”
And if there is a real discrepancy between the personal and company purpose?
“Then it comes down to a choice: can I be my true self or not? If someone wants to achieve or be something that’s outside the realm of our purpose, than after a point of time it will all become de-energizing and tiring for that individual.”
Is a purposeless leader at the top of an organization conceivable for you?
“At our organization. No. Even, and perhaps especially, people who think about and are responsible for the commercial success of an organization are looking for purpose. Remember: purpose is of strategic significance and also has a psychological and commercial impact.
Being purposeful doesn’t come for free, it does cost time and money. And if the two diverge, if your purpose puts profit under pressure, as a leader you really have to stop and think if it has been defined correctly, is rightly implemented and is heading you in the right direction.”
“The real interesting piece for me in this purpose /commerce connection is around our significance in the future. In time I believe FrieslandCampina will play a much bigger role in society: in providing better nutrition and a good living.”
Isn’t purpose also a bit a marketing tool?
“If a purpose is not real – if, as far as we are concerned, it’s not a convergence of opportunity, competence and commitment – then I don’t think it lasts and then I do think it is little more than a marketing thing. But our purpose is valid and true, real and genuine, internally but also in the way we brand ourselves. Purpose must have that authenticity. It has to be concise, sincere and sustainable. It has to come from the heart, resonate, something you can follow through on.
There are many criteria, but on the other hand: if you over-engineer it then you start to move into branding. It’s a fine line.”
Does Hein Schumacher, CEO of FrieslandCampina, live up to his personal purpose or company purpose? And is he a role model in your eyes?
“Hein lives it in the big and the small things. He lives it around the way he engages with our cooperative and farmers in the future of farming and sustainability, right through to him being conscious of his own personal carbon footprint. Once you’re role modelling and take a leadership position people look at everything you do: from the re-use of your coffee cup to taking public transport. It applies to Hein and it applies to all of us. We also encourage this critical look, for it keeps us sharp.”
What’s your personal purpose?
“Defining my purpose has been one of the hardest tasks I have been given in my working life. I think it’s because some of the people around me had really profound purposes such as doing good in the world or bringing fresh water to villages in South East Asia. O gosh: mine is not like that! When I really thought about it, mine was making the best of life for myself and others. When I tell that to people they say: yes that’s you.”
“I always ask how I can make the most of my job and how I can help others to make the most of life. What has it got to do with nourishing by nature? Nothing directly. The key thing is: do I feel I can live my purpose through my job, and does FrieslandCampina enable me to bring my full self to work? Can I bring my whole self to work, including my purpose in life? As long as I can do that I’m fulfilled.”
From the moment your personal purpose became manifest, did you start to do things differently?
“I started to feel more comfortable with what I did, because I understood why I acted in certain ways. What changed was the fact that I focused more on the experience of the other. I do still think about that in all the conversations, all those transactions and touch points I have throughout the day – which over my life time will be millions. Do I leave something in the mind or in the hand of the other that makes him or her think: yes, I got the most from it. In times of dilemmas it comes loudest in my head.”
“It’s the same with organizations I believe. In times of dilemmas a purpose can help, guide and ground. In times of doubt purpose is undisputable. It’s solid ground.”
“By the way, it’s one thing to discover your purpose, it’s another thing to actually follow through on it. As an individual you have to invest behind that purpose, just like a company. Otherwise you can only shout you want world peace, solve Brexit… It has to be something you feel it’s within your grasp.”
Abbe Luersman, CHRO of Royal Ahold Delhaize, wonders how you measure the daily added value that comes from living your company purpose…
“At the back of 2018 we did a full company survey to see where we were doing well or still had some gaps. We put questions in it around purpose. Did people feel as though they could make the purpose operational? Could they connect with the purpose, did it guide them in their day to day work life etcetera.
Every quarter we now do a pulse check: how do people feel about our purpose? 93% of our employees feel they can make our purpose operational on a daily basis. Which is extraordinarily high. However… Scores are not everything. So what we try to do now is to get behind those numbers to understand what the correlating factors are within that operating company or location, and the impact on our commercial success.
We now have some early data. It will be fascinating to see the proof points around purpose. And maybe it’s not proven. Or proof comes 50 years from now.
When you look at the full purpose driven piece – better nutrition and a good living for our farmers, now and for generations to come – then it’s clear we don’t merely focus on short term goals and gratifications. But honestly: even if it’s not proven in numbers – which I strongly doubt – we won’t stop. Because there’s something inherently right about us being grounded in purpose.
Purpose is not an epiphany. You have to think about it, ground it. You can also not have a purpose and just go on with business. But that’s not us. That’s not FrieslandCampina.”