Purpose At Work: Ocean Spray’s Key To Leadership During Challenging Times

Exemplary leaders earn their reputation by providing support and guidance during times of both prosperity and adversity. Companies that take care of their stakeholders build trust and community. Over time, this develops into higher employee retention and customer loyalty.

A company cultivating community and demonstrating purposeful leadership in these difficult coronavirus times is Ocean Spray. I had the chance to speak with Brian Schiegg, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Ocean Spray. Here’s what he shared.

Simon Mainwaring: We were all blindsided by COVID. From a sales perspective, how did it hit the business?

Brian Schiegg: First, we took a step back to think, ‘What do we need to do to protect the health and safety of our colleagues?’ We immediately implemented best practices provided by the CDC. Also, to take care of our colleagues and show appreciation for our frontline team, we added $1.50 an hour for frontline food manufacturing associates.

We’re owned by 700 family farmers. In many cases they pass on the business from generation to generation. Our purpose is to connect our farms to families for a better life. That guides us not only day to day, but also in our response to the COVID-19 situation.

In terms of the business, we’ve seen a spike in demand as it relates to our grocery customer business. We’ve done a nice job responding to it, thanks to our frontline colleagues and their hard work. But our focus right now, again, is our people and our community — making sure we can keep the grocery stores stocked across the US.

As I look across the organization, I’m encouraged by the response. We donated over 100 thousand meals to people in need, as well as hundreds of thousands of our juices and snacks. There’s a lot of regional action that isn’t dictated by corporate too. You’ve got people in Middleborough, Massachusetts. They’re donating whatever remaining supplies they have, like masks, to the first responders, to the fire department, to the local hospital.

Our folks at factories in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin are donating juice to the local hospital. In the West Coast I have a sales manager who’s buying pizza for the local grocery store, knowing that they’re on the front line and experiencing some of the same challenges that we are.

The first question that everyone asked was ‘How can we help?’ That came from our board. That came from our farmer-owners. That’s where we started from.

SM: Where do you think this instinctive reaction comes from?

BS: I think it’s the history of being owned by farmers. There’s this natural connection to the communities we live and work in. It comes from our purpose. Ocean Spray was founded in 1930 with three cranberry farmers coming together to try to make life better for themselves and the rest of the cranberry farmers. The connection to farms with family is part of our life. It solidifies us. Those types of people gravitate to joining Ocean Spray. It makes what you do everyday that much more important. You can look in the face of your owners and know what they’re trying to do is aligned with what you’re trying to do. I think it comes from that space.

People aren’t looking for a picture or a press release. They’re just trying to do the right thing and let that stand on its own.

SM: Any advice you might give, either internally in terms of culture or externally in terms of marketing, about being sensitive during times of crisis?

BS: Putting people first will always serve you. Secondarily, be authentic. If you’re going to talk about what you’re doing, it needs to be in a way that connects to your purpose. The final thing I’d say is to lead with empathy. This is unprecedented. Our community, our friends, our families, the first responders, everyone is going through this for the first time. Keep in mind the perspective of others while you’re going through this. It’s easy to go to a place of, ‘What does this mean to me?’ Ask yourself, ‘What does it mean for my community?’

Make sure you’re communicating with internal folks as much as possible. Let them know how the company is doing so they can understand because there’s so much uncertainty. We will come out on the other side of this.

SM: When you talk about communicating with your internal teams, what does that cadence look like?

BS: We have overall communication from top leadership about twice a week to the rest of the organization on how the company is doing. Just as important are our local team-level meetings. Five to 10 people can have real discussions compared to 2000 people on a video conference. There’s Friday virtual happy hour and a Coffee Connect on Thursday mornings. We’re just trying to understand where people’s heads are and how they’re feeling. We’re also making sure our colleagues on the front line that are making food every day have the things they need and feel listened to and valued.

SM: Increasing the hourly wage is such an important signal you’re sending to the entire organization. How did you arrive at that and how was it received?

BS: It’s been received really well. It’s a token of our gratitude and appreciation for everything our colleagues across the world and on the frontline are doing. Actually, the decision really wasn’t a decision, but an instinct. When this started, we said, ‘This is something we need to do.’ It goes back to that purpose.

SM: You’re supporting Feeding America food banks, Second Harvest, First Responders First and so on. Can you talk about the broader suite of purpose work you’re doing?

BS: In a time of crisis you’re going to step up and you’ll do things differently, but giving back is part of Ocean Spray’s DNA. Over the years we’ve worked with companies like Bright Pink on monetary and product donations to support breast cancer and ovarian cancer research. We’ve also partnered with research hospitals like St. Jude’s. It’s an ongoing part of our identity.

The other piece I’d mention is our commitment to sustainability. When you have a goal of passing cranberry farms down from generation to generation you have to do things the right way and we recently announced that 100% of our crop is sustainably grown.

SM: Is there anything that you’re taking away from this difficult time?

BS: One of the upsides is celebrating our frontline colleagues in our food production facilities. I think that’s something that is going to continue. Not that we didn’t do it before, but it has heightened their importance.

From a communication standpoint, while we miss being in the same physical space, the lesson is that it’s possible to stay connected with others from a distance. It’s forced us to connect in a different way.

We take off our professional hats. On these video calls you see people sitting at their dining tables. There’s a cat in the background, a kid running in front of the screen. It brings out humanity in a way you wouldn’t necessarily see in the office.

SM: How do you communicate what you’re doing without seeming self-serving?

BS: How you communicate has to be authentic. It’s more about what we’re doing than how you traditionally think of marketing. Consumers are going to be skeptical if your communication isn’t consistent with your brand and what you stand for.

SM: What would you say to a brand that’s sitting on the sidelines right now?

BS: There’s always something you can do. It doesn’t have to be financial. It’s how you rally your organization. It can be a donation of time or other resources to help out in the community.

SM: Do you have any sense of how things will be different on the other side of the pandemic?

BS: It’s hard to predict. One of the things we’re looking at is acceleration of e-commerce. We see more volume in that space. Then there’s coming back to the food service side of the business. We’re looking at the dynamic between that and traditional grocery stores.

SM: What message would you send to the front line medical practitioners, essential service providers and businesses that are retooling to meet new challenges?

BS: Just a huge thank you. Everyone’s doing what they can. That’s the attitude you have to have in a situation like this. There’s no silver bullet.

Even though times are hard, it makes you feel good as a leader to see what’s happening across the food industry, on the front lines, with first responders and individuals. I’m encouraged. You have to look for the light in dark situations. We will come out on the other side of this. The day to day piece of it is a challenge. But there will be better days ahead. If everyone does their small part we will enable those better days.

CEO We First Inc, author NYT's bestseller We First, strategic corporate consultant and trainer, father, Australian, optimist.

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