System Leadership in Action: An Interview with Andre Eitner

Andre Eitner has been part of the Food Lab family for over decade, including as a participant in our Impact Lab and learning journeys. We decided to (virtually) sit down with him and dig into what he’s learned about effective systems leadership and what it means in his work. In his current position, Andre is a PepsiCo’s Agro Sustainability Manger.

Q: Andre, how do you define system leadership?

A: System leadership to me is truly impactful leadership. It happens when you try to see and influence the connections behind the data points; when you ask how they interconnect and when you focus on optimizing the whole system versus maximizing single points. In many ways agriculture is a natural fit for the system perspective because food production is reliant on natural systems such as soil and water that impact bigger systems like climate change.

Q: How have you found success in what’s often a competitive world of KPI’s and quarterly targets?

A: Our purpose as sustainability professionals and system leaders is to change the status quo towards a better future and this takes grit, intellectual work as well emotional energy. Replenishing your energy sources is crucial to being an effective systems leader.

Three things help me:

Firstly, refueling in nature, for example by exploring the River Thames in my kayak.

Secondly, knowing that I’m part of a much bigger movement is really critical to staying grounded. I gain a lot from connecting with like-minded peers, be that through the Impact Lab or through my cohort of sustainability practitioners from graduate school.

Lastly, it’s essential to be able take pride in the impact you create through your work. I couldn’t be more excited in this context about the recent launch of PepsiCo’s Positive Agriculture ambition. It puts regenerative agriculture at the heart of the business. This strikes me as an exceptional opportunity for applied systems leadership.

Q: What makes good system leadership in your view?

An effective system leader is able to connect to the people they seek to influence and to create moments of inflection for them; moments that broaden their perspectives and to which they connect emotionally. Bringing them out to a farm is an exceptionally powerful way of achieving this. The in-person experience of connecting with farmers on the land; seeing the system at work and the opportunities it holds brings the complexity alive in a way that a slide presentation can never do.

Other character traits of a good system leader include a strong bias for action; an ability to focus on joint outcomes over ego and to be able to get on with the job in the absence of perfect data.

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