Systems Leadership

Many of our jobs focus on specific objectives (increasing sales numbers, quantifying GHG emissions, or increasing farmer productivity in a certain supply chain), but there is a need for some of us to look at the system as a whole in order to tackle those problems outside of our daily challenges, and enable us to work on larger-scope issues such as climate resilience, deforestation or water stewardship. Sustainable Food Lab’s co-director Hal Hamilton sat down with Jan Kees Vis, Global Director of Sustainable Sourcing Development for Unilever and Dolf van den Brink, CEO of Heineken Mexico to discuss how they cultivate internal buy-in and effectively communicate their big-picture messages externally.

Both Vis and van den Brink provided specific examples that revolved around the idea of motivating people by asking them to think about purpose. In the case of Heineken, during van den Brink’s first year as CEO, he took two days to sit down with his senior managers to explore their individual purpose. “Personal purpose is NEVER about money – it’s about what people care about more deeply.” He used this conversation to broaden the definition of success, which ultimately led to their new slogan, “To win big for a better Mexico” which gets to the heart of the company’s sense of responsibility to the people it serves. Vis finds his colleagues inspired by the purpose for each brand that they offer. Unilever, a company that offers over 500 different brands, has a unifying aim to make sustainable living commonplace. As Vis notes, sustainability costs a bit more, so there is a need to translate that additional cost into additional value. Unilever conducted market research and discovered that brands with a purpose grow faster and have a better margin than brands without explicit purpose: that is how you turn sustainability into brand value. Some brands, like Knorr and Lipton have sustainability purposes, and some have purposes such as “self-esteem for young women,” “healthy food,” or “family hygiene.”

Hal noted that many people working in sustainability can feel stymied in big companies, face resistance from people with short-term objectives, wishing they could be more effective at catalyzing the change they want to see. Vis encouraged those feeling frustrated in sustainability jobs: “Don’t be shy, you could be the one that knows or figures out how to make it operational.” His other advice, “organize a challenge” that inspires others in your company to think outside the box. Van den Brink encouraged those who are feeling frustrated to keep pushing and think outside the box. He noted an example of when a young man led the Tecate marketing team to confront a challenging social issue: domestic violence in Mexico. Driven by their purpose and conviction, the team convinced their higher ups to do “all of the things you don’t do in a beer ad” with a Tecate commercial that made waves in Mexico and around the globe. Tecate’s brand image has long been associated with machismo. In this case the young brand team decided to directly take on gender violence and showed how a brand can help shift values. The ad team became a powerful example to the whole organization and beyond.

There is so much to be done in the field of sustainability and we need leaders who can both foster internal buy-in to increase sustainability and communicate the value externally. At the end of the session, Hal put forth a question to a group, “We all have important jobs and sometimes our jobs can feel routine.  What would it take for each of us to up our game a little bit?”

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