Gooder Podcast featuring Kate Ruffing
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The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s true about everything – including leadership. The naturals industry (food/beverage/wellness/fitness) is being impacted by the most extensive set of disruptions the industry has seen in a long time — maybe ever. And while you can hope your way through this time, leadership is what will guide your company and brand through the hurdles and hopefully catapult into a better place than you are in now.
In this episode listen to the life lessons and learnings of Kate Ruffing, and how her path to leadership coaching started and is founded on the principles of rowing.
In this episode you will learn:
- The difference in organizing your company between structural vs functional roles.
- How to create a culture that trusts leadership.
- How reaching though the “glass floor” strengthens your company in times of crisis.
- How making mistakes are the fastest path to growth.
Host: Hi, welcome to The Gooder Podcast as partner and CMO of retail Voodoo and award winning branding agency I have met and worked with some of the most amazing women in the naturals industry, food beverage, wellness, fitness. As such, I decided to create The Gooder Podcast to interview these great people and subject matter experts and have them share their insights and expertise to help businesses all around the world become better. So today I’m super excited to have Kate Ruffing join us or join me as part of the conversation. I have known Kate for a while here and super excited for you guys to get to meet her. So a little bit about her. For over 20 years Kate has been growing brands across the food, beverage and agricultural and health industries, starting with her time at Kraft Foods where she worked on billion dollar brands like Oscar Mayer, Oreo and DiGiorno Pizza to her roles at Starbucks where she brought retail brands to b2b markets and re-launched the Starbucks food program. She has proven track record for successful brand and product launches.
This is the interesting part I’m going to ask a little bit more later, Kate attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and got a degree in Meat and Animal Science and Food Chemistry and holds an MBA from the University Of Chicago Booth School Of Business. Her roles have been in operations production, our deep product development, brand management and strategy. Now after all of that, she has her own consulting firm called Flashpoint Strategy where she develops strategies and guides companies such as Starbucks, Nestle, Dry Sparkling, HighKey Snacks and Yakima Chief Hops to grow their top and bottom line, business and brands. So along with being a dog lover, she is also a multi-disciplined craftsman that seems to enjoy making stained glass creations, car restoration and remodeling or I’ll call it bathroom destruction reconstruction. Do I have that covered? Did I get it all?
Kate: You did. And I’m really glad to say that I was able to get all the drywall out of my hair for this podcast. I’m in the middle of some of that deconstruction reconstruction work during this time, so it’s good to take off the overalls and put on something nice for a change.
Host: Well, so Kate, you and I met during your time at Dry Sparkling, Dry Soda at the time when the firm that I worked for retail Voodoo was working on the rebrand and since then we’ve worked on a couple of other brands and kind of grown to know each other personally and professionally. I think the latest the last big one that we worked on was Yakima Chief Hops that I think was really fun for both you and us, that was really great and fun and different one. So thank you so much for coming and participating in this dialogue, in this platform that I’m starting. So the first question that I want to come back to is so Meat and Animal Science and Food Chemistry Program. Tell us a little bit more about that. How did you get there? What was it about that that found you in that program?
Kate: Yeah, it’s like most paths in life you find yourself sometimes taking a detour you never expected. My original goal when I went off to college was to go to Vet. School, I was a farm girl and loved to read too many James Herriot books as a child and really wanted to be that large animal vet. But I didn’t go and get into vet school. It’s actually more competitive to get into vet school than med school. So I did not make it into vet school because I was rowing competitively at the University of Wisconsin, and obviously had other distractions as well. So and while my grades were great, they weren’t good enough to get into vet school. So my choices were med school, which I didn’t really want to go into med school or as my advisor sort of pointed out to me, I was a few credits shy of this Meat Animal Science degree. And so it was sort of the path of least resistance in terms of just getting my degree conferred. But what I found is I took those classes was how much I enjoyed the balance of art and science that goes into food. And so Meat Science is a very, very narrow discipline of the food science world from chemistry tends to be a little bit broader. So my undergrad was in Meat and Animal Science so I do know what goes into a hot dog and it’s all good stuff. That’s the headline there. Then I did work against a food chemistry masters as well. I’m just really working on more well-rounded disciplines.
And around the chemistry of all food; and as you mentioned, I then went on to get an MBA to get bonafide in business.
Host: Yes. Okay, well, so it’s so funny. I think a lot of people kind of fall into a program at school and I think there’s some statistics that say that like only 50% of people who get a degree in this specific discipline that they go into actually continue forward in that. You’re kind of a little bit of a hybrid because you’re still in the food and beverage program, but in a little bit of a different capacity that’s where the MBA kind of comes into play. So you came out of the program, you worked at some of these major brands, how did you find your way into the leadership component? That must be the NBA influence you went from doing, to get guiding, to leading talk a little bit about that.
Kate: I think that was always my natural tendency. I think some people just find themselves in leadership roles regardless of what they do, because they’ve got just natural passions and talents. In that capacity, I’ve always sort of been that leader. I was in sports for many years, including as I mentioned, University Wisconsin rowing team where I was captain of the rowing team there. So I always found myself rising up into those leadership positions and brand management, in particular, does call for a lot of thought leadership, people leadership, obviously, brand leadership, but I think it was really as I moved from being sort of that lab rats, if you will in R&D, I always aspired to be in more of a leadership position and it was once again a turn of fate that landed me my first brand management role with Oscar Mayer. I was joking around with one of the senior leaders as we were working on some product development and they said, “Well, anybody can do marketing, you try to make a hot dog,” and he laughed and he said, “Well, if you want to put your money where your mouth is, there’s a position open up at headquarters leading the brand that I think you should apply for.” And so I think he saw in me a natural talent to drive strategy and to drive a brand forward. And I interviewed for it and honestly, I don’t know what they saw. But they saw something because they hired me for the role and I’ve always been in leadership positions around brands and strategy ever since.
Host: Wow. It’s so funny. I’m like, I hear that, I was working in actuarial department as an admin when the marketing team pulled me in, they recruited me and pulled me in and it was like, “Okay, okay, we’re doing this now.” I went from being a coding girl to- I’m going to be running marketing programs. So a little bit of the same but only different. Tell us a little bit here you’re saying it was like the opportunities are percentage you were you kind of like follow the opportunities or were you a little bit more programmatic and saying I want to go in that direction?
Kate: I would love to say that I had a map to my career. But I didn’t. It’s been more of a compass heading. I’ve always really wanted to follow my passion points and so when something gets me excited, that’s an indicator that maybe that’s something that I should be pursuing. A lot of people ask, “How do you get from where you were to where you are now?” And honestly, for me, it was saying yes to a lot of professional opportunities that challenged my own learnings and really stretched me in new ways. I’ve recently during this time of COVID, gotten into doing a daily yoga practice and you learn through the course of yoga, that part of it is not only just keeping the breath going, but also stretching yourself into new positions and getting comfortable with that when you get comfortable with that going a little bit deeper. And I think that’s how I have progressed professionally as well as gone; I don’t know if that’s something that I can stretch into believing in myself enough to say, you know what, what’s the real danger here? And taking that leap of faith and saying I’m really passionate about this, and I’m just going to give it a try and see what happens. And that’s how I’ve honestly found myself where I am today. It’s taking those steps along the way that is just opportunities as they presented themselves.
Host: Great! What is it that is keeping you in the industry? I kind of already get a sense for what it might be, but I’ll let you tell us.
Kate: Yeah, I think, for me, this industry, in the food and beverage world, is that people are so close knit. I think that is something that I’ve realized, as I’ve now had over 20 years of experience in this industry, is that your two degrees of separation from most people in this industry.
Because we find people that love food and beverage stick with food and beverage and we’ve had the opportunity to work together on multiple projects and it’s the same across the board with many colleagues that I love to continue to work with; is that we all find ourselves very rooted in the passion of really nourishing a population and being the best we can in that space. So, I also think it’s a lot of fun that when people ask me what I do at dinner parties and I tell them I’m in the food and beverage industry that gives everybody something to talk about. So you’re never short on conversation and people always do try to give you their opinions on what should be next, which is always fun.
I also think this is an industry that’s always under constant reinvention and innovation and if I was going to talk about what drew me to the industry and kept me in the industry is it’s this constant reinvention, what people are eating and drinking and experiencing and what their needs are constantly shifting. So it’s been something that has kept my passions going, just always staying ahead of that curve and understanding when that consumer is going to show up and need a product. So that balance of art and science, market research, consumer insights, behavioral economics, it’s the perfect fusion of all those in this wonderful industry.
Host: Wow. I think I hear that from your sort of bits and pieces of that from a number of people. So that’s awesome. So one of those reasons, one of the big reasons that I wanted to have you on the show is, we’ve worked with each other a few times, and I’ve seen you brought into leadership roles for several organizations and you have a way of approaching leadership and organizational change that I see is really effective and empowering to brands that you’re brought into. And right now, there’s a lot of change and there’s always change. But now there’s like changed change and I thought, let’s talk a little bit about your philosophy and maybe there’s some nuggets some people can pick up from like, “Oh, I hadn’t considered it that way.” And so my question kind of around that this change and organizational leadership, talk a little bit about your philosophy in leadership and what works for you? What have you found has been really effective for you?
Kate: Well, for me, holistic business strategy really is a mix of ingredients. We’ll use a food sort of analogy here for this one and I think there are three key elements. The first is strategy having a good solid business strategy or brand strategy. Second is management and leadership and the third is luck. And we could talk about, can you create your own luck? Are you there waiting when the luck sort of opens up, but there is this element of just the perfect convergence of forces, that happens. But really, if you dive into the strategy and the leadership, those are two of the huge components and it’s sort of like three legs of a stool, you need all three of them for your business to really hold up. So as I work with companies, and when I’ve stepped into leadership positions, I am really looking at those three legs of the stool; management, strategy and luck. And when it comes to my leadership philosophy, I think it really does ground in being an athlete. When I was at University of Wisconsin, on the rowing team, that’s really where I learned a lot about leadership and there are a lot of parallels between rowing and leading an organization especially through rough waters and really just understanding how you proceed as a team. Because that’s the thing about leadership is that you are pointing a direction, you are trying to help steer a team through good waters and bad waters. But you really need everybody to be working together. So if you don’t mind, I’ll give you a little bit about rowing because I think it parallels into some of my leadership philosophy.
Host: Yeah, of course.
Kate: So some things about rowing, if you’re not familiar, one of the things is the coach is in a separate boat. They’re in a very plush launch with an engine on it and they have a way of looking at the entire landscape of the race, the race way, but they can’t necessarily interfere with the rowers that are on the racecourse. So what’s important is that you have a Coxswain in the boat and that’s the person that is usually steering the boat.
They are coaching in the moment. So if you will draw a parallel, your CEO is the coach and the launch in the boat with the motor and then you’ve got the coxswain that’s maybe your department head, in the boat with the team that’s actually maybe driving a strategy forward. And those rowers are really the teammates that are going to get you from point A to the end of the race. And when the coxswain is in the boat they’re calling out the race plan, and this is an agreed upon race plan, like everybody knows every stroke over that 2000 meter course that they’re going to take so everybody has a plan in mind. Now, as we know, in both rowing and business, plans can come apart. You can hit choppy water, you can hit a wave that you didn’t see coming. You may have a competitive team getting in the lane next to you that is just kicking your butt and you got to change in the moment.
I think that happens in business too, right? You’ve got a plan, you’re executing that plan and then something shifts. It can be COVID. It can be a good opportunity. It can be like, hey, we just landed this huge contract and now we got to figure out how to ramp up production to meet those demands. So it’s important that the CEO can take a look at the landscape and really understand what’s happening but the department heads, a.k.a the coxswain also can drive forward and make those adjustments as the situation presents itself. And then what’s critical to all of this and this is where I get to the core of my leadership philosophy; it is the rowers that have to believe and execute and that is not something you can command. All the yelling and screaming in the world can’t get your rollers to do what you want them to do especially in times of change, the good crews that come together and really rise up and respond, are the ones that have a strong culture within that boat and I think that’s really as I talk about leadership.
So much of leadership is getting out of the ways of the people that actually make it happen. So the rowers and their culture is important at driving forth that plan as its happening, and also providing feedback. I mean, there’s not a lot of talking that happens during a race because you’re working on your breathing quite honestly and your row skills, but you need to make sure that you’re like, “Okay, we’re going to respond as a team.” And so there are some nonverbal ways of communicating with the boat that get people to respond and move forward in a cohesive fashion. That all said, all rowers look like they’re doing the same thing but they have very distinct roles that they’re filling within that boat. And I think that’s important on your team as well.
I have seen crews and businesses fall apart when you don’t have the right people in the right seat. Even though I wrote in teams of eight, so you would have eight people all facing backwards so you don’t really see where you’re going. But you had to trust everybody in that boat that they were doing their work and their work; if you were in the stern, which is from a rower’s perspective, the front because we’re facing backwards, those are the two that are setting the pace, they’re setting the stroke rate, they’re going okay, we’re going to go faster or we’re going to lengthen out. The middle four and an eight is the engine room and so they’re just cranking along and the back two are really balancing the boat. So it’s amazing how you need to make sure as a leader and as a rower, are you in the right seat? Are you performing to your strengths? I was not a boat balancer that was never my skill set that takes a lot of fineness. I was an engine room girl like I was there to crank. And so whenever I was in the bow, you could tell the boat just did not run as efficiently. You put me back in the engine room, and we were clipping along again. So I think as a leader, it’s important to understand who you have in the seats and are they their right seats and what’s your culture like? And is that culture strong enough to pull you through times of adversity and also opportunity? So that’s a broad, very deep, probably explanation. But I just wanted to ground in that because as I as we talked a little bit deeper. I’m going to keep going back to culture and how important that is.
Host: Sure. I think, no surprise, right. I mean culture; you can have the smartest people in the room.
And if they don’t trust each other, you’re not going to be able to have the kind of success that you want just because nobody’s really giving it 100% all the time or kind of all, everything’s always sort of guarded. It’s so interesting. You can see I’m writing notes here as you’re talking, just to kind of solidify what you’re saying in my head. This right fit right seat is something that our firm subscribes to as well and we also like to talk to other organizations and kind of go, part of your strength is right fit. So as a leader, when you’re coming into an organization, when you don’t have the right fit and the right seat, and you’re the guy or the girl that needs to come in and make sure that your job is to return profitability or increased profitability, grow new opportunity, whatever that is, how do you use that kind of culture and maybe your team background to help nurture the change so that there is right fit? Does that question make sense?
Kate: It’s a really challenging one, especially now because a lot of people are having to make hard decisions and part of that is which right butts which right seats. I think it comes back to a word you used before, which is trust and that’s linked very closely to culture. If you have a culture in your organization that trusts leadership, that trusts each other, that becomes a point of entry for a conversation around; here’s what I’m saying, here’s what I need, I think you would be great for XYZ. Now, some people are self-aware enough to help identify that. You may have 10 times in your team where somebody raises their hand and says, “Hey, I really think I’m good at this. Or I would really like to try that.” Now your job as leader is maybe to take a chance on that person, or maybe to coach them otherwise.
One of the things, the tools I use is I love strength finder, which is a great way of assessing people’s strengths and focusing their strengths. Because what happens is when you put somebody in the seat where they’re passionate, that they’ve got natural talents, they’re going to naturally rise in that occasion. And so strength finder becomes a great coaching tool. So if you see somebody who has a behavior that’s not maybe contributing to the culture, the strategy of your organization, go to their strengths first and figure out is there an opportunity to move them into a role that’s better suited for them or are they just overusing their strength? You need to have that trust embedded in your leadership conversations to say, this is not a slight, because there’s many times when you run into people that have an aspiration that they want to be something when they grow up. That’s hard when you have to sort of burst that bubble and say, maybe that’s not your right seat. But can you find this place within the organization where they are going to be better suited that they are going to contribute meaningfully? And can they trust you to make that move that’s best, not only for them, but also for the organization. And unfortunately, sometimes through that process, there are people that aren’t going to make the team and that’s part of keeping the culture alive. And that can be done respectfully, obviously, and in a very meaningful way, but sometimes, right people in the right seat sometimes mean that some people don’t make the crew that year and that’s a tough conversation, but that’s your job as a leader because you are charged with getting the strategy and the leadership all aligned to move forward and to win the race.
Host: Yeah, that’s interesting and I love that you’re talking about strengths finder as a tool, and that’s one of the questions that I wanted to ask you is like, okay, in this culture of change, or in a culture of change, you’re a change agent by nature. So you’re kind of used to change but we’re now talking about things that are kind of outside our ability to control regardless of whether you come in. But let’s talk a little bit about tools. You talk about strength finder as a tool, what other trends or tools do you see that other leaders are maybe not, or that are, I guess, things that are underutilized or people maybe aren’t paying much attention to or, I guess just what else out there could other leaders be looking for to help them as they’re going through these kind of big changes?
Kate: One of the things that I think is a blind spot for leaders is they think they need to know everything.
And they don’t rely on their teams to provide that feedback. If you have a strong culture within your organization, you should be reaching out to the people that are rowing the race, to ask them what they think and what they would see as a way to respond to this. It should be active listening and really understanding what they’re seeing and experiencing, because the people that do the job every day are probably going to have some really strong insights into what is going to help win this race. And that’s important because they may help you in identifying some of those unofficial organizational opportunity areas.
So obviously, you’ve seen the org chart which is top down and it looks very linear and that’s not how our organizations function. There are people that are little nodes of cooperation and working together. And I think we’ve all been on teams, where we sort of sit back and go, “Wow, how does she get that done? How does she get that entire group to come on board and help her with that?” Well, that’s probably an unofficial role that that person that’s a cultural node, and maybe they go to lunch together, maybe they grab coffee together. But there’s a reason why that team forms together and so if you talk to the people that are actually doing the work, they may help you in identifying well, I work really well with X, Y, and Z on these teams and we could have a separate little incubator that can bring this idea forward. And that’s what’s important about leadership too is getting out of your own way and knowing that sometimes just dictating from the top of the org chart down is not going to get you the results you want.
So you have to put ego to the side, you have to put some of your MBA philosophies. You are the leader and therefore know all to the side and really trust your people as much as you want them to trust in you. One of the great books that I like to reference all the time is culture eats, strategy for lunch. This is a great book. I use this with a lot of my clients as we’re talking about how you want to manage not only business strategy, but also management strategy and leadership within your organization and the trick to this is you can’t just say, okay, we’re going to have culture. It’s something you cultivate over time. I mean, it’s not something you just insert turns ugly, like wave. So it’s really important as you’re looking at your holistic leadership work across your organization to really think about culture and not in an HR like, hey, let’s go do just a ropes course once a year. Yeah, that lasts through the next big waves that come through. So yeah this is one of those books that I like to use as a reference point has a lot of good insights on how you can think about teams.
Host: You said something really interesting that I think people know intrinsically but I think MBA programs tend to hammer out of people you talked about, there’s the functional org chart, but that’s not how things work. So it’s like, you’ve got structural versus functional, and sometimes they are not in alignment. Oftentimes, they’re not and I think especially people — and might be different with people coming out of MBA programs now because I’m starting to see a little bit of a shift where culture is starting to be discussed a little bit more in MBA programs, but mostly people come out as charts and graphs experts rather than leaders by being a leader, I don’t know how to explain that differently. So really like that and the whole, part of that is setting the ego aside. How do you encourage people to identify when their ego is in the way in this situation?
Kate: Sometimes those are the fiercest conversations as a consultant to really sort of hold up the mirror to somebody through coaching. I think that’s really as I talk about a lot of what I do, I am a business coach, so I sit with executives and help them not only with strategy, but also on their management and they love to present me with that or charge that humanity users. Here’s our org chart, and I love to just rip it in half and you go, oh, let’s not talk about that. I want you to or can you articulate to me who gets together for lunch? Who goes social outings? Who comes together during times that you need them? What are those natural teams? They tend to gravitate together and then through some of that conversation, able to say, what are you doing to enable that energy versus that said art, that’s basically like saying, getting out of your own way to check your ego at the door when you come in? And then what can they do to just break down those barriers?
I think one of the things that I often notice is we always talk about the upward glass ceiling, especially as women in industry and how we try to break through that glass ceiling. The other thing is, I think we have a glass floor. As we rise up in an organization, sometimes we feel like we can’t ever reach back down and understand what’s happening, sort of underneath us from an org chart perspective. So how do you break that glass floor open to and really be part of the team get out of the coach’s launch, get into the boat, and really understand what’s happening. How do you become part of the team, not just somebody dictating direction?
We know that can’t be done all the time, there’s responsibilities that executives and leaders have within an organization that take them away from rowing every day, if you will, and they should maintain that, but were there the opportunities to get back in the boat and really understand what’s happening within your crew and being part of the team.
Host: Awesome. So I want to talk a little bit and we kind of touched on this a little bit, but what are common outages and leadership when things are in a bad crisis? And then I kind of wanted to separate out that what are the common outages in leadership? Or what do you see as common outages in leadership when things are good? I kind of feel like I’m trying to separate them when they’re really kind of the same. So I might be asking an earlier question in a different way. What are common outages and leadership in crisis, something amazing has happened, something not amazing has happened, but it’s definitely not status quo?
Kate: I think in times of good, there’s not maybe the same attention to the opportunity to learn as they’re in times of bad. When let’s just say a large contract was just landed by your sales team and now it’s like, oh, well just ramp up production, meet that new quota. Maybe there’s some high fiving that goes on around the office to celebrate the success. But if you don’t respond to that positive change, you’re not setting up sort of a philosophy of how you respond to things when they go bad. And so how do you, as a leader, really recognize every opportunity as an opportunity to grow and transform and become more efficient and become more productive? When times are good, that should be a time to really understand what else can be done? Is there an opportunity to restructure a little bit and give people more opportunities or new opportunities? Is there an opportunity to open up communication again, across the organization?
Communication is one of those things that tends to break down fastest in bad times, but also can be very silent during good times. So what is the plan on how you want to respond to this good news? What does it mean for the crew and how can they contribute? Where is help, may be needed and having the celebration, of course, during good times is a great thing to have. But you also have this opportunity that sets up to really say, “Okay, how can we once again lean back on that culture and really use this as a learning tool for how we want to get more business and respond to more business?”
Host: Okay, I’m going to ask a really scary question. I didn’t get this with you.
Kate: I love it.
Host: Who do you think is really rocking it right now, from a leadership standpoint? I mean, you don’t have to list all of them, but like, who were the first two or three that popped to the top of your mind as being good internal leaders, not external leaders, because that’s add almost to something different?
Kate: Boy, that’s hard to tell in these days because I think the companies that are doing well aren’t necessarily the CEOs that are getting their names out there. No, it’s the people under the leadership of an organization that they’ve been empowered to make decisions and therefore they’re doing some great things. I think that culturally some of the great cultures that I have seen that respond well, Tesla is a large organization and Elon Musk gets a lot of flak and credits for what’s going on.
Peeking underneath that organization, there’s a lot of cultural elements that just go into making that brand responsive to things. And so I think that’s a crew that rose well together under stress. I recently watched the SpaceX launch, which is obviously a different division. But that philosophy carries over and what I saw when they sort of watched, you’ve got something very linear, like NASA coming together with something that’s a little bit organic like SpaceX, and just the energies, you could tell, even watching on TV that the SpaceX organization had this culture that was very responsive to, “Okay, we’ve hit this hurdle. How do we do this? How do we pivot there? We’ve just had a rocket blow up. Okay, now what do we do? And okay, now we’ve got into space. Now, what do we do?” It was very interesting to watch. And I don’t think Elon is driving that bus.
He’s important in setting the direction. But I think there’s others within that organization that are really making the dream become a reality and they’re culturally enabled to do that. So I think they’re doing really well considering the environments that they’re under in food and beverage. I think it’s too early to tell who’s going to respond first to this. There’s a lot of organizations having some fierce conversations. I think in the natural foods world really, I haven’t interacted with anybody that I’m alarmed by, but there’s some leadership opportunities in food and beverage to say, “Okay, how are we going to embrace a new normal?” And I think it’s a little too early to tell on that. Does that answer your question?
Host: Sure. I love how diplomatic you’re being. That’s pretty great.
Kate: Nobody’s messed it up that bad.
Host: I’m thinking of, there’s a couple of food and beverage brands that I think in my mind that kind of come to the top when I was like, in that vein of, there’s something that you said, so I kind of just want to check you on this when you say, it’s not really the leadership, it’s not the founder owner or the CEO, it’s the people underneath them that have been empowered and I kind of want to go, “Well, the CEO or the leader who’s the talking head has to empower them.” So in some way, shape or form, they are driving the culture that way. You got to hire C suite and your VP levels, and then letting them drive the culture is from the tops. At least that’s what I’m thinking. I could be wrong.
Kate: I think I was going to choose one. There’s a company up in Bellingham called Erin Baker’s breakfast cookies. Erin Baker is the founder and CEO and she does an excellent job of really empowering her people to help drive change, good, bad, ugly. She and I were on a recent phone call and she was telling us about, this is tough times in a lot of ways, but how she is working closely with her team, she’s gone on to the bakery floor, they’re having conversations around what they’re seeing and doing and experiencing. And she is culturally focused right now. There’s a lot that’s outside your control from a business strategy standpoint, but she’s culturally in control of her organization. And she’s really having active conversations with her leadership group to really understand how they move forward. If this continues, or if the shifts again, and I think that’s a great example of somebody who, with her name on the building is really driving that cultural connection with her team and driving her brand forward.
Host: Okay, that’s great. That’s a great example. Thank you. We’re going to move kind of a little bit outside of this leadership space a little bit out of just directly, but I’d love to find out what trends are you finding interesting in food and beverage right now and why and it doesn’t have to be a product or an ingredient innovation. It could be anything. You want to talk about that a little bit?
Kate: Yeah, there’s so much happening, and so much will happen. And I’m excited. This is the kind of stuff as an innovator at hearts I get really excited about, and I really would. It’s that prediction of where we’re going from here. I think we’re going to see some values shifting around.
We’re under a great shift, I think as a global society in terms of values and priorities and how we look at the world and what’s important to us as individuals, but also as cultures. This is a worldwide crisis that we’re going through which we haven’t seen the likes of, at least not in my lifetime. And so how are values for consumers going to shift? And how are their sense of community going to change as well? And I think that does. Those values and sense of community do trickle over into things like brands and food and beverage businesses. What are people going to eat and drink that aligns with their values and their sense of community? Where are they going to go for connection of community, especially as we’ve been doing a lot of this behind a screen? How do you feel like you’re still connected with your community and your community may be growing or it may be shrinking. There’s opportunities in both directions.
I think when it comes to retail and the restaurant experience, we’re going to see some major shifts. That’s something that I think is going to continue. One of my early predictions, and we’ll see if I’m right or not, is that the sense of space when you’re in a shopping environment is going to shift. I think we’ve become much more aware of what is my safe space. So we’ve got this like six foot radius that we’re all now walking in a bubble around. And as things reopened, as we’ve returned to maybe shopping as we remember, when it wasn’t in front of a computer screen, are we going to need to have more space to move down grocery aisles to feel like we can do what we need to do and we’re not bumping up against each other. So I think it’ll be very interesting how as when we are in community, what are our space feels like as we move forward and is that going to change retail reconfigurations?
Are we going to see differences in shopping behavior as a result? How people navigate through stores? How they would navigate through an online experience? What are their expectations of an online experience? I think a lot of us have relied on online as a way to fulfill against our needs. And so how is that going to continue to become part of our daily life and how our brands showing up in their online space if they’ve been mostly in a retail space? When it comes to that customer service and that interaction, are we going to see more or less online? And I would say that we’re going to see more of it because people have gotten used to some of this behavior and that’s not going away.
I think the other thing that we have to be very mindful of, especially in food and beverage is the supply chain. And so especially having worked with agricultural based businesses, there is a lot of efforts going on to say how are we going to keep the supply chain filled with nutritious foods and beverages and ingredients? And that’s something we just need to be very aware of as industry leaders is, how are we going to get it from the farm field to the fork, and really make sure it’s safe, and that the people interacting with each other are safe. So safety is going to become paramount around that supply chain as well as just making sure we’ve got the right foods showing up through the supply chain. So that some of my early predictions.
Host: Yeah, I’d be curious to see if, I’ve seen a couple of IRI presentations in the past couple of weeks and we’re seeing shopping habits starting to return to pre COVID meaning instead of shopping during the week, they’re now back to shopping during the weekend, but less afraid to be around groups of people. Some of the online spend is shifting back to traditional retail. I think that’s probably going to wait for a while as we see some spikes and that sort of thing. But when you’re thinking of, like long term, are you thinking perhaps stores might have larger footprints carry less of a selection? I don’t ever think in store retail is ever going to go away. I think as human beings, we still want to be around other people around for certain types of activities. So do you have a speculation?
Kate: I think we may see a narrowing of categories. We’ve had a lot of line extensions over the years that were flush with money. I think we’re going to see fewer bigger, better in terms of shelf allocation. When that happens, that’s going to free up maybe not necessarily changing the brick and mortar footprint, but can you reconfigure the stores so that the aisles flow different or is there different ways that produce is sort of displayed? I think it’s going to be a lot with how consumers really shop within a category.
And I pick on grocery quite a bit just because I spend a lot of time in that space, but how are they going to flow through the store? How are they going to interact with the products? How are they going to safely interact with the products and with other people? So I think there’s a little bit of narrowing in terms of skews, but it’s also going to open up space for new products to get in. I think retailers are going to be looking for ways to draw people in to their stores for getting liquid to lips or really that taste experience. And brands are going to be hungry for that as well. So how is there going to be new opportunities in that area as well. So nobody knows exactly, but consumer behavior is going to drive a lot of these little changes I would say. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more of — one idea that I was kicking around with a fellow consultant friend of mine was are you going to have a little bit more of the scanning shop?
So if you remember registering for a wedding or something like you walk around with a scanner. And so rather than having a footprint where you’ve got all the fruits and vegetables laid out, are you going through and sort of scanning the items you want rather than picking up and holding them and maybe putting them back, but you’re scanning the items that you want, and then somebody picking and packing in the back room, you go to check out your groceries are there and you just scan and leave with everything that you’ve scanned in? So who knows? Some will love that idea or not. But is that a way for people to pick out what they want, but not necessarily interact with it directly? And we’ll have to see if consumers are like, “Nope, I still want to pick up that orange and squeeze it and decide that’s the one for me.” We’ll have to find out.
Host: There’s a lot of foodies out there that are recoiling right now.
Kate: I’m one of them. If I haven’t picked it out of my garden, I don’t know if I trust this. Honestly, the environmentalist in me is like, “Oh, how much more packaging do we really need?”
Host: I think packaging is its own, like, I’ll be having somebody talk about that in a little while. And I spoke with somebody else about packaging and supply chain in a previous podcast that will be published shortly. So that’ll be fun.
Kate: I’ll have to tune in for that one because I’m very interested to understand how consumers are going to respond to packaging and these barriers that we’re trying to put between our food and ourselves.
Host: Give us a little interesting fact. Like what is something that many people may not know of that you’ve kind of learned in your history that could be a fun fact or something more a little bit more business oriented?
Kate: I’ve been doing a lot of those zoom trivia. There’s been a lot of fun facts that have popped up in my head. I didn’t know that. I will say one of the things. Recently you mentioned Yakima chief hops, and that’s in the brewing world. For those who don’t know how to make beer, hops is the major flavoring ingredient that goes into making beer. So craft beers with all these different iterations of IPAs and stouts and the life of different kinds of hops. So I got very close to understanding beer and hops. One of the things that I thought was very interesting, especially as a woman, the beer industry was trying to transform itself to be much more female focused and have more females in executive roles has been largely male dominated for many years.
The good news is there’s a lot of women getting into brewing, but what I didn’t know was that brewing used to be a homemakers trend, so you would make your bread and you would also make your beer and that was a job that women did for centuries. They make bread and they make beer, and that was part of their homemaking. So, I did not know how many women were originally involved in the brewing industry getting that off the ground. So that’s sort of a fun fact that I recently learned that I thought was sort of wonderful and all the goddesses associated with beer women. Women should drink beer.
Host: That’s super fun. Looking back in time, not that you would necessarily have heeded this advice, but if you could go back and go, “Kate, know this thing. I want you to know this thing.” Is there something that you could just say, “Pay attention to this or this is going to be a learning experience or don’t go that way, go this way?” Do you have one of those?
Kate: No, because I’ve never followed really a script. I was an artist as well before I got into the business end of things. And one of the things that dawns every artist is starting something. Like how do you take a beautiful white pristine canvas and start messing with it, you learned very quickly that it’s just best to just jump in and do it. So I think if I was going to go back and have a conversation with my 20 year old self, I would say just trust the process and trust yourself. Scribble, if you need to, just to get started, be okay with making some mistakes, you’re never going to do anything that’s going to put yourself in mortal danger.
It’s a learning experience and every turn has a learning and you know pretty fast if you’ve taken a wrong turn. There’s enough signals that go up if you’re self aware enough to say, “Okay, I am not where I want to be or I should be.” So I think that would be something that I would tell myself along with. Don’t be afraid of failure. I don’t like using the word failure. Let’s call it an opportunity area, growing pains, return on effing something up, whatever you want to do. But I think as I went into my younger years, I was so afraid of making a mistake. When you’re early on in your career, you’re much more bulletproof than you are when you get older. And as I coach up and coming managers and leaders, this is your time to make some mistakes and learn from those mistakes, or find a new way of doing something. I mean, just because it’s never been done before doesn’t mean it’s not the right direction to go. So don’t be afraid of making a mistake. I know I was very fearful for many years until I realized that this is all going to work out. It’s okay.
Host: I was having a conversation with somebody earlier today, I wonder how much of that is just like US culture, like getting it wrong, like there’s something about the drive in the United States in business is to be number one which then conversely means if you’re not number one, you’re a failure. So I think that it’s sometimes culturally hard to overcome that and require some really solid leadership from folks like yourself, or whoever might be your mentor or leader and just kind of remind you like, no, that’s an opportunity. There’s nothing wrong with this, so just keep going.
Kate: I think the other thing that I encourage, I try to do this myself as well, it goes back to sort of this being an athlete is every time you do something, do a little bit of a post mortem, of what worked, what didn’t, what did you learn, what didn’t you really accomplish that you were hoping to? And really dig into that and say, “What can we apply to this next opportunity that comes in?” And I think we’ve all been there. We’ve launched brands, and we’re like, “Woo!” Have we ever really gone back and said, “Okay, so we could have tweaked that or we could have done this differently. And let’s apply that to the next time.” I think that’s always an opportunity area too, is to just do that post mortem. And understand before you get into the next race, what would you shift?
Host: Got it, I like that. In that regard, what sort of rituals or what is it that you do that keeps yourself in a mindful leadership format? Are there books that you read? Are there people that you listen to? And if so, what are they? And you talked about a book earlier today.
Kate: Yes, the culture eats strategy for lunch is a great one. I also really love podcasts. So yeah. listening to some podcasts, sports documentaries. I think you’ve heard me talk about sports a lot. I think there’s some good sports documentaries out there that you can glean stuff from coaches biographies, and what they learned as they were coaching teams. Some of my behaviors, I tried to devote an hour a day to reading a chapter of a book or listening to a podcast, just to make sure I’m on top of things and also not being afraid to reread or re-listen to certain books. Right now, one of the ones that I’m re-listening to, I’d read it, is called Misbehaving by Richard Thaler. Richard Thaler was a professor of mine at University Chicago Booth School of Business. And it’s amazing how much I’ve forgotten about his book and it’s been good to go back and remember that consumers misbehave all the time.
How do you bring that forward in your leadership style and understanding of business strategy? So I do try to do a lot of listening and reading when I can just to keep up with things because like I said, one of the things I love about this industry is it’s constantly shifting and changing.
Host: I have a book for you that you might want to consider. I will be interviewing Jane Miller, she’s the CEO of Lily’s chocolates, she wrote a book called Sleep Your Way to The Top. And it’s about the myths of how women can kind of grow their way up in the corporate ladder. And there’s a lot of basics in there, stuff that I wish I would have seen in my 20s or would have read in my 20s, but it was really interesting to hear it again now with all my experience. I felt like it was almost a different set of learning. So it’s a quick read or quick listen, if you’re interested in that, I recommend that one to you.
Kate: Great. And I’m trying to read the titles behind your shoulder too.
Host: I’ve got my pile of books as well.
Kate: It’s good work. This is one of my new favorites. And I know this was not prompted.
Host: That’s my business partner’s book.
Kate: No, it’s an excellent book. And I think as you talk about brands, especially moving forward, it’s going to be really important to understand that a brand is a promise and what does that promise that you’re making? And how is that promise going to continue to grow? As we understand the why of a brand’s and why that matters to the consumer. I think it’s a great book.
Host: Oh, thank you. I will pass that along. I just have one last fun question for you. Tell me a little bit about your worst business trip. And it may have been business the whole trip in general or something that happened during that, just kind of something fun.
Kate: It’s embarrassing, but it’s one of those, you learn. So when I was managing on Nabisco bakery products, Nabisco was part of the Kraft suite of brands at that point. There was a big important meeting that I needed to present at and the meeting notice came through as being in the Oreo room. And so I flew all the way to New Jersey to Parsippany to be at this meeting, only to discover once I was there that the meeting was actually back at Chicago’s headquarter Oreo conference room. So and that’s before we had all these wonderful technologies where you jump on a zoom call and have your slides. So it was horrifying. Here I was a young up and coming executive who had this massive presentation who was in the wrong city.
Host: So how did that resolve? You got to resolve it for us? How did it resolve?
Kate: Mea culpa, Mea culpa, I mean, the good news is sometimes you just have to laugh at yourself and then people laugh with you, and maybe at you, it got to be a little bit of a joke then whenever anybody sent out a meeting notice, they would put this ease just so that I didn’t end up in the wrong place. They were wonderfully understanding of the situation and allowed me to reschedule and I flew back to Chicago on the next plane out and we I think we had a meeting the next day, so it wasn’t that big of a thing, but it did allow for quite a bit of teasing. So in terms of culture, it probably helped with a lot because we’ve all had those moments, I think in our careers where we’ve sort of screwed up in a big way. So I think they saw that this is what happens sometimes. So it resolved itself.
Host: Oh, my gosh, Kate, that is hilarious. I want to thank you for coming on today. We’ve always really enjoyed working with you, but every time we’ve had these kinds of conversations, it’s always been within the context of a client need, or a business challenge that we’re working through together. So it’s super fun to just kind of talk about your philosophy in general, and in a way that I feel isn’t super bite sized. And people can take away a handful of nuggets to kind of go see something a different way. So thank you so very much for joining me and joining us and sharing with everybody.
Kate: You’re very welcome. Well, thank you for having me. I hope that people do benefit from it because we need strong leaders more now than ever.
And we need strong cultures within our organizations to help drive these changes forward. So I look forward to hearing feedback from your listening audience and actually listening in on all your podcasts. I think it’s going to be great to just glean from other experts across the industry as well.
Host: Sure if somebody wanted to reach out to you for any reason, what’s the best way?
Kate: Probably to check out my website. It’s Flashpointstrategy.com, and there’s a link there to get in contact with me and with the team and just understand what needs you may have to help drive your business forward strategy, management, we can help a little bit with luck, and we can see what we can do to help you out.
Host: Awesome, thank you very much. So there you go. I hope you guys enjoy this episode. Thanks so much for hanging out today. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to this podcast right now and maybe even share it with a handful of people that you think would find these guests really fascinating, interesting or even entertaining. Have a great day.