Leaders are navigating their businesses and employees through some of the most complex and urgent challenges of our time: a global pandemic, and a renewed fight against racial injustice following the horrific deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, in the United States.

Nearly halfway through 2020, the food and ag industry has reached a shared conclusion: the world in which we operated is not the one we’ll be going back to.

The way we live and work has changed. Businesses are learning to operate in a new environment. Racial justice demands action and empathy. As founders and executives have been forced to adapt to extraordinary challenges, new leadership qualities have emerged that now seem vital for the future, not only in crisis.

Marcus Kennedy, executive chairman of TeleSense Australia; Lisa Curtis, CEO and founder of Kuli Kuli; and Nichole Riley, chief HR officer at Rabobank joined FoodBytes! by Rabobank for a forward-looking discussion on how crisis is transforming leadership in business.

Watch below and read on for top insights for F&A companies on leadership for a resilient future:

Greater Humanity and Empathy is Driving Engagement

Our panelists agreed that these crises have helped give rise to more empathetic and human leaders. As leaders and employees alike live with pandemic restrictions and work from home, TeleSense’s Marcus Kennedy has observed a leveling of the workplace playing field. With greater visibility in their team members’ personal circumstances, leaders are appreciating their people ‘as human beings, not just as resources.’

Staff members are also seeing CEOs and other executive leaders as more relatable. Rabobank’s Nichole Riley explained that weekly video messages from executive leaders in casual clothes from their homes and porches have created a lot of positive discussion within the organization. Rabobank plans to continue this regular, authentic communication beyond the pandemic.

This willingness of leaders to show themselves in raw and real ways is driving engagement. Kennedy noted that people are more willing to contribute because they’ve seen that authenticity from leaders.

‘Many of us are a lot more courageous when we’re on the end of an email, text message or video call than when we’re face to face with the boss,’ said Kennedy. ‘There’s much less intimidation and more courage and boldness from people to put forth ideas.’


Leaders are Being More Open and Inclusive in Decision-Making

Kuli Kuli Founder and CEO Lisa Curtis said she’s inviting more input from the team than ever before. Being more inclusive in the company’s decision-making was a natural outgrowth of her transparency about the state of the business after the coronavirus outbreak.

After the pandemic reduced Kuli Kuli’s retail new business prospects to nearly zero, Curtis was honest about the company’s financials, cash situation, and forecast, as well as necessary cuts. She let staff know that their help was needed to repurpose their entire marketing budget for digital channels, and they responded ‘incredibly well.’

Daily 15-minute team video standups have been a great way to allow people to present different parts of the business and get feedback. She plans to keep this meeting if and when the team returns to the office. ‘Decisions can be made even more thoughtfully when you get the team’s buy in,’ said Curtis. ‘It’s a format we didn’t have before.’

TeleSense’s Kennedy said he believes leaders’ increased openness to team input is here to stay. ‘Leaders have let their guard down,’ said Kennedy. ‘When you do that, you’re more open to say. . .I don’t know how to deal with this. I’ve never confronted this situation. Does anyone else have any other ideas? . . .It has spurned a real opportunity for employees to contribute.’


A Genuine Care for Employee Well-Being

Rabobank’s Riley said the pandemic and remote working is creating a culture where team members feel more connected. ‘People are checking in on people just because,’ she said.

TeleSense’s Kennedy recommends leaders get trained to actually call each of their people to check in. ‘We all have a Zoom face,’ said Kennedy. ‘A phone call feels more personal.’ He argues that people feel cared for when that call comes from a leader checking on their mental health, as well as their physical health. ‘“How are you?” really has a new genuineness to it,’ according to Kennedy.

Kuli Kuli’s Curtis agreed that teams are finding new ways to support their health and wellness. Curtis now models a hard stop at 5 pm — something she never did before the pandemic — to go for a walk or a hike outdoors.

Riley’s top advice for leaders was to give employees permission to struggle, especially with racial justice issues alongside the pandemic.  ‘Allow people the room to know it’s okay not to be okay at a time like this,’ she said. ‘If you allow your employees to do that, it will go a long way.’


Leaders Must Be Willing to Take Action on Racial Injustice and Diversity & Inclusion

Rabobank’s Riley recommended that companies honestly assess their culture to understand: one, how welcoming the culture is for diversity; and two, how and where to acquire diverse talent. Kuli Kuli’s Curtis emphasized that talent acquisition and culture change ‘have to be done in tandem.’

Curtis discussed how Kuli Kuli became one of the first in the natural foods space to transform the diversity and inclusion within its own team. ‘A lot of us walk into these trade shows and it feels a little bit like a white country club,’ said Curtis. ‘There’s not a lot of diversity, so we’re trying to address that head on.’

Curtis focused on leadership positions first, and encouraged other companies to consider a similar approach. ‘When you can fill at least one senior position on your team with a person of color or an underrepresented minority group, that goes a long way in helping to trickle down the changes in culture,’ she said.

Curtis also explained that Kuli Kuli had to excavate and confront unconscious bias in the evaluation process. ‘Things like removing names and removing schools from resumes helped us reshape who we were hiring,’ she said.

With the outbreak of protests against police brutality in her hometown of Oakland, Kuli Kuli is opening difficult but necessary conversations about race. The company is also donating 20 percent of its sales to Campaign Zero, a platform of research-based policy solutions to end police brutality in America.


Growing Receptivity to Long-Term Flexibility and Remote Work

Our panelists saw strong possibilities for the future of flexibility and remote work beyond the pandemic, while noting it would require innovation across the board.

‘We’re actually seeing productivity rise,’ said Rabobank’s Riley. On the potential for remote work after the pandemic, she added: ‘For the first time, we are going to look at the preference of the employee… It gives people a sense that they are cared for, that their personal situations matter.’

TeleSense’s Kennedy said the pandemic has changed the view of many leaders who were previously skeptical of workplace flexibility. He concluded: ‘There’s been a real realization that flexibility in working from home, or working remotely, or working part-time actually does increase productivity. It does build engagement.


FoodBytes! by Rabobank has welcomed more than 1,600 attendees from 50 countries since launching its webinar series in March. To check out past FoodBytes! webinars on startup funding, rethinking the produce supply chain, how to pivot, and more, visit our blog.


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