Jeff Fielkow, President and CEO of Tetra Pak U.S. and Canada, discusses his experience at the helm of a major corporation during a global health crisis; and the critical elements of effective leadership.
No matter how informed, engaged and equipped we thought we were or aspired to be, nothing could have prepared us for the multiple curve balls thrown at us in 2020.
We spoke with Jeff Fielkow, President and CEO of Tetra Pak US and Canada, about how to adhere to your company’s purpose in times of crisis; and how authenticity, transparency, adaptability and empathy are must-haves in effective leadership.
How has your leadership style had to change in 2020?
This year has been unlike any other for businesses all over the world. For me, personally, I've realized that I need to be able to not just modulate my leadership style — but at times, change it entirely. When facts are changing not just by the day, but by the hour; you realize you need to make fast and decisive, yet also quick short-term decisions. In the very moment you are making them, you must also accept that you may need to change them swiftly as new facts emerge. This fast, decisive-yet-flexible style of working is required of so many of us now.
I would encourage all leaders to reflect on the ways they had to lead differently this year and observe what worked best for them. For myself, I was challenged in my leadership style to be more flexible than I’d ever been before. As a company, we changed how we lead through changing how we communicate. We’ve always focused on being empathic and transparent, but we became even more so this year. We realized that there was a need to constantly communicate, even when we thought we really didn't have much to say. One of the key components that came out of this was the realization that in a global health crisis, you cannot over-communicate; even if you have no specific update to give, it is still important to say ‘we’re still here with you.’ This became part of an authentic strategy we used with both our employees and our customers, as it allowed them to be on the journey with us.
What role does a company’s purpose or brand promise play in a pandemic?
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It guides everything you do: Our brand promise became even more critical for us; in a crisis, it’s what grounds a company and becomes a rallying cry to employees and customers alike. We doubled down and found that everything we did was grounded in our brand purpose.
It helps employees: At Tetra Pak, our brand promise is to ‘Protect What's Good’ — of course, that applies easily to the packaging we create, but it goes far beyond that; it applies to our people. Protecting the safety of our employees was our number-one objective — it's absolutely a non-negotiable. And we include not just their physical, but also their mental wellbeing, too. When employees know you are protecting them, they are able to focus better.
It allows you to become more adaptable: Your clearly defined purpose or brand promise is your north star. How you follow it may need to change — this year, many plans changed; so, how we manage our business has changed considerably, as well. Staying true to this central focus allowed us, when needed, to readily change the path we take to get there.
Our brand promise became even more critical for us; in a crisis, it’s what grounds a company and becomes a rallying cry to employees and customers alike. We doubled down and found that everything we did was grounded in our brand promise.
Have the events of 2020 meant that you've slowed progress on your sustainability goals?
COVID-19 has reinforced and accelerated our existing commitments. It has solidified the importance of sustainability as a leading driver for business. Sustainability, as we define it, falls into three areas (below); the pandemic has pressure-tested each of those areas across our business and made it even more clear how relevant they are to sustaining the core elements we need for life:
Food: Food safety, availability, distribution and security have all been brought into question in 2020.
People: how we empower people and allow them to grow and take care of our company, we've seen our people rise to the challenge in ways we could not have imagined.
Planet: Globally, we all saw what clean skies look like when the lockdown happened; and we all saw a glimpse of what the future could be.
How do you plan for the long term, while in the midst of such uncertainty?
1. Make long-range goals and then lay out specific plans to achieve them:
At Tetra Pak, we know it is a long-term game to create meaningful change — so we look to accelerate progress wherever there is opportunity to do so. We took a stance and declared big bold ambitions, like zero emissions by 2050. This goal has now become our mandate and we have to make progress to achieve the goal. For example, no new product is launched unless it also is pressure-tested to deliver on our 2050 goals.
We’ve linked all our sustainability goals and are making big investments behind them to do our fair share, and to allow our customers and their brands to achieve their goals. By 2030, we will be using 100 percent renewable electricity — in 2019, we were already at 69 percent, globally; so, we are well on our way. Sustainability goals are integrated into the core business strategy. They are not secondary goals; they are primary. By 2030, all our own operations will be net zero emissions. By 2050, this will include both upstream and downstream in our supply chain. So, you have to measure results to know if you are correct. And to achieve goals that are decades out, you need to build plans that ensure you're hitting your milestones along the way.
2. Working in a privately held company:
One of the benefits of working for a private company is not being managed by the quarter. Of course, you need to drive business in the now; but it can free you up to thinking about the real future — not just a 90-day future. That's really powerful when you want to make long-term, meaningful change.
3. Commitment to innovation:
Our company was founded on a sustainability mindset from the beginning, our founder believed that ‘a package can save more than it costs.’ This has driven us to constantly ask, how we can be more responsible in our sourcing? How can we innovate to deliver on this? We're also focused on helping brands innovate and stay ahead of the curve.
We manufacture products that brands use; and we have to always try to be a few steps ahead of them, so we can accelerate their progress, too. A commitment to innovation, therefore, is a critical part of our long- and short-range success strategy.
4. Our customers:
Tetra Pak is a B2B business that supports our customers, who are the brand owners. We are focused on helping them unlock their brand potential in messaging, in packaging and in their actions on their sustainability goals. Our role is very clear, and we stay focused on delivering it.
Whether it’s offering full traceability (through third-party systems or our own turnkey solutions), on-pack innovation (driving sustainable lifestyles), or unlocking higher usage of responsible packaging (by investing in a platform for packaging that helps our customers hit their goals), those that want to go full speed ahead to accelerate their sustainability progress are the ones with which we have the best collaborations.
What can COVID-19 teach us about the climate crisis?
At its simplest, COVID-19 has taught us that the world is interconnected and our challenges are shared; climate change is not specific to a nation, and neither is COVID. Our interconnection is really brought into focus through the lens of these challenges.
The pandemic has also served to demonstrate, in a very upfront way, just how fragile humanity and the earth are. It has reinforced the importance of sustainability; and to companies, it has reinforced how important our sustainability goals are.
Fortunately for us, it has shown us that we cannot only run many areas of our company remotely; but in many ways, we can run more efficiently. So, I would say to others, “Never underestimate the abilities of an organization and what it can achieve, when it is fully unlocked.” A crisis does not have to make everything worse; there is opportunity to improve and to accelerate, too. A big epiphany this year was seeing that when you let people expand to their maximum effort, they are unstoppable in what they can achieve.
Lastly, it has shown us through our interconnection and interdependence that no one company or organization has all the answers to any crisis. We need to find common and uncommon partners to work with on our shared agendas. This is a critical part of why we joined Brands for Good, and why we’re active members of the larger SB community. We want to be a part of the transformational change that's happening.
We all need to recognize the synergies and accelerants that can only be found when we’re deep in collaboration and partnership with others. We won't make it through the forthcoming climate crisis if we don't build those partnerships now and take action together.