This week we continue the Connex Executive Insights Series, produced in collaboration with Connex Partners, an invitation-only executive network that brings industry leaders together from the worlds of HR and Healthcare.

Connex Members are part of a cutting-edge community, finding actionable solutions to their most pressing business challenges via high-value peer exchanges and curated resources including tools, platforms, partners and c-suite networking opportunities.

Executive Insights Series features highly respected and engaging guests who share novel ideas and practices related to the latest leadership topics.

This week’s article features the work of Dawn Foods to have an open and inclusive workplace culture.  It is a companion to Jason Lioy‘s interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled Cultivating Empathy Through Authenticity that aired on Tuesday, April 26th, 2022.

It’s staggering to think about just how much time an average adult devotes to work, especially in recent years. Between labor shortages, business model changes, and the ever-present nagging emails so easily accessed by our mobile devices or in our home offices, the reality is that the 40-hour workweek is a pipe dream for most. It’s no wonder, then, why our collective consciousness has been pulled towards the importance of DE&I in the workplace – if we’re to give so much of ourselves to our jobs, then we (rightfully) expect it to be done in a welcoming, warm, and safe environment where we don’t feel the need to hide who we are or the unique perspectives we bring to the table. Maureen Metcalf had an opportunity to explore that concept with Jason Lioy – Chief People Officer at Dawn Foods – as part of the ongoing Connex Executive Insights Series to learn how they’re approaching employee engagement through a DE&I lens.

Dawn Foods is a global leader in bakery manufacturing and ingredients distribution and partners with bakers, retailers, and wholesalers to deliver the ingredients, expertise and inspiration to help them grow their business – a complex process that has more than 4,000 team members servicing 100 countries around the globe. . Despite that, they’ve never lost focus of their core values or rich company culture, both of which are heavily influenced by their family-owned status. They aim to provide that warm, familial atmosphere, cultivating a psychologically safe environment where team members feel they belong, are valued, and most importantly, are respected. That work recently was highlighted in a push for individuals to bring their whole selves to work through Dawn’s internal “I AM” campaign.

In 2021 for Global Diversity Awareness Month, Dawn wanted to celebrate the differences of its team and what makes the team who they are. The ‘I Am’ campaign was simple, it asked people to share something about themselves that might not have been known to the rest of the team. The campaign began with a handful of courageous pioneers, senior leaders, and C-suite executives posting self-made signs on Dawn’s internal social network, Workplace .,  All beginning with “I AM”, they shed light on those elements that strongly guided their behaviors, mindsets, and actions as they navigate the workplace: I AM “a single mother”, or “living with ADHD”, or “the first college grad in my family”.

The campaign connected team members around the world, opened up new conversations, and most of all, it was empowering. The campaign immediately received a wave of attention and engagement from team members, each broadcasting pieces of their own stories to their colleagues. The message from Dawn was loud and clear: you can be your authentic self at work and don’t have to code-switch, because it’s the uniquifies underpinning who you are that drive the business. Doing so required immense trust, and by having leaders express their vulnerability first, Dawn was able to create the kind of powerful groundswell that helps define company culture.

A Better Employee Experience

The benefits of the campaign from a DE&I perspective were readily apparent, as it spoke directly to the chief barriers of inclusivity and belonging. However, it also assisted Dawn in their ongoing process of reimagining and strengthening their team member experience. The pandemic forced their corporate team members into home offices for the first time, and while communication and engagement were key foci for their frontline teams, those at-home team members were experiencing a unique and unprecedented kind of isolation. Dawn trusted team members to handle their tasks and do them well and made a point to increase the frequency and quality of personal check-ins and team-based connections. They had leaders stress the importance of personal wellbeing, living that ideology by reminding their reports that they’d be there to support and listen. Their work to develop and execute the “I AM” campaign was a valuable extension of that vulnerability, encouraging team members to be comfortable with one another and seek out all the benefits of psychologically safe, open dialogue with peers.

The same ethos of meeting team members where they have also been reflected in Dawn’s revamped talent practices. Difficulty in recruiting and the prevalence of remote – and now hybrid – work led to a widening of candidate pools into geographies that weren’t previously considered. Dawn also invested in robust virtual onboarding, brand videos, and collaboration tools. From day one, team members are supported, engaged with the business and its values, and connected with others while being accepted for who they really are.

Empowering Leadership

To maintain that environment, Dawn has also recalibrated their leadership skillsets. Soft skills have always been critical, but our “new normal” has put an outsized focus on empathy, and that’s doubly true for any organization trying to signal to employees that it’s okay to be themselves. Dawn is encouraging leaders to practice active listening and make a genuine attempt to understand the unique, individual contexts behind interactions with team members; requiring that they be authentic and honest themselves. In conjunction with resilience and courage, these skills form the core toolkit for meaningfully engaging their team members and actually executing on their promise of a welcoming atmosphere. That, in turn, feeds retention, giving teams the long-term stability needed to drive business performance and bring the full weight of their diverse perspectives to bear – the real goal of any DE&I program.

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunesTuneInStitcherSpotifyAmazon MusicAudible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

About the Author

Brandon Hicke at Connex Partners brings nearly a decade of writing, consultative, and market analysis experience to the table. He plays a pivotal role in developing and enhancing the Connex Membership model through engaging content pieces and synthesized industry insights. In his free time, Brandon loves cooking, competitive gaming, pedantic philosophic discussions, and exploring his new hometown of St. Louis with his loved ones.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash


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