As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jodi Berg.
Dr. Berg is fourth-generation president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Vitamix, a 99-year-young, family-owned, mid-market manufacturer of high-performance blending equipment for the consumer and foodservice commercial markets.
She joined Vitamix in 1997 with the directive to lead the company’s overseas expansion. At the time, Vitamix had a presence in a few countries. Under her leadership, Vitamix products now are available in more than 130 countries around the world. She established Vitamix as the world leader in high-performance blending and led the company to organic growth of more than 400%. She was named executive vice president (in 2007), then president (2009) and CEO (2011).
Dr. Berg transformed the organizational structure of the company and its corporate purpose, mission and culture. Additionally, she expanded distribution, defined and elevated the status of the brand, and continues to provide oversight and strategic focus for the company’s future. She created a sustainable business model that enables Vitamix to nourish the zest for life by igniting the personal passion of each employee and customer. She continues to lead the organization, holding strong to the passion, integrity and family values on which the company was founded.
Dr. Berg received a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (concentration in Hospitality Management) from Bowling Green State University (Bowling Green, OH) and a Master of Business Administration (concentration in Service Management and Service Marketing) from Washington State University (Pullman, WA).
Dr. Berg’s research on purpose and employee engagement has been published, and in 2016 it earned her a Ph.D. in management from Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Vitamix is a family business and I am one of 100 fourth-generation family members, but when I was growing up, my father was not involved in the family business. He was an entrepreneur, and my four siblings and I grew up with him starting businesses. A BIG callout to all entrepreneurs out there because this is not an easy road and there are no guarantees! I remember one time when our parents converted the garage to an office and they both worked tirelessly to get a new business off the ground. The dinner conversation was often all about business, but not Vitamix.
Eventually my father came to work for Vitamix, so I was exposed to the first-generation challenges and then third-generation challenges. It was quite the education on family business.
Similar to my father, I graduated from college with no intention of going into the family business. I got my degree in Hospitality Management and fell in love with creating memorable moments for people. While getting my MBA I took a course in Quality and found a second passion: I immersed myself in setting up systems and solving problems at the root cause — it was like solving a mystery. My two loves came together when I became Director of Quality for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. Two other things happened while I worked there that are still a part of me today. I had the chance to travel (so I fell in love with understanding and appreciating cultural differences) and I learned the power of a higher-purpose culture.
When Vitamix was looking for someone to set up their international division, I jumped at the chance to apply my love for creating WOW moments, quality, cultural differences and a higher-purpose culture. Then I fell in love with the family business and our amazing products. It was a perfect match.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I was setting up our international division, which back then was still male-oriented and dominated, even more so in Japan. I traveled to that amazing country with the goal of signing on a new distributor. We accomplished nothing the first day as they were uncomfortable talking business with a woman (a relatively young one at that), and I was not able to break the ice no matter how hard I tried.
Finally, at dinner I was desperate and willing to take a chance. I knew the president of this company had a delightful sense of humor and that the Japanese culture would not let a guest lose face. We sat down at a lovely table overlooking Tokyo in a private room. I was on one side and five men were across from me. In a moment of awkward silence, I picked up the napkin and put it on my head, proclaiming in over-exaggerated excitement that I was delighted that they gave us all a hat. The eyes of my Japanese counterparts could not have gotten any wider, and the president grabbed his napkin and put it on his head. His four senior leaders looked at me, looked at him, then rushed to get napkins to balance on their heads.
I smiled and chuckled, which is all it took for the president to lead the way in a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking laugh fest. The ice was broken. We talked and laughed all evening, ending with a handshake commitment and a statement that “we will do much good business together.” It was an amazing relationship. We eventually parted business ways, but I stay in touch with this wonderful man’s son still today.
I knew it was risky, but I also knew I needed to break through their self-imposed barriers to ignite the conversation. I knew enough about Japanese culture and my host to minimize the risk, and I also knew that if I did nothing, I was going to walk away empty-handed and would have wasted everyone’s time. The lesson I learned was do your research to understand what you can do because of who you are and who you are working with, not just what you can’t do — and be prepared to be bold.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am incredibly grateful to my parents, who never let me believe I couldn’t do anything I wanted with enough hard work and dedication. But I also want to thank the gentleman for whom I had the pleasure of serving as a teaching assistant while getting my MBA. He was tough and his expectations were very high. His classes were large and he gave them a quiz just about every class. I had to create a system for consistently grading and tracking their grades.
One day a student came in and convinced him that his grade should be higher, and he said, “OK.” When I got the note to change this student’s grade, I was so exhausted and frustrated that I marched into his office and told him that if he wanted me to grade their work, if he had concerns about my system or someone’s grade, that it was appropriate to talk to me first or I would gladly let him grade his own quizzes, tests and reports. He sat there quietly as I expressed myself in a manner that could have used some additional thought before I opened my mouth, and then simply said, “I am sorry. You are right.”
This was the first time someone in authority said they were sorry. The impact was incredible. I learned that not only is it the right thing to do, but it can be done with grace and sincerity. I never learned not to make mistakes. But I have learned to own up to them, be accountable, and to say, “I am sorry.”
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My great-grandfather started Vitamix nearly 100 years ago. I don’t know exactly what his purpose was, but letters that have been saved and information in our archives suggest that he started with the purpose of helping people eat more produce throughout the year and take care of their families. We have been following this same premise of a purpose over 10 decades and five leaders.
When I came to Vitamix after having spent time at the Ritz-Carlton, I knew how powerful an articulated purpose could be. I started with a purpose for my little division, and as my responsibilities grew, I eventually was given the opportunity to help the company articulate this purpose in words that resonated with our employees, owners, customers, communities in which we worked, and suppliers. We collectively came together and used the Appreciative Inquiry process to articulate not just our purpose, but our mission, our company values, and our guiding principles — all of which make up what we call our “CORE.”
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Vitamix, being almost 100 years young, has gone through multiple times of uncertainty and difficulty, and not all have had negative or unfortunate roots. My first opportunity to lead through ambiguity was shortly after I stepped into the role as president, when we were growing over 50% year over year. We are a U.S. manufacturer, so this meant our suppliers were also stretching themselves, often beyond their capabilities. My second experience in leading through unbelievable uncertainty and unexpected challenges has been during the current pandemic.
In both cases, I knew there was not guidebook for me to follow so I went back to my roots:
Phase 1: Crisis Management
- I knew I did not have the answers, so I pulled all the brilliant minds together that I could. In both cases this included people from across the organization, at multiple levels, and my trusted advisors from outside Vitamix.
- We immediately battened down our hatches to make sure we could keep all of our people, employees, customers, and community safe. In the most recent case of the pandemic, we were concerned about the physical, psychological and emotional impact.
- We aligned internally on what our goal around safety was. In this case, it was to “create a zero-germ-transfer environment that supports and encourages joy.”
- While multiple teams worked on this goal, empowering the employees within each work area to implement the changes they felt were needed to feel safe, the Crisis Management Team moved into phase 2.
Phase 2: Business Continuity
- All key aspects of the business assessed the damage and the risk.
- We came together daily as thought partners to help the leader of each area with their assessment, clarification of “what must be true” statements, and resources we had to pull from to plug the holes in the ship well enough to keep us afloat and moving forward.
- We prioritized across the company and addressed the greatest needs and risks.
- Because we had no history to look to in order to determine what might happen next, we created a list of “triggers.” These were events that, if they happened, would have a significant ripple effect on the organization. Each trigger was monitored by a different person on the Business Continuity Team to watch for any leading indicators that the probability of that trigger happening was growing. This allowed us to be proactive versus reactive. Once the trigger teams were in place, we quickly moved into What Could Be Possible mode.
Phase 3: What Could be Possible
- Our world was changing rapidly. The trigger teams, once they understood where to look to see what might be changing for the worst, began to notice changes and trends we could capitalize on to help expand our purpose even more.
- We followed basic business case principles to articulate the opportunity and prioritize. I inherently understood that working on what I call “The Possible” would be a positive thing, but I did not anticipate the joy it would bring and the energy people had to ensure we completed Phases 1 and 2 so they could all work on Phase 3.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No. Giving up was not an option. Our purpose as a company is to Liberate and Nourish the Zest for Life. People all over the world needed our products to eat healthy and boost their immune system more than ever before. Giving up was not an option.
At the very beginning, people responded in three different ways. One group wanted to simply wait out the storm and not do anything until things settled. They rationalized this response by convincing themselves the pandemic would blow over in a couple of weeks. A second group wanted to stay in crisis mode because it was energizing and exciting and decisions were made quickly. The third group never lost sight of our company purpose and saw everything as just another obstacle or opportunity. So I did need to quickly recognize each mental model and help them overcome their fear of moving forward. Consistent reminders of why we exist as a company helped, but in some cases, it took a little personal one-on-one time to get to the root cause of their concerns and redirect their energy.
I am sustained because I know that what we do matters and how we do it makes a difference in people’s lives.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
My role as a leader during challenging times is the same as it is during less challenging times: Ensure the company is focused on and understands the boundaries created by the WHY, WHAT and HOW, and let people spread their wings and fly.
- Our Purpose and Business Objectives both articulate WHY we do what we do,
- Our Mission and our Edge articulate WHAT we do
- Our Values and Guiding Principles articulate HOW we will do it
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
What a leader can and should do does not change when in a crisis, but how they do it may. My mantra is to Listen, Learn, and Create the WOW.
First and foremost, people need to make sure their physical needs are taken care of before they can be inspired, motivated, or engaged in something other than self-preservation. This is always important but normally taken for granted. Safety is a very close second. During a crisis, both become paramount because without these needs being met, people will have a very difficult time looking outward. Listening and learning is critical. We sent everyone home with full pay for a week, some up to two weeks, so they could take care of their most basic needs at home. We created a 24/7 safety hotline to help them find resources or get answers. We helped people come back to work when they were ready, and we involved them in the creation of their work space so they knew it met their safety needs.
Second, the need to belong and feel that every person matters and can make a difference, although always important, requires additional attention. We purposefully and frequently held conversations with our employees, not to tell them that they mattered, but to show them that who they are and what they do not only mattered but was making a difference. We ended shifts early to hold “what else can/should we do” conversations with employees. We ramped up our two-way communication mechanisms and engaged the entire family in the processes of making a difference. We held a contest in which employees’ children created posters to help their parents and parents’ co-workers remember the new safety guidelines. We created online cooking and exercise classes in which the whole family could participate.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
My approach is:
- Be as transparent as you can be within legal and socially acceptance limits, and be succinct.
- Be empathetic to the impact the difficult news has on the person/people receiving it. And again, be succinct.
- Then make yourself available and listen as long as it takes.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Make sure there is a very clear WHY, or purpose and objectives that all the stakeholders in the company resonate with and can get excited about.
- Make sure there is a very clear WHAT, or mission and in our case, our Edge, that defines the parameters within which people can do their job without asking permission. This allows people to spread their wings without worry that some will fly out of formation.
- Make sure HOW people do their job and act is clear. Hiring people that have the same values in their heart and the same principles guiding their actions allows people to feel safe. They don’t have to pretend to be someone they are not, they can freely be themselves and take risks.
- Help people identify their OWN personal purpose and their OWN super powers and then help them discover the symbiotic nature of their purpose and the company purpose and the powerful fulfillment and energy that comes from living with purpose.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Every person can make a difference, so live with purpose and make every moment matter.