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 Emily Metz, president & CEO of the American Egg Board.
Emily Metz is a professional communicator, marketer and strategist who has built her career around a passion for agriculture in roles supporting U.S. dairy, beef, pork and poultry farmers. An attorney specializing in food and drug law, Emily has held communications, marketing and advocacy positions at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Animal Agriculture Alliance, National Milk Producers Federation and, most recently, Genus Plc, where she served as head of global research and development communications and new product marketing for the world’s largest animal genetics company.
Emily joined the American Egg Board as president and CEO in June 2020. In this role, she directs strategy and oversees national programs on behalf of the industry to drive demand for U.S. eggs and egg products domestically and abroad. She is delighted and honored to serve America’s egg farmers.
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?
Growing up, I hadn’t planned on a career in agriculture; it chose me. My first job in college was as a speechwriter for the USDA, where I had the privilege of traveling around the country and meeting our nation’s farmers from every sector. I fell in love with the people who produce our food and my passion just grew from there.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
There have been many, but I remember a particularly painful rookie mistake that happened while I was working as a speechwriter at USDA. It was during a tumultuous time — we were dealing with several safety recalls — and my boss, the undersecretary for food safety, was testifying before Congress. I had prepared the binder from which he’d be delivering his testimony. Unfortunately, in the rush to finalize the materials, one of the pages didn’t make it into the binder — and I hadn’t double-checked it. Of course, the hearing was being broadcast on C-SPAN. Needless to say, I learned a very important lesson that day: No matter how hurried you are, you must always check your work.
Along the same lines, I think it’s important to stay calm under pressure, which requires discipline. I have a lot of experience managing crisis situations and there is tremendous value in the pause, especially in a world where the pace of change is accelerating, and each day demands more, faster. Never allow your own velocity to overtake you, because that’s where crucial and frequently avoidable mistakes live. Give yourself permission to pause and take a breath. It’s there that we regroup, recover and refocus, which allows one to continue calmly navigating a not-so-calm situation. And calm is contagious. If I’m calm, those around me will feel calmer, too.
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?
Yes. I will be forever grateful to Jim Mulhern, who was my boss at the National Milk Producers Federation. Jim has been a mentor and a friend, and I owe so much of the credit for the path my career has taken and my success to his guidance and belief in me.
Jim pushed me to take on opportunities and responsibilities that I did not think I was ready for. I actually initially turned down an important position he had created specifically with me in mind. But he more or less refused to take ‘no’ for an answer — to the point, in fact, that we argued. I’m so glad he won that argument, because walking through my own fear and taking on something much bigger than I believed I could handle at that pivotal point in my career made all the difference.
Today, I still carry the lessons Jim taught me. And I borrow a page from his book when developing talent. When I see someone with potential who may be getting in his or her own way, I push that person to get out of their comfort zone. Believe in someone even — especially — when they don’t believe in themselves and give them the opportunity to succeed.
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?
The American Egg Board (AEB) is kind of a unique breed of entity that most Americans don’t really know much about. We’re what’s known as a national commodity marketing checkoff, which means that we were created by an Act of Congress. In 1976, egg farmers across the country essentially petitioned Congress to create the AEB in order to pool their resources to fund national research, education and marketing programs. We’re completely farmer-funded and governed by a board of 36 farmers, but we’re also subject to oversight by the USDA. Our primary mission is to drive demand for U.S. eggs and egg products, both at home and abroad.
When you talk about “purpose-driven businesses,” I can think of no better example than the American Egg Board. The AEB was established to enable America’s egg farmers to accomplish together what they could not do individually. Farming is an extraordinarily complex, demanding and, frankly, risky field of endeavor; yet it’s vitally important. These people feed the nation and the world. We have third- and fourth-generation egg farmers who chose to return to the farm after college — passing up attractive opportunities in the nine-to-five world — because farming is for them a matter of personal passion and pride. It’s in their blood.
I’ll say that the AEB — and agricultural checkoff programs, in general — have an important role to play in a consumer landscape that is rife with rapid, continuous change. Even if the COVID-19 pandemic had never happened, the world would still be changing dramatically. A new generation of consumer is demanding more from the food industry.
A friend of mine, Jeff Fromm, literally wrote the book (called “The Purpose Advantage”) on purpose-driven marketing and how large brands like Seventh Generation, Bombas, Love Your Melon and many others reflect a new set of consumer priorities that redefine the meaning of a “product benefit.” Food and agriculture have a remarkable story, but we haven’t quite figured out how to tell it in a simple, succinct way like these brands have. We haven’t gotten the consumer buy-in that the work farmers do every day in feeding all of us is, in fact, a higher purpose. We’ll need to crack this code to help our industry meet consumers where they are.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Honesty and transparency are fundamental to my personal leadership philosophy, and they’re especially important in challenging or uncertain times. Effective leadership requires trust. You must bring people along every step of the way, and you must model the values you want to instill in the organization. You can’t just pay lip service to core values; you must live them, because everyone is looking to you for cues about what actually matters.
We’ve all had plenty of recent experience with uncertainty, but consider that I joined the AEB as CEO in June of this year. Imagine for a moment what that must be like for an organization to get a new boss in the middle of a global pandemic, with so much already in flux. Now you have a team of people facing an entirely new, unknown commodity with new questions about their futures to contend with in their minds.
Moreover, I move quickly — agility is a key organizational principle — so right out of the gate I made it known that there were likely going to be significant changes coming. In collaboration with my leadership team and our Executive Committee, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work right away on a five-year strategic plan with a pretty aggressive timeline. I am thrilled to report that this new strategic vision and plan were presented and unanimously approved at our September board meeting — just a bit over 90 days from when I took my post.
The plan is an ambitious one. While most organizations are retrenching, we’re restructuring, building in new core competencies, resetting priorities and goals, while transforming how we allocate budget, how we operate and how we work. This can all be daunting under normal circumstances. Change can be difficult and a little scary to people. An effort of this magnitude, under these circumstances, at this speed, takes more than compliance or cooperation; it requires genuine buy-in and a true sense of ownership. Everyone from our board members through personnel at all levels has had a hand in making it happen. I am so proud of, inspired by and grateful to my team and our farmers for seizing this opportunity and running with it. We could not have succeeded without everyone’s buy-in, and we’ve got an exciting road ahead.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’ve probably persevered because I am an incurable optimist. I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason and that it will all work out in the end. Failure and setbacks are opportunities. You learn, pivot, revise and come back stronger. The sun rises the next morning no matter how dark the skies were the night before. Of course, it helps when your work has meaning and an impact on people’s lives. I go to work each day knowing that our farmers are counting on me. They work 24/7/365 to feed and nourish this country, under any and all circumstances. Theirs is a vital job and they never quit. I never lose sight of this and I will never give up on them.
I also think there’s something to be said for having the right support system both personally and professionally. It’s often lonely at the top, so having a group of professional peers and leaders who you can bounce ideas off of and get energized with is crucial. As is having the right partner — someone who knows when to push you harder and when to commiserate while you wallow. When you find the right person, you become a team and any successes — or failures — are team endeavors, which is a beautiful comfort.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I may be a little unusual in that I am the person who runs into the burning building. I thrive in hectic situations, and I truly love bringing order to chaos. My approach amidst frenzy is simple — I take things one chunk at a time, solving problems bite by bite. For me, chaos is oddly energizing. That said, I am mindful that not everyone shares this disposition, and empathy, for me, is a key tool. The best leaders make sure their people are taken care of and their emotional well-being is considered. In challenging times, it’s critical for leaders to set the tone, provide the example and stay connected to those who are looking to you for answers, guidance and support. The worst thing I could do would be to retreat behind closed doors. I am always in a service mindset, looking to understand my team’s needs and provide solutions that will set them up for success.
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?
In times of uncertainty, I really try hard to maintain the perspective that moments of change are the moments to embrace and take advantage of. Fearing what’s to come is nonproductive. Dismissing what’s happened is also nonproductive. But looking for opportunities within the new landscape — that can be VERY productive and empowering. I truly believe that within every challenge there is opportunity. We lean into what we do know, focus on what we can control and set a course. It’s an antidote to the demoralizing sense of futility and helplessness people experience when circumstances outside of their control are at play. Take the focus off “can’t” and look to what we can do.
Similarly, shared struggles bring people together, so difficult and uncertain times are often perfect team-building opportunities. I’m not talking about cheerleading and trust falls; I mean genuine inclusiveness. I think navigating uncertainty can be eased by leaders who are inclusive. Involving the team in the process of identifying solutions can deliver dividends on their engagement and overall alignment on a new plan forward.
I recognize that this can pose a challenge in an organization that might be struggling financially in the COVID-19 environment, where job security is an issue. But never underestimate the power of empathy, compassion and connection. Are you providing the resources people need? Is there open and honest communication? Do people feel like they are being heard?
Last, but not least, people need to feel a part of something bigger. So be sure that whatever the circumstances, there is an overarching mission and purpose — a North Star that everyone can align with.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The VERY best way to communicate difficult news is to do so honestly and directly. Transparency is a table stake for me. No one likes surprises that are not good surprises. As leaders, we do great injustice to our teams and damage our credibility by not being straightforward. Above all, trust is crucial to effective leadership.
During my career, I’ve spent a good deal of time in the public eye dealing with things that have gone terribly wrong — from food safety recalls to undercover farm videos. From these experiences, one of my guiding principles in life came forth: the importance of “owning it.” When mistakes happen — and they will happen — own it and take responsibility. Then, seek solutions; and when resolved, explain very transparently how you got there.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that no one can predict the future. But we can prepare for it. We can plan for the unknowable. I like to call this future-proofing.
Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The ability to see around corners is critical to any organization’s future, but it’s not enough. The business bone yard is littered with once mighty brands that could not or would not think expansively. Not too long ago, there was a Blockbuster video store in just about every town; and we all took our Kodak film in to be developed. Google was not a verb and car accidents weren’t caused by texting.
We live in an era of disruption. Agility and adaptability are crucial to survival. But building an agile and adaptable organization is tremendously difficult. It goes against people’s natural inclination toward comfort and security in what they know. And the more successful you’ve historically been, the harder it is to undo that deeply entrenched thinking.
This is not about planning so much as a matter of organizational culture. And it’s a constant struggle. One of the best ways to address it is by taking the uncomfortable and seemingly counterintuitive step of deliberately and routinely disrupting your own organization and fostering creativity. Rotate positions, shake up responsibilities, drill, introduce curveballs, have group brainstorms and expand your horizons — it’s vitally important to keep people on their toes and force them out of their comfort zones. Agility and creativity are muscles; they need to be developed and exercised regularly.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Know your purpose and have your pulse on what your stakeholders need from you. I’ve heard people refer to COVID-19 as a marathon, not a sprint. I think they’ve got that slightly wrong though. For our industry, this is not about getting to the finish line. Whatever the circumstances, in good or in bad times, I know that our egg farmers’ daily task does not change, and it never will. For me and for them, that task is to play a big part in what American agriculture does so amazingly well: feeding people. As long as we don’t lose sight of that, we can navigate whatever comes our way.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
This is hardly new, but it’s shocking to me how many companies and brands today still have not embraced genuine consumer centricity. It’s critically important to understand and meet consumers where they are. The companies that are getting this right are easy to spot because they are dramatically outperforming their competitors. For our part, the consumer is central to the AEB’s new strategic vision and plan. We aim to set the standard in agriculture for consumer insight and intelligence. And the consumer is baked right into the heart of everything we do — our goals, our metrics, how we structure, how we allocate funding, how we define roles and responsibilities, how we plan and how we go to market. If you’ll forgive the pun, we’re putting all of our eggs in this basket and I can think of no wiser investment any organization can make toward its future.
Along similar lines, I think a lot of brands and companies are learning hard lessons about authenticity. If you’re paying lip service to certain values in order to create favor with the consumer, instead of living those values as an organization, it will come back to bite you. We are committed to giving voice to our farmers’ values — responsibly producing a safe, sustainable, nutrient-rich protein that is part of the solution to global malnutrition. This is a key pillar of our strategic vision and plan that will direct how we prioritize, invest and engage. It’s who we are, and it’s a standard to which we, as an industry, can hold ourselves.
Institutional myopia is another common problem. Organizations continue to structure around short-term rewards, often at the expense of long-term success. I think too often, big food companies have resorted to fear-based marketing to get a small gain in market share. It’s not fair to consumers and it’s not fair to farmers. That tactic might work for a quarter or two, but in the long term it just confuses consumers and makes them feel bad about food. We don’t want people to be worried about what they’re feeding their kids; we want them to feel empowered and informed. Every one of us in the food space has a responsibility to be open, transparent and honest and let people make the decisions that they feel are best for them with full information.
To that end, I am a big proponent of radical transparency. I think, historically, agriculture has been concerned that showing everybody how the sausage is made, so to speak, might turn consumers off. I would argue the opposite is true. Younger consumers, in particular, are hungry for this information and we have an obligation to provide it. Agriculture has a fantastic story to tell, and a fully informed consumer can only benefit America’s farmers.
Lastly, inflexibility, as I mentioned earlier, is pretty much the kiss of death today. Agriculture does many things exceptionally well, but it’s not known for its agility. The COVID-19 pandemic has pressure tested a lot of industries — particularly the food industry — and exposed weaknesses. The lessons learned during this period will have a lasting impact, drive future innovation and shape consumer mindsets. Our new strategic vision and plan calls for an innovation hub and incubator to explore ideas for products, packaging and production techniques, and safely take risks on behalf of the entire industry. We’ll serve as the precompetitive “safe space” that will enable the industry to more rapidly pivot and seize new opportunities more completely and confidently.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Happily, the egg enjoys record popularity with consumers today. Before COVID-19, egg sales at retail had been steadily increasing by about 2% annually on average — which for a category the size of ours translates to about a billion more eggs sold annually at retail. And at the outset of the pandemic, eggs were among a few notable commodities that consumers stockpiled. We saw sales volume spike by more than 70%. Sales have since levelled off and volume sales of eggs at retail are currently about 11% higher than normal. We expect this trend to continue for the foreseeable future, as long as COVID-19 conditions persist, and people are preparing most or all of their meals at home.
But the foodservice side of our business is in rough shape. According to the National Restaurant Association, one in six restaurants has closed either permanently or long-term. As a trusted partner to the foodservice industry, the AEB is committed to and investing in helping restaurants drive traffic back in a safe and responsible manner. We’re partnering with the country’s largest quick service restaurant chains on drive-thru and carryout opportunities by leveraging the incredible egg’s versatility, functional benefits, nutritional profile and record popularity with consumers. We’re also supporting smaller chains and independent operators with a Bring Back Breakfast Program with resources to help them optimize their breakfast menu, attract consumers and drive traffic.
In challenging economic conditions, organizations instinctively retrench and pull back investments, including cutting off the spigot for innovation, and I think it’s often short-sighted. As I noted earlier, there is opportunity in every challenge. Restaurants that can capitalize on the off-premise dining opportunity may reap near- and long-term benefits by meeting consumers where they are, and in so doing capture loyalty and market share. We’re helping them do that.
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.
First and foremost, we must prepare for the unexpected. Murphy’s Law is REAL — things will go wrong. The better prepared you can be, the less of a scramble will ensue. I did a lot of meeting planning early in my career and I worked with my team to actually talk through everything that could go wrong and how we would deal with it — from not having a name badge to a speaker being late. Working through that exercise not only helped highlight our vulnerabilities, but it also let everyone know a little secret: something will go wrong. And when it does, we won’t panic; we’ll deal with it and move on.
Be flexible. During tough times, it’s important to be flexible — whether its ways of doing things, of communicating with stakeholders and more. It’s important to not get caught up in how things have been done in the past. I was doing work for a brand once whose acronym was taken over by a popular song that was a wee bit inappropriate in its lyrics. Overnight, the acronym was usurped by this song. Instead of lamenting what we lost, we worked to pivot and capitalize on the buzz of the song — and work in our acronym in a way that was catchy, appropriate and on-brand. In the end, it was a win-win thanks to quick thinking and flexibility.
Be solutions oriented. Too often, I feel as though people come from a place of “no” instead of a place of “yes” and focus on the problems instead of on the opportunities or solutions. When I was chief of staff in the dairy industry, I was the czar of problems — everyone would bring them to me and lay them on my desk for me to solve. I quickly got overwhelmed and burnt out. Then, I instituted a new rule — don’t bring me a problem unless you also bring me a possible solution. I was happy to work collaboratively to overcome an issue, but I wanted the ownership to also fall on the person who was bringing up the issue in the first place. We all need to come at things from a place of “yes” and be problem solvers.
Communicate often — and then communicate some more. This one is an easy one as I am, by background, a communicator. Any good speechwriter will tell you to tell people what you’re going to tell them, tell them that, and then tell them what you told them. There’s power in that model not just for giving speeches that people remember, but in life as well. People respond better when they know where they stand and what the expectations are — so tell them. Spell it out. Talk to people and have an open-door policy. If you’re talking too much or sending too many emails, people will wave the white flag and let you know. But more often than not, they’ll likely appreciate the openness.
Never underestimate the power of appreciation and gratitude — for yourself, your team and your network. This is especially important during challenging times. When I was chief of staff, I worked to remind our CEO to thank people for a job well done, either via email, in person or with a small token of appreciation. I’ve always tried to do the same for teams I’ve supervised: leave a Post-it® on their computer, place a note on their whiteboard or give them a little gift card to take their significant other out to dinner to celebrate a big accomplishment. People remember that stuff and it means more than you think.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”
Sometimes people focus — more than might be productive — on what others think, and it causes them to be overly cautious when it comes to change. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t consider the views and feelings of others, but I believe that pushing people and shaking things up is important. “Breaking a few eggs” is acceptable when done in the right way and for the right reason: to have a better omelet in the end.
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