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The GreenBiz Interview

How She Leads: Diane Holdorf, Kellogg

Diane Holdorf, chief sustainability officer for food giant Kellogg, talks farming, goal setting and CEO buy-in.

How She Leads is a regular GreenBiz feature spotlighting the career paths of women with influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, GreenBiz Managing Editor Barbara Grady chats with Diane Holdorf, Kellogg's chief sustainability officer and vice president of environmental stewardship, health and safety.

Kellogg, a company whose famous Frosted Flakes greet weary risers at breakfast tables around the world, depends on a network of farmers that stretches across 19 countries and multiple continents. Rice, wheat, corn, berries, palm oil, cocoa, potatoes, honey, vanilla and raisins are just some raw ingredients that Kellogg depends on farmers to grow and harvest — an effort that commands rapt attention to the agricultural supply chain.

That's where the company's sustainability guru, Diane Holdorf, comes in.

The Michigan-based food giant with a market value of some $23 billion has been lauded for its sustainability practices, social responsibility and inclusive employment practices, including being named one of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies” by Ethisphere Institute both in 2015 and 2014.

A month ago, on International Women’s Day, Holdorf also was named “Super Woman” of the year by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center because of her work with farmers — 41 percent of whom are women. Kellogg supports 65,000 smallholder farmers through sourcing for its 10 priority ingredients.  

The following interview with Holdorf has been edited for length and clarity.

Barbara Grady: What got you interested in sustainability as a career? 

Diane Holdorf: When I was growing up, my dad was a environment consultant, and I spent a lot of my summers working in that area with him. We spent a lot of time out in nature, and it was just something I really connected with.

After graduating, I ended up going back into environmental consulting for a different firm where I worked for 18 years. That provided a huge variety of opportunities from service development to being managing director of our joint venture business. I was very happy there, and actually it was one of my clients that told me about the opportunity at Kellogg. It was a great opportunity to do the work I love with an iconic world brand. I never looked back.

Grady: Kellogg has won numerous corporate social responsibility awards and has a detailed sustainability plan. Were you involved in creating it?

Holdorf: I joined Kellogg in 2008, and that was the year we were issuing our first corporate responsibility report. It was also the year we first published external goals around natural resource conservations, starting with our own operations in reducing energy use and reducing water use. We have continued on that journey and accomplished so much along the way.

Then, last year, we were able to publish our sustainability commitments for 2020 (PDF). They are an extension of our natural resource commitments, but also (include) the area of global sourcing around the purity of our ingredients and around supporting the farmers who are so critical to our business, supporting their livelihoods. This work is essential, something we recognized for a while and wanted to set new public targets around.

Grady: How do you build consensus around sustainability goals at Kellogg?

Holdorf: With cajoling, leadership (laughs). Actually, we are very fortunate because this is a commitment that comes from the very top of our organization. It was actually the CEO who challenged us to think what is the next step for Kellogg.

The real opportunity for us that’s come forward is we’ve been able to connect sustainability work as something that is the right thing for the company to do with how it directly affects business value. 

Grady: But how personally do you lead that journey? What is your leadership style?

Holdorf: It is a fun space because, quite often, you are creating the future. Sustainability is not always a clear road map, right? So we work together as leaders to understand what are the big drivers of our business and where are the key points where sustainability can make a big difference, such as in operating efficiencies in our plants, or in transparency about our food ingredients for consumers.

It is about leading through influence and through embedding sustainability into operations, so procurement and working directly with our suppliers, purchasing, human resources. A lot of it is about training and bringing people along on the journey and helping them understand how this work connects with their core work, as well.

Grady: What do you think Kellogg's greatest success has been in the sustainability realm?

Holdorf: Two aspects. One is the speed with which we can move as an organization once we have that commitment and alignment around our sustainability objectives.

A second piece is how we’ve been able to create this crucial connection, starting in our operating supply chain, then external supply chain and then connecting with our brand team and our marketing team to work on how we really bring that to life for our consumers.

There are a lot of things about our commitments that I am personally very proud of, the work we do with farmers and getting to know the people who nurture our ingredients. 

Grady: What have been some of the obstacles along the way?

Holdorf: This really stems from the top of the business and there is so much leadership support around it. So there have not been many obstacles.  

(This work) is mostly about finding those connection points and using them for embedding sustainability into operations and strategy. Once you have that alignment and connection, it really just flows. 

Grady: Has there been any particular challenge associated with being a woman in a very large and established corporation?

Holdorf: Kellogg is such a great place to work. We’ve often been recognized. One of the areas that Kellogg is recognized for is supporting women’s careers and promoting women into leadership roles. That is something that really resonated with me because when I worked in consulting, it was me and the guys. There was just a welcoming environment coming into Kellogg with all these wonderful leaders generally, but all these women leaders in particular.

Women leaders do have common challenges. You always have to balance being a strong leader with the perception of being difficult to work with. I haven’t faced that much at Kellogg.  But in general, my approach is to just focus on building relationships built on mutual respect and leading with integrity. Throughout my career I’ve always felt those two things can bridge any tough decisions or tough discussions to help build alignment.

Grady: The work of sustainability and environmental stewardship seems important to Kellogg's brand name. Are supply chain relations and decisions important to the brand?

Holdorf: Absolutely. All the trends  on transparency — the desire that we all have to know what we are eating and to connect our food choices to our personal values — that is happening everywhere in the world. This work has a way of enabling that transparency. It really helps us show how our values connect with the values that our consumers have.

In my mind, it about demonstrating how we do our sourcing ethically and responsibly and with some reciprocity in supporting farmers' livelihoods as we depend on them for ours. It is also about being able to talk about the food itself and the ingredients and really being able to have transparency about where it is grown, how we source it and the relations we have with the people who grow the ingredients.  We call it the food journey.

We just recently launched our “Open for Breakfast” campaign. It is one way we are working to create new spaces to answer questions, share information, provide more detail. It will continue to grow over time. 

Grady: What is Kellogg's biggest sustainability priority right now?

Holdorf: Our Sustainability 2020 Commitment focuses on areas of natural resource conservation and responsible sourcing. In natural resource conservation, there is an aspect about license to operate, assuring we are doing the right thing in the communities where we operate and meeting expectations that our consumers have and all our stakeholders have.

I think the area of greatest opportunity, if I can frame it that way, is really back to this theme of how we source our ingredients and how we assure the ethics in that supply — the ability to understand where the opportunities are for farmers and suppliers along the chain and how to engage with them in areas that help drive continuous improvement.

Grady: What advice would you give to someone interested in a career in sustainability?  

Holdorf: One of the things I've found, time and time again, to be most important is to know where your personal passion lies and find a way to really connect to that. Some people come at this from a water lens, some from an economic lens, some from a clean energy lens. Opportunities exist in a breadth of areas to connect with that passion. It is when you get that connection is when you can really start to drive meaningful change.

Sustainability continues to be such a growing area. It is important for people with passion in this space to just get started. There are a lot of entry points from consulting, to working with NGOs, to community engagement to working with companies.

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