Torkel Rhenman saw a lot of promise and opportunity in his new company when he took over as CEO at The Solae Co. in March 2008.
The company studies the benefits of soy protein and helps companies produce and market soy-based products. Rhenman felt like the time was right for the company to make a big move with people looking for healthy food ingredients.
He spent his first month doing a lot more listening than talking.
“I listened to as many employees and leaders as possible to really get a feel for the situation and the circumstances that we’re in,” Rhenman says. “It’s developing your own sort of view of all the things that we’re working on. What kind of personal change and touch do I want to make to the direction we’re going as a company?”
But as he looked deeper into the company’s makeup, Rhenman felt like the foundational core values that any company needs in order to be successful were not clearly identified at Solae.
“I look at core values as being foundational, noncompromising values that we all have to live with and agree to,” Rhenman says. “It’s sort of the guiding light for all the decisions that we make. Are we living by our core values? Some of that was not clearly there. My experience has been that when I look at companies that have been in the media, many of them have gotten into trouble and been on the front page with bad news because they haven’t defined their core values.”
Rhenman believed that a firm set of core values would provide direction for employees and ensure that the $1 billion company and its 3,500 employees would avoid the fate of others who strayed from their foundation and later paid the price for doing so.
“It is helping to define what people view as gray areas,” Rhenman says of the reasoning behind core values. “You ask people to use good judgment, but everybody’s good judgment might be different. What you need to do then is to define and help people work through, ‘OK, here are the things that we view as foundational for us in our company that we will not compromise on. It helps tie everybody together.”
It was through this early dialogue that Rhenman came up with the four values that would serve as Solae’s foundation: safety and health, ethical behavior, respect for people, and environmental stewardship.
“Many of the companies we work with, they share similar core values,” Rhenman says. “It fits both internally as well as externally. It’s something the leadership team has to work through in terms of what makes sense for us as our core values. What’s going to bind us together?”
Recognizing the need for core values was the easy part. Getting people to accept them as part of their everyday work was where the real challenge began.Use external examples
The need to implement a list of core values struck some people at Solae as unnecessary or the equivalent of attempting to fix something that wasn’t broken. So Rhenman had to prove to his people that this was in fact a needed move and something that would benefit the organization.
“That is a challenge,” Rhenman says. “You have to make it personal. You have to really try to take examples that people connect with and say, ‘Yeah, that could have happened to us.’ It has to start from the top. I have to be a role model for it, and I have to ask the same from all my leaders to be role models and champions for our core values.”
Rhenman used case histories and put together presentations using stories of situations that happened outside of the Solae world to drive home his message.
“We take examples of things that happen in the external world and then we discuss it and say, ‘If we face something like this, what would we do?’” Rhenman says. “It really gets people to understand our thinking and helps get us aligned.”
As the process moved along, Rhenman also put some of his employees in the position of conducting some of the training sessions.
“The best way to really understand what we mean is to be put in charge of the training,” Rhenman says. “If you have to teach it to others, you really have to understand it. We do a lot of that.”
The expectation is that everyone will eventually take their turn in getting up and talking to their peers.
“It’s getting people to think it through themselves,” Rhenman says. “It’s not only that other people hear from their peers, but it’s themselves getting involved and getting into it. Hearing from others creates this expectation that, yeah, everybody is living this and everybody brings up examples that they saw themselves. What caused that? What was the behavior that caused it? What can you do to prevent it?”
The core values became ubiquitous, appearing throughout the company and on the agenda at regular meetings. The first part of each meeting would now be dedicated to talking about one of the company’s core values and its importance to the organization.
“It could be an external event that we have seen, or it could be just a reminder of something to get people in the forefront of thinking about it,” Rhenman says.
The intent was to show the importance of core values to an organization. But Rhenman didn’t want employees to think that just because you have core values, all of your problems are solved.
“It’s something every company needs to have,” Rhenman says. “But that alone is not what makes a great company. If you don’t have it, it’s hard, in my personal view, to have a sustainable and great company, and you put it at risk.”Use internal examples
When it comes to driving changes through an organization, don’t forget that leading by example is often the most effective means of getting people on board.
For example, two of Rhenman’s core values are ethical behavior and respect for people. In attempting to convey how important these ideals were, Rhenman had to be honest in admitting that he did not have all the answers.
“One of the things I do very openly is talk about my own development gaps,” Rhenman says. “I talk about my own experience in my development gaps and how I worked on it throughout my career. I have my own leadership team go through and talk about their leadership gaps. In terms of self-awareness, it’s OK to share your gaps. If you want to work on closing gaps or improving those areas, most people want to help you. Hiding your gaps is not of interest, either for yourself or for the company.
“Being more transparent and open and honest is going to help both the individual leader and the company.”
Rhenman wanted his employees to know that while he preached the importance of these core values in the way Solae did business, it didn’t mean that he was without flaws.
“You have to have that willingness to learn,” Rhenman says. “You can pick many leaders that are fantastic role models and are very successful in their industry, but for every such leader, you can probably find one or two things they have as a development gap. You don’t have to be great in everything. But you have to have a combination of strengths and knowledge of gaps and know, ‘How do I compensate for those gaps?’”
Revealing your own weaknesses is a great way to show employees you are not above them or better than them in terms of needing improvement.
“I’m a driver and very results-oriented, and my natural tendency was always to solve as many problems as possible,” Rhenman says. “I’m very aware of this, and I’ve learned that I need to spend as much time today on coaching and people development and employee engagement as I do on business issues. My balance has really shifted.”
By being open about your own faults, you further encourage your employees to look inwardly at their skills and to feel more comfortable bringing up concerns they might have and to endorse your core values.
“They know they can come in and ask questions and who the right people are to ask for advice to make sure we stay inside our core values,” Rhenman says. “They get to the same calibrated thinking of what good judgment means.”
When Rhenman looks at his company today, he sees an organization in which people have a better understanding of the company’s foundation and how that supports what they do on the job each and every day.
“As a leader, it makes your life so much easier knowing you have the foundation to stand on and you can focus on driving business results,” Rhenman says. “Core values are important for employees. And it’s important for me as the leader of the company because it makes me feel proud of what we are and what we stand for. People will look for companies they respect in terms of the core values that they have.”
How to reach: The Solae Co., www.solae.com or (314) 659-3000