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Reuters/Stephane Mahe
Sowing seeds, reaping rewards.
CO-OPERATIVE

What happens when you ask 100,000 employees to help run a multinational company

By Cassie Werber

Multinational companies today find themselves at the meeting point of two major cultural moments.

On the one hand, they face a generation of consumers more engaged than ever before with big questions—like how to live sustainably or combat discrimination—and ever more forcefully trying to hold corporations to account for their actions. On the other, companies’ own staff are demanding more of their employers: namely a fairer and more flexible workplace, safe from harassment—and increasingly supportive of self-actualization.

One company at the intersection of these colliding forces is French food giant Danone. It’s deeply involved in a global discussion about the future of food that comprises climate change and genetically modified crops, to name just two hotly-debated topics. Its also embarked on a plan to more fully enfranchise its 100,000 global staff, driven by CEO Emmanuel Faber, who took over in 2017.

“We see a whole new generation that questions the choices that have been made by the previous generation. That are trying to find new ways. That are trying to regain their food sovereignty,” Faber says. These are the customers of Danone, which operates in 13 territories globally with a portfolio of brands including yogurts, mineral water (Evian being one), infant formula, and other foods and beverages.

“Employees are more demanding about the meaning of their work, the purpose that it nourishes for them.”

At the same time, Faber says, employees across industries are trying to change how they relate to work, claiming a new kind of “work sovereignty.” Employees are “more demanding about the meaning of their work, how meaningful what they do is, the kind of impact they have, the purpose that it nourishes for them,” he says. 

In recognition of Danone’s need to reflect this new reality, Faber decided to hand a share to every one of the company’s 100,000 employees employed as of July 2018 (link in French.) He also asked them how he should be running the company.

The results of the exercise took Faber and his team by surprise. When Danone sent out an initial questionnaire to its staff last October asking for feedback on the company’s goals, they expected about a 25% response rate. In fact, over 80,000 staff took the survey, with 33,000 saying they wanted to be more involved in future discussions, and 2,000 volunteering to lead results analysis and feedback sessions (Danone said it was too early in the process to provide details about how employee engagement had actually been incorporated into its decisions). Twenty-six of those volunteers have been chosen as regional representatives, who will meet with the board each year.

The consultation could easily be dismissed as a public relations exercise: It’s one thing for a company to send out a survey to its staff, and another to create a mechanism of true engagement where ideas are listened to and feedback filters down to the relevant people. But Faber insists that he truly wants to find the “activists” within Danone—across parts of the business, geographies, and levels—and engage with them as directly as possible.

“Our brands need to do more. And the real activists are the people of the brands.”

“I’m totally convinced that what makes a company successful is the engagement of its people. It’s as simple as that. I want to be pushed by this generation into doing more,” Faber says. “Our brands need to do more. And the real activists are the people of the brands,” he said. He also suggests that Danone’s openness to such input is one of the reasons people are attracted to it as a workplace. Although an imperfect measure, Danone scores well on sites where current and former employees share experiences and give ratings, with Faber getting a 99% approval rating on employee review site Glassdoor.

The gift of the share is functional more than financial: A share confers voting rights. Danone’s recent annual general meeting was the first opportunity for its thousands of new shareholders to exercise their right to attend. The company specifically invited a symbolic 100 this year—its centenary—who, Faber said, were enthusiastic participants. This year, each employee also received a dividend-linked cash bonus of around €80 ($90), which the company says it is considering handing out annually.

The fact is, as Faber admits, in the face of ecological imperatives, companies have little option but to change. That’s particularly true of Danone, which is focused on prioritizing responses to climate change. Ten years ago, the company made a portion of all global managers’ bonuses contingent on the company meeting its C02 emissions targets. It also recognizes that its ingredient producers are at the frontline of environmental uncertainty. Faber gives an example: Courgette growers in the South of France who supply Danone last year had to pollinate their plants individually by hand, he says, because bees have become so scarce. He hopes that listening to people with intimate knowledge of local markets will increasingly surface those climate-linked issues.

“Today is not the end of the old and the big brands. It’s the end of the big brands that do not disrupt themselves.”

Another huge debate in the future of food centers on a move towards ingredients that are in some way enhanced. Faber says it’s unlikely that heavily engineered foods will ever be part of Danone’s future. In 2016, the company took a stand on genetically-modified crops in the US, through its Dannon subsidiary, saying it would begin flagging the use of GMOs on food labels and instigate removing them (pdf) from the production cycle of its dairy farming. Both actions drew criticism from farming lobby groups, but Faber stands by the decision because, he says, the introduction of GMOs have historically been linked with soil degradation, reduced human and animal health, and losses to smallholders and other local producers.

A sense of fairness may be driving decisions for Faber, a 20-year veteran of the company he now runs, but they’re sharply focused by impending ecological disaster. In Faber’s view, a failure to radically reinvent is a business failure that could lead, ultimately, to destruction: “Today is not the end of the old and the big brands. It’s the end of the big brands that do not disrupt themselves; that are not going to be activists,” he said.