Food safety and quality assurance leaders are competing for a finite number of dollars within their respective organizations. Securing support or funding for new equipment, training or personnel can be challenging. Understanding the competing pressures and needs of corporate leaders can help FSQA professionals get their message across and ensure a commitment to food safety.
At the 2022 Food Safety Consortium in October, Deb Coviello, CEO, founder and business advisor at The Drop In CEO, moderated a panel discussion “Communicating to the C-Suite.” Panelists Peter Begg, senior vice president of quality and food safety at Hearthside Food Solutions, Melanie Neumann, JD, executive vice president and general counsel of Matrix Sciences International, and Ann Marie McNamara, vice president of food safety and quality for supply chain, manufacturing and commercialization at U.S. Foods, shared their tips and best practices for getting your message across in the board room.
When approaching the C-suite with updates and asks for financial support, you want to be both confident and concise. “If you can’t explain in five to seven slides what you need and why, you will lose them,” said Begg. “And it is very likely that you yourself do not understand the issue or are unclear of the implications and what the C-suite needs to know.”
McNamara tries to keep it to one slide and encourages FSQA professionals to: know your audience, stick to the facts, and communicate like an executive by using their terms and focusing on goals and metrics.
“You have to take off your FSQA hat and put on your business hat,” she said. “You can’t just be a technical expert, you need to be a translator and communicate the technical into business terms.”
Equate Risk to Dollar Amounts
If your consumers are at risk due to poor training, difficult-to-clean equipment or other concerns, you need to quickly equate the risk to a dollar amount when communicating with the C-suite. “You can use baseline data to quantify your risks,” said Neumann. For example, if you have a problematic piece equipment, look at the frequency and likelihood of inspection and the potential findings, and share this information as part of your presentation.
She follows a “go back to kindergarten” strategy to help develop a compelling presentation: learn and share the basic math, follow your ABCs by using clear, concise language and “do some show and tell,” said Neumann. In one instance, she brought a joint with multiple weld points from the floor to the board room to illustrate why this particular piece of equipment was so difficult to sanitize and had become a site of contamination. The leadership agreed to replace it.
“You need to be specific, and pick your battles,” said Neumann. “For example, if you need more ‘help,’ what does that look like—do you need more people, more training, a new system?”
Building Your Confidence
Standing in front of a group of executives to fight for your department can be intimidating. If public speaking is not your forte, practice speaking in front of a group. “Share your presentation with your team and ask what questions they would have to get feedback and input,” said McNamara.
Doing regular check-ins with the CFO regarding future resource needs, rather than waiting for a quarterly or annual presentation opportunity, can help you get a headstart on coming asks. In fact, developing relationships with all C-suite leaders is key to keeping food safety needs top of mind. “Introduce yourself to new leaders and understand how they want to be communicated with (i.e., text, email, phone),” said Begg. “Do regular check-ins with leadership and recommend quarterly presentations to keep them up to date.”
While all three panelists encouraged FSQA professionals to avoid getting emotional and focus on the facts as well as dollars and cents, you do want to remind executives of the impact of failure to act on food safety concerns. “Explain the financial risks and speak in terms of the impact to them, ‘What we want everyone in the company to understand is your loved ones are eating this food,’” said Begg.
What does food safety look like? As we enter the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, the elements around food safety behaviors, beliefs and attitudes are a bit elusive, making them challenging for the industry to define. For years, companies have provided messaging around food safety to clarify what food safety should look like for their team members. In reality, most of the statements are around the outcomes organizations want to see.
Food Safety and Quality are our number one priority.
We strive to meet and exceed all food safety & quality standards.
We are committed to producing high-quality, safe food.
Food safety is everyone’s responsibility.
While these messages may provide clarity around the organization’s beliefs and/or intended outcomes around food safety, how do these messages translate into how food safety behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes show up on a day-to-day basis?
A quick internet search will provide a list of companies that have adopted best-in-class food safety culture practices with top leaders championing and modeling what that means through daily conversation, decision making, etc. Not all companies share that success story, and top leaders may find or refine their organization’s path around food safety culture. As top leaders are taking the time to create strategic plans for food safety culture, how can the behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs around food safety be modeled for all to see?
It reminds me of an experience with one of my teams and our journey around championing food safety and quality. Shortly after being promoted into leading our FSQ function for multiple facilities across our organization, I soon found, with no surprise, that each facility had its own FSQ microcosm. As with anything, parts of the microcosms were good, and some, not-so-good. The FSQ Managers had completely different personalities, training and experience blending with and creating resistance in the microcosm to add to the mix.
Join Jill Stuber and other food safety experts for a discussion about industry professional development, training and mentorship on November 4, during the 2021 Food Safety Consortium Virtual SeriesOur team focused on creating consistency in our team’s practices and organizational systems for food safety and quality. After several months together, it was clear the goal would require more than developing one version of the truth with documents; it would also require consistency in how the FSQ Managers “showed up” each day. Thus, we keyed the term the “Face of Food Safety,” which embodied our expectations around how we would each exhibit behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs around our role to support our Food Safety & Quality systems. For us, this insider term solidified our shared passion and belief that food safety culture started with us.
What led us to the conclusion that we had to step into the Face of Food Safety role given food safety culture is supposed to start at the top? Several pieces of evidence led us to this conclusion.
The term “Food Safety Culture” wasn’t even mainstream for top leaders to start discussing food safety culture. We recognized we needed to continue the food safety campaign across the organization using our team and our voices.
Our FSQ Leaders were already the go-to for food safety. Like many companies, when the food safety auditor walked in, they were taken directly to the FSQ Manager. If anyone in the organization were asked about who to talk to regarding food safety, they would direct people to the FSQ Manager. It’s no different than if someone asks about a financial report, they were likely led to the accounting department.
Our FSQ Leaders had the most technical training, even if not formal, to understand the practices and behaviors around food safety and should be already collaborating and championing best practices throughout the organization.
As we started on our quest to define the Faces of Food Safety further, we had some factors to consider impacting our approach.
First, our FSQ Managers came in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. Some had high levels of formal training, and others had very practical experience. Some worked in the industry for eons, and others had less experience. Some were more natural leaders, and others were not, and personality tests showed we had a wide range in our team!.
Next, our FSQ Managers had specialized training regarding scientific methods to more effectively identify risks, guide solutions, and ultimately create and implement programs that consistently delivered safe food. However, besides the annual human resources training on conflict resolution or getting along, the FSQ Managers had no formal training in human behavior to fully understand elements of the human psyche that shape what people do.
Finally, we faced a standard human limitation—our ego. With serving others, our egos would have to take a back seat to allow the space to recognize our behaviors, our judgments and actions that didn’t align with the Face of Food Safety.
As I look back at work we did together to step fully into being the Face of Food Safety; there are three main areas we focused effort that minimized any factors around skills, experience or personalities yet allowed us to move forward with our quest.
1. Being available and approachable
Instead of sitting in meetings, running reports, and being “busy,” we focused on spending time with team members on the floor with FSQ Team Members and others to see what worked well, what didn’t work well, and in-the-moment coaching. The team evaluated workload capacity and incorporated these routine interactions into standard work to create capacity for this. No longer was spending time on the floor to talk with team members something we just hoped we’d get around to doing or only do during an investigation. While we still had copious amount of other work, we shifted our priority.
We spent time developing trust across our team to open doors to conversations that were previously off-limits. For a team that had rarely been physically in the same place at one time, our every-other-month in-person events and daily huddles that, at first felt like micromanaging, became the standard of how our team worked toward alignment and team building. These types of routines provided a foundation for conversations that started with “How do you think you came across in that email?” or “I know you didn’t intend to sound demanding, but some people had ruffled feathers”, or “Your serious face may send the message you don’t want to be bothered.”
2. Helping others help themselves
In the olden days, issues could be dropped like hot potatoes into the FSQ office for them to spearhead investigations, paperwork, and the like. People would come to the FSQ Managers for answers when often, the answers were already available to them. It took effort from FSQ Managers to provide guidance, re-direct and coach so others could join in owning parts of food safety and quality related to their work.
We were changing our attitudes that we had to be involved in everything. When we began helping others help themselves, it also gave us the freedom to let go and work in our own lane.
3. Being known for championing food safety & quality both from a policy standpoint but also being practical
Policies and procedures are fantastic tools to align practices. Even with the best-written documents, there are gaps and unforeseen events that challenge systems. In those moments, our team worked diligently to align on when policies and procedures had to be upheld versus when we would adjust (and update documents) to capture the practical nature of hiccups that happen in manufacturing. We didn’t want a practice to be okay in one facility but not another unless there was a very defined reason, so it wasn’t chalked up to personal preference. It took personal commitment to Our commitment to holding the line for each other.
Our team was relentless in talking about food safety and quality at every chance we had and related to other areas.
As leaders, our focused, aligned manner that welcomed collaboration and conversation was a cornerstone for being the Face of Food Safety. Using the three areas discussed in this article, we provided clear messaging and support to champion the food safety culture we wanted to see. While not every day was a utopia, our attitude shift and teamwork offered many more days of fulfillment from meaningful work than we had previously experienced and it made an impact for others.
Episode 12 of the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series features a discussion on how food safety professionals can bridge the gap between the C-Suite and Food Safety. The presentation is given by food safety attorney Shawn Stevens of Food Industry Counsel, LLC, and followed by a TechTalk from Michael Alderson of STOP Alliance.
This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Neshat Soofi, president of JIT Experts Hive, for the Women in Food Safety Column. She shared some of her inspirational experiences working with multicultural teams and companies, and how she eventually became an entrepreneur, launching her own business. “As food safety experts, our primary job is to minimize the risk of contamination in food and protect consumer health and safety. Of course, there are other aspects of our job such as contributing to the profitable growth of companies we work for. Sometimes we get caught in conflict situations with a lot of pressure on us. Most of the time it comes down to assessing risk in uncertain situations and with limited information. Even food safety situations are not black and white. To make the right decision we need to assess the risk-taking multiple factors into consideration. One thing that always helped me was to remember why I was hired and that my reason for being in a company was to minimize risk to the consumers,” says Soofi. “Being a food safety professional also helped me understand business holistically, since as a food safety lead you have to work with many functions in a company, from sourcing to customer service, marketing and sales. As part of my career path, I even worked in different functions that provided me with different perspectives of business. This knowledge helped me be a better product safety and quality leader, and later helped me set up my own business, which provides consultation and expert knowledge in many areas of business.”
Join Women in Food Safety for a special episode on November 5 about career development and mentorship during the 2020 Food Safety Virtual Conference SeriesSoofi was born and raised in Iran and has lived in Canada and the United States for the past 30 years. She has more than 25 years of experience in product safety, quality and development working for small to large companies like Target, Cargill and Multifoods (Pillsbury). After working with some of the largest corporations, she decided to join start-up company “Brandless” to build their product safety, quality and integrity programs from scratch. After three years working in a fast-paced, autonomous environment, she started her own business called JIT Experts Hive. She leveraged her broad and diverse background to fill a gap in the market, connecting like-minded and purpose-driven hands-on experts to companies in need of those expertise in a just in time fashion. Connecting knowledge to innovation. The mission of JIT Experts Hive is to help accelerate the growth of CPG companies in food, supplement, CBD, cosmetic/beauty and household industries by providing just-in-time expertise.
Working in consumer-packaged goods (CPG) industries including food for more than 25 years, Soofi felt fortunate with what she has learned over the years. “I learned that in order to grow and succeed, I needed to step outside my comfort zone. Every job I took was very different from the previous one. Even going so far as stepping completely out of food safety and working in other areas of business like leading data governance and business intelligence, or getting into new product categories such as personal care, cosmetics and even household cleaners. What I found was that these learnings and experiences made me a better product safety and quality expert and leader. Product safety jobs are quite unique; one is responsible for results of work of many functions with no direct control over them. The ability to understand other functions, their priorities and pressures and look at situations through different lenses helps one assess the risks better and come up with better solutions. One can also articulate the risks and benefits in a way that would be more compelling and effective,” Soofi explained.
With a unique multicultural background and experience working in large corporations leading teams in different countries, Soofi advises that when working with multicultural teams one should: Learn about each country’s work ethics, how to address someone (i.e., first name or with titles), what is the appropriate way of greeting and interacting during and after work hours, and the level and importance of hierarchy.
Tactical details are also important: Be cognizant of time zone differences and schedule meetings on a rotating time zone basis; in virtual meetings/calls and in the absence of getting the non-verbal cues and body language, pay more attention to pauses, silence and the importance of clear communication so things are not lost in translation or misinterpreted.
Last but not least, remember: Never assume, and never stereotype. Each person is unique and may be very different from the stereotype in their countries, so don’t go with assumptions. And if in doubt, ask, because it not only helps you understand their preference, but also helps break the ice.
As a female leader, Soofi has also learned a lot from her multicultural female team members. “As Cheryl Sandberg has mentioned in her book ‘Lean In’, women generally have a harder time taking a seat at the table! In some cultures this feeling is even stronger due to cultural factors. What I found for myself and many great talents in my teams was that gradually pushing ourselves out of comfort zones by taking challenging assignments, leading projects and teams and being the voice and face of the team was a great way to build confidence in yourself and take your rightful seat at the table. Don’t be afraid of failure and do not internalize it if it happens. Having a mentor to help you in this journey by providing advice but also constructive criticism and course correction when needed is key to success,” Soofi says.
Another aspect is that as a woman, building strong negotiation skills is a must. “Whether negotiating for a new position, salary, etc., do your homework, know where the bottom line and the absolute non-negotiable variable are for you, but also understand where you can compromise. At the same time, do not be afraid of hearing “no” and do not take things personally.”
Laura Gutierrez Becerra: What would be your number one piece of advice to young women professionals who are planning to be leaders in food safety?
Neshat Soofi: Don’t be shy! Reach out to experienced professionals in the industry; there are plenty of higher-level peers who will be willing to help you. A good mentor is priceless. I have a personal story to share: About four years ago, I got a message through LinkedIn from someone who has just moved to the US. I had not met her before, and she asked me if we could meet and talk about the food industry and jobs in the US. We met and I happily shared my experience and advice in seeking jobs, helped her with a mock interview and resume, and anything else I could. Four years later, she is a quality assurance manager in one of the largest food companies here in the United States. We have stayed great friends, and I am so proud of her resilience and success.
Gutierrez Becerra: Is there an unforgettable story during your career journey that still has an impact?
Soofi: When I was working in Canada in food manufacturing, I was called to the processing line one day regarding a potential foreign object issue. I stopped the line to find out the root cause. At the same time there was a lot of pressure to resume production since this was an order for a major account. Under pressure, I agreed to start the line with adding inspection and controls that I knew in my guts were not sufficient. The products were shipped, and we started to get a series of complaints about foreign objects in the product. Thank god there was no injury, but as you can imagine, that major account was not happy with the situation and we lost the business with them. It was a major loss and my boss from the head office came for a visit to our plant. I tried to explain why I had allowed the production to resume and release the product because we couldn’t have a late shipment. In response he asked me one question, “What’s your job title?” I responded, “I am the food safety and quality assurance manager.” His comment was, “I am glad you remember. Your first priority is minimizing risk to consumers and company reputation. I am sure you took that into consideration when you okayed the release, [but] if not, please remember in future”. I expected him to be angry and was even prepared to be fired, but his quiet answer was more impactful. This is a lesson I remember to this day—there are rarely black and white situations in life, even in food safety. The key is to assess the risk and not let outside pressures impact your assessment and decisions.
Gutierrez Becerra: What do you hope to see in the next three to five years in terms of development and mentoring women in the industry?
Soofi: I see a need for networks like yours to connect new industry professionals regardless of gender to the more veteran experts on an as-needed basis—almost like a hotline, where food safety professionals can ask for advice and mentoring in a confidential and safe environment. This is becoming easier in a post-COVID era where virtual connections are becoming more of a norm than exception, and people from all over the world are learning to connect in ways that were not easy and personally comfortable in the past.
I also want to see a better appreciation of the importance of food safety programs in organizations, especially at leadership levels. We need to better articulate what additional values (efficiencies, better cultures, productivity, etc.) a great food safety program brings to the organization. I want food safety functions to be at the leadership tables and part of developing company strategies and directions. We can’t be only remembered when bad things happen and in the middle of a crisis. Food safety and quality leaders should be at the forefront of organizational leadership, all the way to the C-suite.
Women in food safety are increasingly playing more critical roles in their organizations because of our objective decision-making, compassion, communication prowess and ability to collaborate. During this year’s Food Safety Consortium Virtual Series, we are pleased to join Food Safety Tech with a Women in Food Safety Day. It’s our day: We will discuss the challenges and opportunities that we encounter as a gender, especially during this uncertain era in the world. We will also address issues surrounding students who are devoting their research to improving food safety and quality. We welcome your contribution, support and ideas.
The 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Series will take place every Thursday during the fall, beginning on September 10. If you are interested in presenting during the Women in Food Safety Day, we invite you to submit an abstract. Please note that the day in which the Women in Food Safety session will be held will be announced after we receive the abstracts.
When the Women in Food Safety group was first founded, the mission was to provide a community and networking platform for women in the industry to share their experiences and to seek advice from peers; more importantly, to help young female professionals and students to grow into future outstanding women leaders in the food safety industry.
To carry this mission, the group founder and committee are pleased to announce a mentorship program with below five focused areas:
Diversity/culture: For women with a diverse background, focusing on their needs in different work culture
Adventure Starts: For women in school, focusing on bridging the gap of moving from academia to industry; focus on starting their career, and create a pipeline for future food safety professionals
The Future Leadership: For women at early career stage, focusing on step up to senior management, pipeline for future women leadership
Working in Manufacturing: For women working in manufacturing sites, focusing on their needs in this specific work environment
Work/Life balance: For women who are facing decision-makings, balancing work and life. The focus is on helping their needs when going through life’s exciting times and long leave from professional areas with minimal impact on work.
We welcome all industry professionals and fellows who are interested. We look forward to seeing you during the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Series, beginning on September 10. Together, we can make it. Join us to empower women and the food safety industry to leverage our unique leadership strength and skills.
With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to take a toll on live events, Innovative Publishing Company, Inc. has made the careful decision to convert the Food Safety Consortium, which historically has taken place in Schaumburg, IL, to a virtual conference. This move takes into consideration Illinois’ COVID-19 plan to reopen its economy, which is a Five-Phase Plan. Phase 5 occurs when groups larger than 50 (conferences and conventions specifically mentioned) will be allowed. The state enters Phase 5 only when a vaccine or an effective treatment is in place. The decision to take the Food Safety Consortium virtual is based on the Illinois reopening plan, along with considering the safety and well being of staff, attendees, speakers and sponsors.
Every Thursday, beginning on September 10 through November 12, the Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series will host two presentations and two sponsored Tech Talks, followed by a panel discussion with attendees. Food Safety Tech is the media sponsor.
“This will be much more than a bunch of webinars. We are excited to offer a virtual platform that facilitates greater human interaction,” says Rick Biros, president of Innovative Publishing and director of the Food Safety Consortium. “Whether it’s a random connection in a hotel lobby, a stroll by a booth at a trade show, or a seat next to a new friend in a learning session, we recognize that human connection is important for events. That’s why we’ve invested in new tools for the FSC Conference Virtual Platform to ensure those discussions, discoveries and connections can go on whether our event is offline or online. The new platform provides attendees with a way to keep track of live sessions, connect with sponsors and engage with peers, all in a familiar way. It will also include an event App that offers interactive features.”
Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response, will remain a keynote speaker, with the new presentation date to be announced.
Call for Abstracts
We are accepting abstracts for participation in the Food Safety Consortium Virtual Series. On the Submit an Abstract page, select Food Safety Consortium 2020 in the drop-down menu.
Food safety supply chain management
Lessons learned COVID-19
C-suite executive forum
Tech Talk Sponsorship
Companies that are interested in sponsoring a 10-minute technical presentation during the series can also submit their abstract through the portal. For pricing information, contact IPC Sales Director RJ Palermo.
Food Safety Tech publishes news, technology, trends, regulations, and expert opinions on food safety, food quality, food business and food sustainability. We also offer educational, career advancement and networking opportunities to the global food industry. This information exchange is facilitated through ePublishing, digital and live events.
About the Food Safety Consortium Conference and Expo (The live event)
Food companies are concerned about protecting their customers, their brands and their own company’s financial bottom line. The term “Food Protection” requires a company-wide culture that incorporates food safety, food integrity and food defense into the company’s Food Protection strategy.
The Food Safety Consortium is an educational and networking event for Food Protection that has food safety, food integrity and food defense as the foundation of the educational content of the program. With a unique focus on science, technology and compliance, the “Consortium” enables attendees to engage in conversations that are critical for advancing careers and organizations alike. Delegates visit with exhibitors to learn about cutting-edge solutions, explore three high-level educational tracks for learning valuable industry trends, and network with industry executives to find solutions to improve quality, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the evolving food industry.
It’s plain and simple: Having safe food, strong food safety programs, and ample resources allocated to them, are only possible (and sustainable) when company leadership make customers and consumers a priority.
Hence, a company’s food safety leadership, their departments and support will have experienced and knowledgeable staff, and access to new technology, best practices and collaboration opportunities. A long-view perspective means a better chance of meeting the bottom line—money saved, illness and possible lawsuits avoided, all while ensuring food integrity.
When you witness a company’s food safety leaders at important conferences, you can see their commitment to make food safety their top priority. But, when a CEO shows up to speak, listen and learn along with their food safety leadership, it is confirmation that they understand and care, or are there to learn. At national and international meetings, when they’re side by side with their senior staff, one can be confident that a strong food safety culture is a priority in their company.
Recalls and outbreaks will still happen,, but it’s been my perspective that food safety representatives who are absent at the food safety table may lack a commitment to a sustainable company-wide food safety culture and are subject to reoccurring and frequent recalls.
I applaud those C-Suite executives who show up, and are committed to hard work, research and collaboration, and sharing insight into their best practices! The list of great examples, of these kinds of companies and leaders, is growing.
Please join me in recognizing their ever-growing contribution to not only the safety of food, but consumers.
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