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Kellogg’s Deanie Elsner Delivers PG’s Top Women Keynote


Progressive Grocer's Top Women in Grocery event, held this year for the first time at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, in Orlando, Fla., got off to a rousing start with a keynote address from Deanie Elsner, president, U.S. Snacks at Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co.

Following a sumptuous breakfast spread courtesy of Post Consumer Brands, and welcoming remarks from PG Chief Content Editor Meg Major before a full room of excited Top Women in Grocery honorees, Elsner took the stage for a warm, frequently hilarious address on the subject of "Leading Through Disruption." The reason for this choice of topic was disarmingly straightforward: "Disruption is how we operate today."

Developing this theme, Elsner explained, "There's a seismic disruption happening in the world today," across all companies, and leaders at those companies must adjust or be irrelevant. She noted that 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies in the year 2000 no longer existed in 2010, citing Blockbuster as a prime example. Netflix, on the other hand, was able to survive and thrive by revamping its business, based on its extensive customer data. With this lesson in mind, Elsner's advice to companies was to "step back, assess and reinvent."

Elsner acknowledged that the retail and CPG industries face "a tremendous confluence of challenges" – what she termed "the Cs of change" – regarding the consumer, the customer and communication. Pointing to such demographic shifts as polarization of income, the rise of the Millennials and the growth of Latinos' influence as a consumer group, as well as emerging shopper patterns such as the increasing popularity of online purchasing, Elsner urged the audience, "You have to think of yourself as Netflix."

What's more, she pointed out, "We're living in a world today where the consumer has become the CEO."

Learning How to Lead

On the subject of how to lead in this type of retail climate, Elsner first recommended challenging the status quo through stomping out organizational apathy, giving your organization a "true north" so you're all "rowing in the same direction," and guiding others through the chaos.

According to Elsner, a key move is to assemble an unlikely team that is "deliberately diverse" in such factors as age, culture, experience and gender. "I believe in the power of diversity," she asserted, adding that leaders should build a culture of respect with accountability to create an effective team.

She also noted that leaders should take calculated risks in which they "break the rules and write new ones – but always explain why." Beyond that, leaders need to "push themselves to think bigger [and] thrive in uncertainty," she advised, observing that life is a series of unplanned events, of which she, juggling a corporate career with being the single mom of a 12-year-old daughter, has certainly experienced her share.

While they're at it, leaders must also make sure that they concentrate on "execution as a strategy," since, Elsner explained, strategy matters a little of the time, but "executional excellence matters all the time."

She further advised the audience to motivate and inspire their respective teams to feel good about themselves, because when that happens, the result is "magic. Every single time. Magic." One way to do that is to be authentic and connect personally with team members, making an effort to understand their motivators. As an example of this, Elsner talked about a brilliant man on one of her teams who nevertheless "couldn’t land the plane" when it came to projects; her solution was to surround him with a "landing crew."

She singled out for particular engagement "passionistas" – those people who are incredibly motivating and inspirational. If leaders can get 8 percent of these employees on board, since one influences a minimum of five others, they can end up engaging 25 percent of the company.

In an evolving culture of leadership from hierarchical to collaborative, Elsner emphasized the value of continuous learning, leaving her audience with the stirring challenge: "Are you prepared to lead in the future?"

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