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Earn Boardroom Buy-in for a Progressive Food Safety Culture

By July 25, 2020December 17th, 2021No Comments

There are innumerable articles, podcasts, and webinars that address the importance of developing a food safety culture, which is great. What I am not finding readily available are any road-maps or executable guides that provide the details necessary to get started.

If you are someone that would like to improve the food safety culture within the organization you work for, but just don’t know where to begin, then read on. This article will provide you with a solid framework to aid in beginning the journey to move your organization in the right direction.

I have facilitated design thinking sessions for a wide range of organizations covering topics from food safety and learning design to marketing and communications. The first step in all of these sessions is to fully clarify who our audience is, what is important to them, and how we can best speak their language.

Today, we will explore the tactics necessary to overcome the first, and possibly largest, hurdle to beginning the journey of implementing a food safety culture program: getting leadership buy-in.

Step 1 – Build a Team

Don’t go at it alone. In order to fully identify the pain points of leaders, overcome objections, and align to common issues that you are both passionate about, you’ll need a more comprehensive understanding of the business from multiple perspectives. So recruit help from other departments. Who do you know that can help give you perspective? Marketing? R&D? Operations? Here are some key players that would be ideal to recruit:

  1. Senior Leadership – someone who has authority and pull to not only bend the ear of leadership but to also implement a strategy.
  2. Microbiology – someone that understands the microbiological risks that need to be considered.
  3. Operations/Facility Management – your eyes and ears from the front-line.
  4. HR & Training – the experts that understand how to address the human element of change, develop curriculum, and measure effectiveness.
  5. Safety – more than likely they can confirm that compliance, process, and procedure doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes.
  6. Marketing – leverage their experience in telling a compelling story while also proving that every element of the company can contribute to food safety.

Gathering a team of advocates from different departments within the organization will not only expand your awareness of how your department ties into the company’s mission as a whole, but will also be invaluable in creating a gestalt approach to your food safety culture.

Once you have a team assembled, pick a communication channel that will allow all of these advocates to communicate with one another – such as a Slack channel, Google Doc, or email thread.

Step 2 – Understand your audience.

It can be difficult to understand how leadership views the business versus your view. Businesses require a wide range of specialties to operate and, as specialists, we all have a tendency to view the world through our myopic glasses (Here is a great reminder of what happens to all of us as we become more “specialized” within our field).

It’s necessary to shift your thinking to their perspective – to assess overall risks as though it were your job.

This short video with Neil Coole, Director of Food & Retail Supply Chain at BSI, provides a great jumping off point for this conversation.

Step 3 – Learn your audience’s “Language”

Food industry leaders have innumerable tasks and initiatives vying for their attention, most of which are integral to keeping the business running and profitable. Taking action on any initiative carries potential risk of failure, which all of us tend to avoid.

We need to learn how to speak the language that will capture the attention of leaders and encourage them to facilitate an open dialogue. Rather than speaking “at” decision-makers in the hopes they’ll understand your point, it’s imperative to phrase problems and solutions in ways that demonstrate empathy for their position and that address their specific struggles.

A good exercise to get into their headspace is to write a letter to yourself that includes objections you think they will make. Be as specific as possible and try to emulate their voice. This will not only help you empathize with their concerns, but it will help you proactively anticipate potential objections you can later counter when giving your presentation.

Step 4 – Create a SWOT Analysis with your A-Team

If you’ve never done a SWOT analysis, don’t fret. It’s a basic process that is simple, although often not easy.

Create a document with four buckets, one for the strengths currently within your organization, weaknesses that would be improved through a food-safety culture strategy, opportunities to increase the likelihood of success, and threats that could derail your initiative.

I have listed some standard elements below to help get the ball rolling, but feel free to add elements that pertain to your specific project and organization:

How can you leverage these STRENGTHS within your food safety culture strategy?

  1. Human – strong leadership, brain trust, existing forward-thinking mindset.
  2. Operational – existing procedures, documentation, and technology; speed to market, internal flow of information.
  3. Environmental – assets, physical locations, and equipment.
  4. Public Relations – existing brand reputation with employees, customers, and vendors.

How can a food safety culture strategy positively affect these WEAKNESSES?

  1. Human – ineffective leadership, loss of talent (turnover) due to misaligned values, complacency.
  2. Operational – weak internal communication, bureaucracy, old technology, struggling to keep up with safety requirements.
  3. Environmental – location issues.
  4. Public Relations – damaged market reputation, loss of employee and customer confidence.

How can a food safety culture strategy increase the likelihood of these potential OPPORTUNITIES?

  1. Human – more likely to recruit top talent, increased physical safety for employees, opportunity to shift beliefs and culture around food safety.
  2. Operational – reduction of recall risk, opportunity to tackle gaps or unmet needs in market, opportunity to get higher adoption rate to compliance training, existing technological investments that can be leveraged.
  3. Environmental – enhanced due diligence concerning equipment procurement, faster resolution times for known hazards.
  4. Public Relations – enhanced market reputation, opportunity to be viewed as a leader in food safety culture.

How can a food safety culture strategy mitigate potential THREATS?

  1. Human – death, injury, or other loss of talent (turnover) due to misaligned values.
  2. Operational – disruption to distribution, recalls and associated costs, plant/location closure, advances in technology that allow increased scrutiny over sanitation and root-cause analysis, “paper compliance” but no actual behavior change.
  3. Environmental – location issues that can be identified and rectified before they become acutely hazardous.
  4. Public Relations – damaged market reputation, loss of employees, customer, and vendor confidence.

In his video, Neil mentions “Organizational Resilience,” which is defined as “the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.” This is a concept that many leaders can get on-board with so it would be beneficial to check out the 6 steps to organizational resilience and see how your SWOT analysis directly affects any of those 6 factors.

Go back to the letter you wrote to yourself from the voice of your audience and compare the objections. Did anything change? Do you have a better sense of what is important to leadership?

Step 5 – Make sense of the data by creating a causal, story-based presentation.

Leaders don’t need more information, they need someone to deliver it in a way they can understand, allowing them to weigh the pro’s and con’s, and then make an informed decision.

Change agents, like yourself, are sought for their expertise in synthesizing and making sense of that vast amount of data.

As Neil outlined in the above video, scope the conversation in a language that will resonate with your audience – namely, risk. There is an untold amount of risk that can be circumnavigated via a strong food safety culture. Outline those existing risks and quantify the consequences of them to paint a vivid picture.

Order the information such that you can tell an actual story. You can even use the SWOT analysis as your guide, but consider that the order may look more like WTOS (Weaknesses, Threats, Opportunities, and Strengths).

To help tell your initiative’s story, you can follow these steps. Provide evidence or supporting metrics throughout your story:

  1. Start with the problem: “We currently are vulnerable to [Weakness]….”
  2. Paint a dim portrait of the future: “If this trend continues, then we risk [Threat]…”
  3. But it doesn’t have to be this way because [Opportunities]
  4. Provide an alternative ending: “What I’m proposing will prevent this from happening by [Strengths]….”
  5. Make a specific, concrete ask of your listener. What is the tangible action you need them to do immediately?

Don’t skip Step 5. Most people fail to provide a call-to-action that’s loud enough for their audience to hear.

John Kotter, author of Leading Change, considers “urgency” as the first crucial element of leading a change initiative. This is your opportunity to create urgency!

Because aesthetics matter, consider a well-designed template or minimalist approach if you opt for a PowerPoint deck. Hopefully your marketing contact can assist on this aspect.

For a food safety culture strategy to truly affect large-scale change, company leadership must not only endorse the program but be active participants in it.

Leaders look for opportunities to offset risk and, if well executed, your presentation will directly address that exact concern and provide proactive solutions. Food safety culture is an investment, and they want to know that the company will receive a return that exceeds the investment. Speaking their language will give them confidence that you’ve considered their perspective, the associated risks, and that your solution will help the organization achieve its goals.

Best of luck in your journey! If you have any questions about this article or if I can assist you in clarifying your strategy then please feel free to message me.

Our industry has clearly identified a need to support organizations throughout the Food & Beverage industry, including their suppliers, on the incredibly important topic of ‘A Culture of Food Safety’. To address this need, BSI has announced that an industry ‘how to’ guide, known as a Publicly Available Specification (PAS), is being developed in partnership with subject matter expert, Lone Jespersen from Cultivate and BSI. For further information on this initiative, please contact Neil Coole directly ([email protected]).


Neil Coole: “The question of how to get Food Safety Culture into the boardroom. One particularly effective way, is when you’re able to use a language they can understand. Not everyone in the boardroom may be from the food industry. There may be from other industries. So, to have a highly experienced and technical food safety professional, articulating the risks to an audience that may not always understand it, can be a bit of a challenge. And sometimes there are roadblocks.

“What we like to work, and again, using the organizational resilience structure is we just talk about risk. We don’t talk about any specific risks, we talk about risk and culture. Now that could be blended in with others of the business, so the food safety professionals and the food safety team might be partnering up with their colleagues who are responsible for health and safety, because it all impacts the business, it all impacts their style.

“But it’s got one common factor throughout, people and culture. So again, it’s about a risk culture, not so much just a culture of food safety. If it’s a very technical discussion around allergen and microbiology and things that they probably don’t understand, they may not get the buy-in that they’re looking for, whilst that’s crucial for the industry we’re talking about.

“There are wider impacts as well. Food waste, energy waste, packaging materials, and so on. They’re all impacting the boardroom. So if they’re able to draw the line and see the connection with these areas of risk, and it’s articulated in a constructive way at that level, they will get the support they need.