How to Go from Startup to Industry Leader – Without Losing Your Culture
by Tammy Nelson
By launching a large-scale culture initiative, Plum Organics brought employer and employees together to create a workplace that benefits both, now and into the future.
Plum Organics, based in Emeryville, California, is an organic baby food brand that’s had a focus on innovation since its inception. Plum pioneered the now widely used pouch-format baby food container and has risen through the ranks of the established industry to become the No. 1 organic baby food brand in the country.
Acquired by Campbell Soup in 2013, Plum has remained focused on innovation, not only in their product line, but also in their workplace practices. Having experienced rapid growth since launching in 2007, which was further accelerated by the Campbell’s acquisition, Plum recently set out to secure their company culture over the long haul.
“At Plum, we believe that it’s critical for leadership to make company culture a strategic priority,” notes Ben Mand, SVP of brand marketing & innovation. “It should be just as important as a company’s products and services. We all know that happy employees help the bottom line.”
When Plum began their scaling culture initiative, they had hit the 100-employee mark. Workplace culture expert Josh Levine notes that as the exact point at which company cultures can go awry as interpersonal relationships are taxed. “Somewhere between 50 and 150, whether by talent acquisition or company acquisition, if strong relationships aren’t fostered, culture is more than likely to go off the rails.”
How does a rapidly growing company prevent this cultural derailment? For Plum, it started with research, and lots of it. In 2015, they launched the “Plum Organics Workplace of Our Future” project to 1) identify the elements that make Plum Organics a great workplace in the first place, and 2) devise a plan that protects that culture far into the future.
For four months, a core team of six employees from the HR and Insights departments set out on an exploratory phase that included 35 one-hour interviews with team members across functions, departments and seniority levels. These interviews attempted to answer questions such as:
• What is the ideal work situation?
• How should we define employee wellbeing?
• What is Plum doing right and what can improve?
• What are potential best practices?
• What obstacles might hinder our progress?
In addition to employee interviews, Plum also researched a number of other firms known for their great cultures — including Clif Bar —and, as a Public Benefit Corporation, Plum reached out to the B-Corp community — including Etsy and Method — for further input.
What resulted from the vast data collection and analysis were a number of major insights about Plum’s culture which, in turn, informed a set of both long-term and short-term initiatives.
The short-term to-dos, or “quick wins,” were opportunities for Plum to make fast changes that created immediate impact and momentum. Plum’s Director of Mission, Strategy & Insights, Tiffany McNeil, personally counts “bring nature into the office” among her favorites, noting that the simple addition of more plants into the already pleasant Plum headquarters made an immediate impact on feelings of wellbeing for employees.
Another quick win called “bring back the bell,” reintroduced the use of an actual bell to celebrate employee wins in a public forum, promoting empowerment and bonding. Once a popular motivational tool, the bell had fallen out of use as the company grew. One of the first uses of the revived bell was to celebrate a Plum employee who placed first among all women in the 2016 San Francisco Marathon.
When it came to major insights, Plum found that employees are passionate about the company’s mission — to nourish little ones — and core values, so long-term action items, or “priority programs” have been proposed to emphasize mission and values through communication, hiring, onboarding and recognition.
Other key insights illustrated that employees want to feel trusted in their roles and able to autonomously manage their workloads. To that end, another Plum priority program aims to improve flexible and remote work. The emphasis within this effort is to develop guidelines — not policy — that embraces each individual’s desire and ability to work where and when they work best, and fosters an environment where employees can work seamlessly with team members no matter where they are.
There were also surprises among the research. The company’s queries about wellbeing, for example, yielded unexpected results. “I think we expected employees to ask for specific, prescriptive wellness advice and on-site fitness programs, but they didn’t,” notes McNeil. “We were surprised by that.” Instead, they found that wellbeing meant something different for each employee, and in the 2017 priority programs, Plum will “elevate wellbeing” discussions and empower managers to address, and model, wellbeing moving forward.
Integrating the priority programs into individual and team Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and keeping their progress up front during companywide huddles ensures the Plum Workplace of Our Future initiatives will stay top of mind and on track.
Creating the program outreach and initiatives required hundreds of work hours and resources. It’s been a daunting process, especially for a still relatively small brand, but Mand emphasizes its value to Plum’s bottom line. “We made the Workplace of Our Future program one of our key priorities for the year, because it was so important to us.” he says. “Our leadership team is all-in. If you want your employees to be happy, productive and engaged, it starts with the company culture.”