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Want to Boost Profits? Invite Employees to Be 100 Percent Honest

At Bare Foods, I wanted to collect employee feedback in a systematic way, but I knew I’d never have time to respond to individual emails, nor could I require employees to stare at a blank email each week and expect them to come up with insightful feedback.

When it comes to growing profits, food manufacturing companies have a lot of tried-and-true tactics, from creative marketing to new packaging. However, few food companies have tapped into a powerful way to boost profits organically: listening to their employees will lead to better bottom-line results. Encouraging, collecting, and responding to employee feedback in a systematic way is one of the best ways to boost business success – and thus, profits.

As CEO of Bare Foods, one of the fastest-growing healthy snack food companies in the US, I put employee feedback at the center of everything we do. The results are wide-reaching and surprising: an upsurge of great ideas that have spurred growth; streamlined and open communication between disparate and geographically dispersed  teams; a boost in overall productivity and efficiency; and more clarity into each team’s objectives, barriers, and achievements.

What does it mean to encourage 100 percent honesty and how do we do it? Years ago, when I was running the global fruit company Sundia, I found out about the 15-5 concept pioneered by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. In the 1980s, Yvon was scaling glaciers and hiking through forests, but needed a way to keep in touch with his teams and stay on top of the details of their daily work lives. So he invented the concept of 15-5, where employees spent 15 minutes a week writing up their thoughts, goals, ideas, and questions in an email, and then Yvon spent 5 minutes a week reviewing and responding to each employee’s feedback. The idea was to require each employee to communicate with the CEO on a weekly basis, and vice versa, so he could see a global vision of what was happening in the company, roadblocks, issues, and successes — even if he was atop a mountain.

Chouinard’s system was fantastic, but it had one fatal flaw. As Patagonia grew, the number of weekly reports grew as well, miring managers in an endless email deluge. 

At Bare Foods, I wanted to collect employee feedback in a systematic way, but I knew I’d never have time to respond to individual emails, nor could I require employees to stare at a blank email each week and expect them to come up with insightful feedback. While we’re still a small team of about 40 people, we’re spread across the US, India, Thailand, and the Philippines and have teams doing many different tasks – from sourcing fruit and partnering with manufacturers, to managing logistics and distribution, to marketing and business development. I needed a way to touch base with every employee on every team each week – to keep on top of every aspect of the business – without turning the feedback loop into a chore employees would resent. The solution? We adopted a communications platform called 15Five, named after Chouinard’s core concept, to help foster communication among Bare Foods team members.

15Five solves the “blinking cursor” problem where employees can’t figure out what feedback to give, because managers ask employees pointed questions, such as:

  • Are there any obstacles you’re facing and can I help?
  • What are your wins (big or little) for this week?
  • What are your top three priorities for next week?

Managers choose questions that foster discussion. Once, we asked “What’s one great idea you have to take Bare Foods to the next level?”  I published the best ideas in an employee newsletter, letting people vote on which we should implement. Some of the ideas were strategic; one junior employee who had a great idea of how to make our apple chips wider, something the executive team had been struggling with for months! Others were more prosaic, but just as important to building a strong company. One such idea we implemented was to celebrate birthdays. I had no idea people wanted this — I hate celebrating my birthday — but now we have cake, go bowling, or host an after-work cocktail to honor employees on their birthdays, and it’s had a measurable impact on morale.

I’ve also spotted potential problems before they became real – such as a finding out that a factory in Thailand would be closed for a week and thus having to find a backup manufacturer for that time period. Without 15Five, I might not have known about the closure until it was too late, halting production and stalling sales.

All this communication isn’t just touchy-feely California stuff. It actually has an impact on bottom-line sales. As a CEO, when I have instant access to all the good and bad news in my company, I can spot potential problems and find solutions fast. I can also see what’s working, recognizing employees for a job well done, and implement employees’ great ideas that will increase sales, like the wider apple chip.

I don’t ever want Bare Foods to become a “traditional” food manufacturing company in the sense that we’d be a 100% vertical, hierarchical company where the CEO never connects with employees on the front line. But I know that, as we grow, feedback flowing up from the bottom up — and responses from managers flowing back down — will become more difficult. With 15Five, we already have a feedback tool that can scale to hundreds, or even thousands, of employees.

Food is an elemental, deeply human experience — and, thus, in a food company, you manage profitability through shared vision. You won’t become a billion-dollar food company, or stay in that spot , if each and every employee does not share your vision for delicious, quality food. The way to make that happen is through transparent, frictionless communication. When you get to 100 percent honesty, I can guarantee you’ll see a boost in profits.

About the Author
Brad Oberwager is CEO of Bare Foods, a leading natural snacks company.