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August 2019
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TD Magazine

Unleashing Talent at Hershey

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Unleashing Talent at Hershey

High energy and optimism characterize Hershey CEO Michele Buck's leadership style.

As the Hershey Company's first female CEO in its 125-year history, Michele Buck epitomizes change and seeks it out. Her preference for distributed leadership and her company-wide listening sessions help engage the Hershey workforce in moving toward the future. We interviewed Buck at the company's headquarters in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

The Hershey Company describes itself as a purpose-driven company. Tell us what that means and how talent development supports that aspect of the organization.

We live in a time when many companies are looking for purpose because they think it's the right thing to do and because it's important to people to do work that helps society. Employees, especially the younger generations, feel that coming to work is more than just doing a job and delivering profits.

I think Hershey is unique in that purpose is in our DNA, starting with Milton Hershey, who founded the company in 1894. After achieving significant business success, he left a trust to fund in perpetuity a school for disadvantaged children. Today, that trust owns 30 percent of our stock, so about one-third of our dividend each year goes to the Milton Hershey School, a K-12 boarding school in Hershey, Pennsylvania, serving more than 2,000 children from backgrounds of significant financial and social risk.

Being purpose-driven is at the root of the company, and it's permeated the culture. Hershey attracts the kind of people for whom just the job isn't enough. One way our employees give back to society is by interacting throughout the year with students at the Milton Hershey School. Another is our partnership with Partners in Food Solutions. Employees volunteer their expertise in areas such as marketing, manufacturing, and product development to some of the small communities in West Africa that produce cocoa for us.

We've proven that you can be a company that's a fierce competitor in the marketplace and still be very compassionate and focused on giving back to society.

How does talent development come into this?

Volunteering with Partners in Food Solutions provides many opportunities for our people, including exposure to emerging markets, practice leading virtual teams, and the challenge of innovating when resources are scarce. And it builds the coaching and mentoring capabilities that we think are important in our leaders. It's also a great personal growth opportunity to experience people in different businesses and cultures and to think about how to teach and grow. While people are volunteering their expertise, they're also enriching themselves.

Another great example of purpose crossing into business is how our flagship brand, Hershey's, is "heartwarming the world," creating connections with people. Our employees have been involved in heartwarming their communities by giving Hershey's bars to others as a way to connect.

I'm a big believer that people bring their best selves to work when they're fully engaged. Making people feel they can contribute to society and do good while also doing their jobs allows them to bring their full selves to work in an even deeper way.

Hershey is ranked number 1 in the confection industry. What does it take to lead and motivate employees when you're already at the top?

I believe in creating energy, and the idea that the CEO is the chief energy officer rings true with me. Energy is like a big snowball that unleashes people's passion and capabilities and lets them be highly engaged. One way we challenge our people to do that every day is to set their sights on going beyond our current capabilities. This is the core of our innovative snacking powerhouse.

One of my visions coming in as CEO was to broaden the opportunity that we have in the marketplace. Today, we're not just number 1 in confection but we're also the number 2 snack manufacturer in the U.S.

I am an optimist—a hallmark of my leadership style. I balance that with a healthy dissatisfaction and an appropriate degree of skepticism. We're a big, powerful player, but we have to keep elevating ourselves and taking our performance to the next level.

We focus on how the world is changing and evolving. The marketplace is more dynamic now than at any time in my career. I'm concerned with how we keep the elements of our culture that we love and that are powerful—the teamwork, commitment, integrity, collaboration, and hard work—while pivoting to behaviors that are critical in today's environment. Moving with speed is at the top of the list. We need to be comfortable taking action when we only have 80 percent of the data.

You're an advocate for taking ownership of one's career and seeking out experiences to make yourself better. What is your advice for people early in their careers who may not feel that sense of ownership?

The greatest learning experiences in my career always turned out to be in jobs that I was really nervous about taking, because they were either a step up to a much bigger role or a step sideways to a role that didn't play to my functional strengths. And while it can be scary to do those things, I think the greatest personal growth comes from them. It allows you to understand yourself, your strengths, your opportunities, and your weaknesses and figure out how to leverage them.

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The best example I could give is my first true general manager job. Marketing was my functional backbone, but I was given responsibility for a business, and I had a manufacturing facility reporting to me. The manufacturing plant was not doing well, and there was talk of closing it down. It was a scary situation because I'd never managed something that was so totally different for me. I jumped into the challenge and learned how to apply my strengths in listening to people and partnering with them so that I could understand from the manufacturing folks what they thought was going wrong. By the end of my tenure there, that plant had become an outstanding performer, hitting every key metric across the board.

As I left that job, I received the greatest award of my career. The manufacturing employees made me a plaque that said, "Congratulations on your promotion. Our loss is their gain." One of their wives hand-embroidered it, and the guys in the shop made the frame. It meant so much to me. It made me realize the impact I had on those people's lives because if that plant wasn't there, their jobs weren't there.

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As a company, we're thinking more about having our talent cross lanes to support their growth.

When you became CEO in 2017, you went on a listening tour of the company and have continued to do that ever since. What value do you derive from listening to employees?

One of my most important leadership principles is listening to people in different parts of our business. This is where I believe the true power of diversity lies. Listening to diverse thinking helps me get to the best solutions. Listening to other people's perspectives really helps me make well-informed decisions. As a listener, I value sitting quietly, letting others talk, and taking it all in.

The other thing that I value about listening is that when people are going through a lot of change, as most employees are today, listening helps me see where they are on the journey and how comfortable they are or aren't.

We've embarked on our innovative snacking powerhouse journey, and I want to know how people are experiencing that. What are they learning along the way? What insights do they have that can help us get there more quickly? What could I do to help them?

Do you have a specific process or action that you take from what you hear? How do you apply it?

I start at the shop floor and talk to people at almost every level of the organization, asking them what they want. I take notes. I assign follow-ups to the teams I speak with so they know I was listening. This process not only helps me understand what's going on; it shows we value what employees have to say at all levels.

The power of people knowing you care what they think is job one. When I went into manufacturing plants, people said, "Lots of CEOs have come here before, but they usually just tour the plant and nobody sits down with us, the hourly workers, and asks us what we think."

I look for common themes to piece together and bring to the leadership team to see how we can address them on a company-wide basis. I'm a big believer in a distributed leadership model as opposed to a very hierarchical one, because I think it enables us to make decisions quickly and move forward with speed to get the best results.

When I first took over as CEO, one of the things that surprised me when I toured one of our manufacturing facilities was the eagerness of our long-term, female manufacturing workers to talk to me. In their enthusiasm, they asked me to sign their bump caps [protective headgear for working in low-clearance areas] and be photographed with all of us wearing them. They talked about how much it meant to see themselves in the CEO, and it made them very enthusiastic about the possibilities for their daughters in the world to come. Until then, I hadn't realized the impact that some diversity choices can have on the engagement of employees.

Companies today need workers with capabilities beyond the ordinary. How do you predict those capabilities, and how do you want Hershey's talent development function to contribute to making them prevalent throughout the company?

We look at what's evolving in the external marketplace and disrupting it. Then we look at the skill sets and leadership capabilities we will need in order to adapt. We focus on getting a balance of structured thinkers with some really disruptive thinkers, because to win in today's marketplace, we need both. We have to execute our big brand business model that we've had for years and at the same time consider emerging brands, startups, and new business models for our retail and e-commerce channels.

The second disrupter we focus on is technology. We've evolved from thinking about IS [information systems] as a staff function to IS as a commercial function that is at the backbone of everything we do. And that means rethinking the skill set for people who are primarily technicians but need to be business partners. Just like we have HR business partners to support the business, we need to create commercial value through technology. This is where we are building capability and reskilling some of our workers.

When you think about the future of Hershey and the future of work in general, what excites you most?

I'm really excited about our innovative snacking powerhouse vision, because I think there's tremendous opportunity to leverage our capabilities in new markets. I'm excited by the digital-first approach to getting technology at the center of how we do everything from manufacturing to marketing to selling. It unlocks the potential to increase employee fulfillment by eliminating tasks that are highly manual, tedious, or difficult. It can also give people access to one consistent set of data for making decisions.

I'm excited about the possibilities for learning and development. We will never become digital-first without investing in talent development.

I'm excited that work is becoming more agile and that flexible work arrangements are the norm. When I had my first child 21 years ago, there really weren't flexible work options and there wasn't the technology to allow it. More importantly, there wasn't an environment to support it. Today, you can be a parent and a CEO.

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About the Author

Tony Bingham is the president and CEO of the Association for Talent Development, formerly ASTD, the world’s largest professional association dedicated to those who develop talent in organizations. Tony works with a staff of 130, a Board of Directors, and a worldwide network of volunteers to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace. 

Tony believes in creating a culture of engaged, high-performing teams that deliver extraordinary results. Deeply passionate about change, technology, and the impact of talent development, his focus is on adding value to ATD members and the global community of talent development professionals. He believes that aligning talent development efforts to business strategy, while utilizing the power of social and mobile technology for learning, is a key differentiator in business today.  

About the Author

Pat Galagan is the former editor-at-large for ATD. She retired in 2019 after a long career as a writer and editor with the association. She has covered all aspects of talent development and interviewed many business leaders and the CEOs of numerous Fortune 500 companies.

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