A valuable article written by Aaron Hurst for FastCoExist.com. The link between Purpose and Productivity is often maligned as a soft value driver, yet it has absolute commercial validity.
Heineken Mexico CEO, Dolf van den Brink, estimates that the company is saving several million dollars a year by selling their used paper bottle labels to paper companies to make napkins and tissues. “We were paying money to ship the spent labels to a landfill, and now we are going to earn money,” he says.
But for van den Brink it was not just about the outcome, which came out of a company-wide sustainability challenge, but that the source of the “brilliant idea,” was a maintenance worker in one of their breweries. Working on the frontlines, the worker saw firsthand how more than half of the waste coming out of the breweries was the paper removed from old beer bottles, that ended up in landfills when the bottles were washed to be reused. Where others saw trash, he had seen the potential to be a more sustainable business and make money in the process.
When he presented his idea to van den Brink’s team, “we just applauded him and he started crying. He was so touched that he completely became emotional and the tears were rolling.” It was a powerful lesson for van den Brink. It helped him see, “what organizations are capable of if you manage to unleash all those hidden passions and energies that we all have,” as he recalls.
This article is part of a series of articles by Aaron Hurst exploring how leaders find purpose and meaning in their jobs. This fall, Hurst’s company, Imperative, released a global survey of the role of purpose at work, in partnership with LinkedIn Talent Solutions, which found that those who are intrinsically motivated to find purpose in their jobs consistently outperform their colleagues and experience greater levels of job satisfaction and well-being, regardless of country, gender, or ethnicity. They are also 50% more likely to be leaders. This series will profile those leaders, and how they connect with what’s meaningful to them in their role and the organizations they lead.
Van den Brink’s early mentor, Jean-François van Boxmeer, the former CEO of Heineken, told him when he first took over that “in order to receive, you first need to give.” At the time the advice was lost on van den Brink, but when he got assigned to head up Heineken’s operations in the Congo, he came to understand better.
When he first arrived in the Congo, he experienced “a lot of internal fear about being too young for the job.” In order to act the part, he traded in his contact lenses for glasses and started wearing a suit and tie. “After six months, I was so drained of energy, the whole thing was simply not working for me,” he says. His wife told him: “take those goddamn glasses off. You look like a fool and you know, just do your thing. Just be who you are.”
“It was way more helpful to be myself, to be informal. I’m a young looking guy and it actually allows me to connect well with diverse groups in the organization.”
The local operation in the Congo, a country in which Heineken has had a presence for nearly a century, was underperforming under a culture that was “rather colonial” as he puts it. He was sympathetic to how it got that way, “The Congo was more or less a failed state, a country with incredible challenges. And there was a lot of theft and internal fraud due to the fact that we were operating in such a low trust environment.”
So, the new van den Brink, without his glasses and suit, decided to take a different approach. “As an optimist, I believe the vast majority of people are good and decent, and have very positive intentions.” To turn the business around he knew he first had to gain the trust of his local staff, who “might not have an amazing educational background but when you give them opportunities and support, they will grow like never seen before.”
During his tenure in the Congo, the company also launched a foundation for giving back to the local communities, where Heineken was selling its products, and where its local employees worked and lived, “I guess that was my first leadership lesson, on how important it is to define success in a much wider way.” It also proved to be a good move for the company’s bottom line, “We tripled our revenues and we more than doubled our market share,” he says.
Based on his success in Africa, van den Brink was named the CEO of Heineken USA, another division which needed a turnaround. His inspiration this time was not an outfit change, but looking back at the origins of the 150-year-old, family-controlled company. In the early 20th century, Heineken was known for its “very progressive labor policies, offering savings and loans and healthcare to its employees, and taking care of the communities we operated in.” He challenged his team, saying “if we were doing this in the early 20th century, why can’t we do it today?”
The company put in place progressive employee policies, which include paternity and maternity leave, flexible benefits, and ensuring work-life balance. And van den Brink says it’s working. Over the last six years, he says, they have experienced an “impressive business turnaround, restoring top line growth and consistent market share gains.”
When he moved to Mexico to become the CEO of Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma/Heineken Mexico, Heineken’s largest operating company (the company’s operations are structured like standalone businesses), he discovered that beyond the company’s sustainability initiatives—like committing to large wind and energy projects and sourcing locally to reduce carbon emissions and water use in their breweries—it had not really engaged with the wider society.
To change this, the company decided to use the Tecate brand, which was perceived as a “very masculine beer” in Mexico, in an ad that would take a stand against gender violence. “Gender violence is a big issue and a very difficult topic in the Latin world. In Mexico, two out of three women are confronted by violence. What’s shocking is that 60% of the population thinks it’s okay,” he says.
Van den Brink knew they would be “walking into a minefield” by running such an ad, given they were sending a message of gender equality through an explicitly masculine brand. It was a risky move that could mean losing sales and the loyalty of their predominantly male customers.
But his millennial marketing team prevailed. By using the Tecate brand, Heineken was making a direct appeal to men who engaged in the violence against women, through the beer they loved. They were sending a clear message, graphically depicted in the ad, that if you are a man who abuses women, “We don’t want you as a consumer.”
[Photo: Flickr user Felix Triller]