Ep. 71: Jeremy Behler - Leading for Innovation and Change

June 15, 2020 | 19 Minutes

Jeremy Behler, CFO at Sargento Foods, leads Finance, Accounting, Treasury, Tax, M&A, shareholder services/family office, and IT for the $1.4B consumer packaged goods leader. In this episode of Count Me In, Jeremy discusses the importance of trust and making connections with your team and across the organization to truly embrace change and begin innovating. While technology certainly drives a lot of innovation, it is really the new idea at the core that is the most impactful. For more leadership tips and characteristics, download and listen now!

Contact Jeremy: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jeremybehler/

Mitch: (00:00)
Welcome back for episode 71 of Count Me In IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I'm your host Mitch Roshong and I will be previewing our conversation between my cohost, Adam and Jeremy Belhar, the CFO at Sargento foods. In this episode, Jeremy discusses the importance of leadership when seeking to innovate and facilitate change. He shares some of his personal experiences and talks about how innovation and change does not necessarily need to revolve around technology. As a matter of fact, a big leadership quality he emphasizes in this episode is trust. To hear everything else he shared with Adam we're going to head over to the conversation now. 

Adam: (00:49)
So to get started, I just wanted to ask you what leadership characteristics have enabled you to climb to such a high leadership position within such a well known organization? 

Jeremy: (00:59)
Well , I think there's a few things. First and foremost, you know, I think it's important to note that there's not a one size fits all approach to leadership nor to achieving career success. It's one of the things, when I came on board early in my career, I looked at some of the leaders that I aspired to be, and it was at times a little bit challenged in terms of differences of what I saw versus what I felt and knew my core, personality, and beliefs and, and overall approaches were. And so for me, I've taken it a point to really be authentic and sincere first and foremost, because you can't be someone you're not and be successful and be, consistent throughout an entire career. So for me, what I try to do is I try to one, always be open minded and, and I have a general view of abundance. I always believe that there's always newer and better ways of doing things about thinking things. While I would characterize my thought process is largely databased, I also recognize that if it was as simple as that, we wouldn't need, leaders in positions cause we could just write programs to interpret data, and that's not as easy as there. So it's balancing the data piece with the judgment and understanding how to navigate in the gray area, where, the more senior you get that tends to be more of where you play. And I think the other, the other area that's been important is as you move up in the organization, I didn't appreciate as much the need to stay connected to what's really going on. I like to think of myself as a pretty approachable person, and have a very open communication process with most of my teams, but even with that, as hard as you can try, there are a lot of times where information just doesn't make it to you, because of your level, regardless of how you approach that. And so I've made it a point to, have deep relationships and set up processes so that I can have better insight into what's really going on, and understand when that may be inconsistent with what I believe, or I'm being told it's going on. 

Adam: (03:33)
You know, it's a really interesting insight to be able to find that connection between what's really going on and what you're being told is going on. And how do you, how do you cross those together? Have there been innovative ways that you've been able to do that, to make that connection? 

Jeremy: (03:49)
Well, I certainly, from a reporting technology standpoint, the more democratize data is the easier it makes that, in, you know, if you go back 20, 30 years ago, when we didn't have the rich powerful, ERP systems that we currently have management and executives would rely upon reports that they get from their teams without a real efficient way of validating that. And that's not to say that people are intentionally mischaracterizing data, but certainly there is a level of interpretation that comes with communicating, results and data, and if that is done in a manner that is intended to frame it in a positive light versus a negative light, you may not know that. And so being able to have access to more data, more timely data,  and data that doesn't maybe go through as many filters, certainly allows you to have a little bit more insight in terms of when the information that's being shared may not be the entire truth. It may be accurate data, but the information that that data is communicating, perhaps isn't consistent with what your objectives are or intents are. 

Adam: (05:15)
That akes sense. So when you're, when you're a leader in any organization, it requires you to be innovative, to kind of come up with different ways to, to run the business better. Are there any innovative things that you've come up with that you can, that you've adopted to make your business more effective? 

Jeremy: (05:34)
Well, sure. I mean, I think innovation is one where it's a little bit of this just magical word that means so many things, and a lot of times, I believe innovation is mischaracterized as being technology. And while technology is certainly an area that has seen, a very high level, of innovation, it's not the only area and, you know, innovation, if you get to the core of it, innovation is just a new idea and it could be a product, it could be a way of doing something, it could involve people, it can involve technology, it can involve process, and so for me, being able to embrace technology is really about being able to embrace change. And I think that in my career, one of the things that I've seen that really differentiate how effective, differentiate how much technology and innovation can have on a person or a group of people is very highly correlated with their openness to change. And, you know, for me personally, I've always hungered for new and better ways of doing things, and so inherently I have a very open mind to change, and I know that's not true across the board for everyone and it's not right or wrong. We're all right, you know, wired differently and their strengths and, and opportunities to each of those, but for me, it's never been a challenge because I, I really embrace it. And for me, how I've tried to utilize that with my teams is, to show examples of why that change is going to benefit all of us collectively, and in most cases, all of us individually as well. Certainly there are some new innovations that can have a negative impact on an individual, you know, maybe takeen to the extreme. Maybe there are certain roles that will be obsoleted by that, and I think that's why there's a lot of this inherent fear about innovation is. But what if you take the longterm view to that if you embrace that change, you're also going to embrace the opportunity that while your job may go away, your management team, your executive team, will see how you respond to that. And if you embrace the fact that your job is not going to be needed in a year, and you proactively identify that and work to resolve that, yeah, they may not need you to do what you're doing in the past, but what's more important is that you are seen as a thought leader that can lead future changes and future improvements and future efficiencies, and your team is going to want to keep you around for that. And you're going to have shown, that you have that mindset to be able to do different things and not look out purely for yourself, but look out how we can be better collectively. And I think that's something that, you know, throughout my career in the coaching and mentoring that I've done,  has been something that's been, a really clear differentiation between those who are embracing of new approaches versus those who see them purely as a threat. 

Adam: (08:53)
So you mentioned a little bit, some of the things you’ve done to help folks with change, embracing change, how, as a leader, do you get your whole team on board? You know, you mentioned some of the things that people can do with that, you know, to, to embrace that change, Hey, my job may go away. You know, what are some things I can do to be on board, but how do you bring your team into that change? I mean, like right now, and as we're recording this, we're in the middle of a pandemic, and so many companies are doing all these changes. How do you bring your team along to make sure that they're onboard and not feeling left behind, because not everybody can go as quickly as the next person? 

Jeremy: (09:32)
Well, at the root of it, the foundation is really trust and it's not specific to how we embrace innovation. I think that's the foundation of any successful leadership trait or any successful leader and how he or she, works with and leads their teams. If you don't have trust, it is infinitely more challenging to share any information that is not overtly positive. But if you have that level of trust that I respect you, I think, highly of you. That, that also then opens the opportunity for me to share maybe what you aren't doing as well. And then, then if I'm on the receiving end of that information, I have two ways to interpret it. One is my manager is telling me something and he, or she doesn't know what the heck they're talking about. I'm better than this, or wow, they usually give me pretty good feedback on what I do well, they're sharing with me what I don't do well. Maybe there's some truth to that. Maybe I can embrace that. And I think the trust piece of how we drive innovation is also the same. You know, if I get up in front of a group and talk about how we want to embrace a new, a new piece of technology, let's call it RPA, which is obviously a hot topic right now. If you don't have that level of trust with your team and you go share your desire to pursue a significant amount of investment in the RPA space, it's logical that people would be concerned to say, okay, RPA is all about taking some of these repetitive tasks and making them automated. Well, gosh, if I'm in a clerical role and that's what I do, I'm going to go right to, well, that means my job's going away. But if I set that tone upfront that says, wow, we have a great team that are all dedicated and aligned to working together to further our company's strategies, and I think that this team is spending a lot of our efforts and things and spending a lot of our time in areas that aren't the best use of the thinking, the mindset, the ingenuity that we have. I'd like to free up some time for all of us so that we can spend more time doing that. It's just becomes a paradigm shift to say, yes, my job is going to look a different, a little bit different a year from now or six months from now or two years from now, whatever that time horizon is.  But rather than being fearful of my job, going away, I'm going to embrace the fact that I'm not going to have to spend 40% of my time doing these repetitive, somewhat mind numbing tasks, and I can do much more, motivating and much more empowering type of work, that really leverages my strengths and takes away the negative elements of my role. I mean, those are the things that I hear a lot from my team is they want to feel like their work is more impactful, and the more time that they spend in spreadsheets or doing detailed transactions the less so they feel. And so if we can eliminate that work, that's a, that's a win, win. It's a win, win for the organization because we become more efficient, our team is more motivated. They come into work with more energy, more, a willingness to work and find new ways of doing things, and that creates then this almost self-fulfilling cycle of finding new ways to do things even after that first  tranche of improvements. 

Adam: (13:02)
So it seemed that trust is a key foundation to any mindset or leadership that's trying to drive any type of change. 

Jeremy: (13:12)
Well, certainly for me, I believe it's critical to being able to do it on a consistent and sustainable basis. You can definitely take a, more of a Draconian, top down approach where you mandate, but I think that, in some organizations, and it's probably driven by the size of the organization, as well as perhaps the, seniority of the group and how much tenure there is. A top down approach, you may not have the consistency of adoption, and the transition path will likely take much longer because you're going to be dealing with a lot of the, the antibodies, if you will, that are trying to fight against that change because there's, there's not a level of trust of, I know what it's going to look like when we come out on the other side. 

Adam: (14:02)
Definitely,aAnd, and as, and it seems with the rise of technology, the world seems to be shrinking. So it's no longer the CEO sitting up in his corner office and the top of a building that people never see. All you need to do is go onto Twitter or whatever device that that CFO is that that high up person is using, And you feel that connection all of a sudden. So it's, it's almost like that top of top down approach may not work and the way the world is changing as we go forward. 

Jeremy: (14:29)
Very much so. And I, you know, I think the people are speaking and very few people like that, that top down approach, they want to feel that engagement. They want to feel that connection. They want to, they want to be part of what we're doing. So it's not necessarily that they disagree, but when it comes from an edict on, I, there's not always the understanding of why we're doing it, or even sometimes, you know, what I, as an individual need to do is just collectively, here's what we're doing. But if you make a compelling case, if you have a clear way to articulate that to the team and others, so everyone understands what their role is and, and why we're doing this, not only will they be more engaged, but also it almost to use the antibody analogy, again. You build in the healthy blood cells to then go attack those antibodies, because you've got a majority of your team that is there's onboard, everyone's rowing, to the same beat, and if there's one or two detractors out there, that will be addressed organically, and it won't require any sort of intervention from a management standpoint because the team will bring those folks along versus having to be done via a more direct manner. 

Adam: (15:47)
So what advice would you give to somebody who, recognizes, we've been having this conversation about change and about innovation and just how to build the trust. They want to change their own mindset. What steps should somebody take to change their mindset, to say, you know what, I need to change my mindset so that I can help bring my team along. 

Jeremy: (16:07)
Well, I mean, again, it's individual, so there's not a one size fits all approach to this, and you have to tailor your approach to your specific personality and communication style. But in general, I think it's, it's important to, make a compelling case, certainly to address the most obvious or, or salient, areas that we'll create concern amongst the organization, and it's also a little bit of training to, have faith. So once you build that trust, you may not require that same level of validation before you decide to take the leap of faith and get on board with something. And so I'm doing that work upfront to establish the trust in that track record of where, yeah, my manager said that he or she is open and that they want to hear things, but if every time your team comes to you, with those things, you tell them, you know, to come back a different time or you don't have time to talk to them, or even worse, you hear their feedback and you just don't even acknowledge it or act on it. Well, then your words, aren't consistent with, what your team sees as your, your true actions, and so they're going to be much less apt to support you or to quickly latch on to any tribe type of changes or innovation that you're going to be bringing to the team. because of that, that kind of more personal concern about what does this mean for me? 

Closing: (17:48)
This has been Count Me In IMA's podcast, providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like, what you heard, and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.