Interviewed by Kevin O’Neill
Q&A with Tony Sarsam
Tony Sarsam, CEO of Borden Dairy Company, always wanted to lead teams. Tony accepted his first position with PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay business because it allowed him to immediately step into a leadership role as an engineer. He went on to build an impressive 20-year career there. His people-first philosophy later earned him big leadership positions with Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, as president of Nestlé USA’s Direct Store Delivery division, and as CEO of Ready Pac Foods.
The biggest lesson he's learned throughout his career is that no matter the organization, the key to success is building teams that win together. "There is nothing more important than getting the talent right," Tony said. "Especially with the first couple of layers of the organization. You need to move as fast as possible in getting that right."
At Ready Pac, Tony achieved a remarkable business transformation. He grew the company by more than 60% and established the brand as the top producer of single-serve salad bowls by energizing his workforce, hiring more than 40 executives, and implementing a “people-first” approach. His transformation attracted attention from big players in the industry; in 2017, Bonduelle acquired Ready Pac for $409 million — about 11 times the company’s adjusted EBITDA.
In his current position at Borden, Tony is stewarding the historic brand into a new era. Tony has big plans for innovating and growing the business, and he knows that the first step is building the right team — and to build the right team, you first have to set the right expectations.
Set bold expectations
Tony: When stepping in as a new CEO, be bold about your expectations for the company. Each of my past two organizations was hungry for great challenges, and I simply put context around what I thought the company could be and where it could go. I made what some considered to be bold proclamations — the things that I knew could and should work in those companies.
While you want your goals to be bold, you also want them to be realistic. This is the difference between inspiring your team to greatness and causing your team to give up or get discouraged. Meet with your team early and get right to work executing on your strategy. This action step is crucial; the worst thing you can do is make a declaration about what you're going to do and then go silent.
Shortly after I started at Borden, for example, I wanted to meet as many of my new associates as possible — always a challenge when a field team is scattered throughout the country. I took road trips to different Borden locations, snapping photos and writing down a few sentences about what I encountered along the way, who I met, and what we were doing to move the company forward.
I sent these memos to the entire team so that everyone knew what I was doing (and that I wasn’t just goofing around). As a result, my employees saw that I didn’t just talk the talk — I walked the walk and followed through on my commitment to open communications and knowing our people.
Hire brilliant people
Tony: Building high-quality teams has been the biggest driver of success in the organizations I have had the privilege to lead. I do not start out with a notion that any one position is more critical than another.
I am building a basketball team, not a bowling team. As a leader, you must build and develop teams that work as a unit.
I’ve always sought people who work extraordinarily well on a team. This is what truly defines a brilliant person at work. I look for people who have the aggregate values that are going to make a business a success. Those people are becoming the best versions of themselves at work, and they are a good fit with the rest of the team and the organization.
All of them have slightly different values, but generally brilliant leaders are passionate, respectful, agile, and experts. You can tell quickly whether someone is a good fit for your organization based on these traits.
Tony: Building trust is crucial for CEOs, especially in a newly assembled leadership team. Create an environment where it's okay to ask for help and where you don't have to have all the answers — because you won't. In addition, force yourself to share failures and be transparent about shortcomings.
Ensure there's transparency throughout your organization. Every function should be accountable for every other function, and they need to be perfectly transparent with their reports. Each of my team members is responsible for training other members of their team on how their function works.
It can be beneficial to onboard many new hires at once. In a way, those hires become part of the same family. They go through the same learning experiences at the same time, and it enables them to form unique connections and bonds.
Bring out the best in others
Tony: Once you have recruited the right team, it’s all about unleashing their potential. First, decide what matters as a business. Make that really visible and ensure that you are able to take decisive action when things are not going the way you'd prefer them to go.
When things are going the way you hoped they would, celebrate — and celebrate wildly.
In terms of fulfillment at work, people want to feel like winners. To some degree, it's not always important that you win by somebody else's definition. You have to win based on your own definition.
When things go off the rails, act fast to get back to winning. I always try to be very public about how we’re doing — including good and bad news. If we had a bad month, what’s the next step? I need to see real action.
Even when things are going well, it's important to understand why. People typically say, “Wow that was great!” and then move along with their lives. They assume it was their unassailable leadership or their rugged good looks that made things go well. But behind every successful initiative, there’s a team of brilliant people working together to achieve a goal.
Brilliant people who inspire you
Tony: I like leaders who can capture an element of the truth in a simple way that anyone can digest. Communication is critical. Thomas Jefferson was a terrible speaker, but he was a spectacular writer. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is possibly one of the most brilliantly written passages in the history of mankind. It says so much, and it says it in such a pithy way.
Abraham Lincoln is another example of an incredible communicator. You could listen to 20 hours of speeches and not get as much as you would out of his Gettysburg Address, arguably one of the greatest speeches of all time delivered in roughly 2 minutes and just 272 words. I have the greatest admiration for people who can communicate effectively and speak to people's hearts, and I look for those people who can help me think about how I want to articulate things.
Defining brilliance with Tony
|Purpose is...||what gets you out of bed in the morning. The absence of purpose is perhaps the most dangerous thing in anyone's life.|
|Leadership is...||creating an environment that allows people to do what they are supposed to do and do their best.|
|Brilliant leaders are...||passionate, respectful, agile, experts.|
|Success is...||winning. When we win as a company, that allows us to be more stable, hire more people, create better careers, and help people achieve their purposes. That is success.|
|I perform at my best when...||I have the freedom to create and work with smart and energetic people.|
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