Deep Dive

A cracking leadership team

How Happy Egg Co. owner Noble Foods is being nourished by its values-led leadership...

Journalist: Amanda Vlietstra

The last few years have been extremely challenging for business leaders – and although the pandemic may now be receding into the background, it's left behind it a difficult landscape for leaders to navigate, notably around staff recruitment and retention. With the 'Great Resignation' resulting in 1.2million unfilled job vacancies in the UK (according to the most recent Government data), there's huge competition among employers for the existing pool of talent.

Leadership plays a significant role in this – data from Barry Wehmiller in the USA found that 35% of workers have left a job they loved because they didn't like their boss, and nine per cent are currently looking for a new job because they dislike their CEO. Add the cost-of-living crisis to the problems created by the pandemic, and it's clear that the C-Suite is facing an unprecedented mountain of challenges.

Navigating difficulties

The leadership team at Noble Foods have faced all this – and more, as they also have the challenge of a geographically diverse workforce to navigate, plus the challenges of recruiting rural, manual labour. Noble Foods, which owns the brand Happy Egg Co., is the UK's largest egg producer, as well as being a hen processing business and milling business.

The company is spread across the entire country, with some of the leadership team working out of the Staines head office, but the egg business based in Lincolnshire, the poultry business in Gainsborough, and mills across the UK.

Devolved leadership

Louisa Hogarty, the company's HR Director, told myGrapevine magazine that this provides an extra challenge for the company's leadership team, who have to run multiple businesses in different geographic locations, and work with the farms – both independent and owned by Noble Foods – that feed into them. They've solved this by devolving their leadership.

She explained: "The leadership team consists of myself, the CEO Duncan Everett, CFO Alan Bergin, and Peter and Sarah Dean, who own the business. Sarah is also the chair of the Board." She continued: "Apart from that, each of the three separate business arms – poultry, milling and consumer foods, has its own Managing Director."

Values-led leadership

In recent years, the company has done a lot of work around what its purpose is and what it stands for as a business, which has been vital to the leadership team in giving it clarity and direction. As a Forbes article explained: "Values-based leadership instils a common set of values in all employees, improving their cohesiveness and willingness to work together. Knowing that a leader or manager has similar beliefs often encourages employees to follow their instruction, increasing the chance of success with every goal."

Values, Hogarty explained, have to come from the top-down. "Everything we do is linked back to these values. It's about constantly communicating and joining the dots," she said.

So, when in 2019, the company's owners Sarah and Peter Dean brought the company back into family ownership, the leadership team went out to look for a new CEO. Central to what they were looking for was someone who represented their values, had good credentials and could drive a business, but also had strong integrity and really cared about people. "When we first met Duncan, I can't explain it but I almost felt it in my stomach," Hogarty said. "Just to speak to a leader that had been very successful in what I would say is the ‘right' way – by empowering people, caring, growing people – that was the moment [we knew we'd found the right person]."

Louisa Hogarty
Louisa Hogarty
Group HR Director &
Non Executive Director

Hogarty’s top leadership tips

A good leader understands the importance of being human. Empathy and humility are a must in order to demonstrate authenticity and gain mutual respect. Being able to share when you have made a mistake, for example, demonstrates that you are human, making you more approachable and sets the tone for an inclusive and supportive culture where colleagues are empowered to do what is right for the business.

Strong leaders are also great coaches. They help colleagues to find solutions for themselves and encourage individual and team development.

A great leader should also be a visionary. The leader of a company should be at the centre of exciting visions for the future, as well as keeping up with the challenges and changes we are seeing in the industry. It is their responsibility to galvanise people to come together and achieve success!

Working together

Everett's job as incoming CEO was to ensure the company's values were shared across the whole business. "The business has been very successful over the years by allowing the Managing Directors to run the business and do so autonomously. That meant we had three very successful businesses, but the opportunity to work together had been missed – and in some instances, that had resulted in unintended consequences," Hogarty explained.

That changed when Everett came on board – and for the better. "When I look back on the last 18 months, there are some beautiful stories about people working on projects together, and us working together has had a better outcome for our farmers. It's also really helped us to have teams working together," Hogarty said.

Creating engagement

As part of this values-led leadership, last year Noble Foods identified 35 'influencers' from across the group. This group was dubbed the 'Noble Leaders Group' (NLG). They were brought together virtually in 2021 (as the pandemic was ongoing) and broken into subgroups. One group of seven was given the task of discovering 'What's our purpose?' They distilled this to: "To better nourish ourselves, animals and the planet." Noble Foods considers itself to sell a nourishing product, as well as nourishing its animals, and it's important to the company that it does its bit in leaving the planet in a better state than they found it.

Another subgroup of the NLG was given the values challenge, which they solved by surveying 170 members across the business and coming up with the 'To Care' acronym. This stands for Together, Ownership, Courage, Action, Respect and Excellence. "We didn't have a letter for 'caring' as it's so fundamental to our DNA that we didn't need it!" Hogarty smiled.

She believes that delegating the task of distilling the company's values was of huge benefit in creating employee engagement. "Instead of it being one or two people coming up with the future of the business, it was devolved, and because of that, it was owned," Hogarty said. "Suddenly the outcome you get, the engagement you get, it's off the scale."

About Noble Foods

William Dean – the grandfather of the current owner of the company, Sarah Dean – started the business in 1920, collecting eggs from smallholders and selling them door-to-door in Tring, Hertfordshire.

In 2006, Deans Foods became Noble Foods and they expanded the brand by acquiring luxury dessert brand Gu – but divested themselves of that brand last year.

The Happy Egg Co. was launched in 2006 and is now the UK's leading egg company.

Every week, they grade, pack and deliver over six million eggs. In 2018, Noble Foods launched the first 100% organic egg brand.

Moving forward

Going forward, the company's vision is to grow – which has already started with the acquisition of another mill earlier this year. "We're looking to sell one million tonnes a year of feed, and that's our short-term target. On the egg side, we're really focussing on how we can use this amazing, carbon-efficient protein to really innovate and add some value for the consumer. So, building on putting eggs in boxes and seeing what we can really do to nourish people!"

But of course, the company faces challenges, with recruitment being one of the main issues. Britain's decision to leave the European Union (EU) had an effect on the labour talent pool available to Noble Foods, although Hogarty said that 78% of the workers the company employs are British. "We're constantly challenging ourselves for what we do for retention," she explained. "A lot of our work is hard physical labour. It's not for everyone. We have felt labour shortages. And people who are working for us are doing extra hours, have felt that strain." Rising costs are also an issue. "We've seen commodity pricing at a level we've never seen and that's a real challenge."

With lots of trucks on the road, and energy prices soaring, these too are issues that are causing headaches for the Noble Foods leadership team. The company has also put "many millions on the wage line just to stand still," she said. "But that's the same for everyone. Everyone's done it."

Growing the future generation

Aside from those general challenges facing all businesses – and focussing on what the current leadership is doing – Hogarty said her focus is on how to grow the next generation. 69% of Millennials are concerned that their workplace does not develop their leadership skills, according to research by Apollo Technical, with developing the next generation of leaders the top challenge for 55% of CEOs – however, Noble Foods appears to be planning ahead.

"Everything we do is linked back to these values"

"There's a huge amount going into management leadership development, really stretching ourselves with our succession, thinking in the broadest possible ways and giving people that opportunity to be braver with the right support. Equally, we're investing in some new apprenticeships," Hogarty said.

Noble Foods has some employees who've given more than 25 years' service – who all joined at the same time and worked their way through the ranks of the company together. "I'm looking for my modern-day version of that," Hogarty said. "There are some lovely people coming through as we support some of these young apprenticeships. We became youth-verified at the end of last year so we're working with them to bolster that and do driver apprenticeships. We're doing everything we can to bring people up and through."

What's fascinating, she said, is that some of the new generations are the children of the 25-year-old cohort group. "Last summer we took on loads of their kids as sort of a trial. Two of them wanted to stay and one is coming back on an apprenticeship. They can earn proper money as a young person, which is an incentive, and my objective is to increase the under-25-year-old age group, year-on-year."

Leadership development

The company has set up a leadership development programme – ASPIRE – which consists of a two-year pathway, starting with management basics and moving forward though time management and leadership, intertwined with learning groups and coaching. DDI's Global Leadership Forecast from 2018 found that participants undergoing leadership training improved their learning capacity by 25% and their performance by 20%, pointing towards the benefits that this could bring to Noble Foods.

Currently, Noble's NLG have been split into three groups and are working their way through the programme, which is run by leadership, with the same content also available for everyone to book onto. "We will have delivered over 2,000 development hours this year," Hogarty said. "That's something I'm quite proud of!" She added, however, that "there's so much still to do."

While in business, there's a lot of debate around the issue of ‘what makes a good leader', there is some consensus that good leaders provide direction, inspiration, and guidance, and exhibit courage, passion, confidence, commitment, and ambition. As leadership expert John Quincy Adams said:

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader."

It seems as if Noble Foods have absorbed all those lessons and are working hard to put them into practice, resulting in engaged employees – and Zippia statistics show that engaged employees result in companies that are 22% more profitable. In this case, successful leadership is its own reward.

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