‘Are You Aware of What Happens When You Walk in the Room?’ Asks The Wonderful Company’s CFO and EVP, Human Resources, Stephen Howe

In this edition of our Corporate Competitor Podcast, Maxwell Leadership Thought Leader Don Yaeger sits down with Stephen Howe, Chief Financial Officer of The Wonderful Company, to discuss the leader’s role in fostering a culture of positivity rather than fear. 

“As a senior executive, I’m often guided by this legend: long ago, an ancestor was out gathering shoots and berries on the savanna and heard the distant roar of a lion,” Stephen Howe shared. “As the roar grew ever closer, he sped up his work and, when the lion appeared nearby, made for the cave as fast as his bare feet would carry him.”

Fast-forward to a meeting room in an office near you, and the same hard-wired fear that saved our ancestor from constant real threats continues to arouse us against perceived threats. And that, says Howe, is a problem because fear tends to shut down creativity and send everybody back to their metaphorical caves – i.e., their offices. Substitute the business leader for the lion, and the metaphor takes on a modern twist.

“When I walk into a room as the CFO, I’m probably putting my teammates into a low level of threat,” said Howe, who attended Harvard and played basketball at Oxford University. “That’s maybe okay, you know, they’re a little more focused, a little more attentive…  a little stress is good.” But if the leader projects a bad mood or gets chippy with those whose livelihoods depend on him or her, cautions Howe, the result is likely to be “fight or flight,” neither of which is conducive to “the kind of creativity that is needed for complex problem solving.”

At The Wonderful Company, one of the largest and most philanthropic privately held companies in the United States whose iconic brands you know and love include FIJI Water, POM Wonderful, Wonderful Pistachios, Wonderful Halos, Wonderful Seedless Lemons, Teleflora, and JUSTIN Wines, Howe is also in charge of the company’s human resources area and bears the, er, lion’s share of responsibility of ensuring the company’s culture is driven by creativity and focus, not fear.

The podcast provides listeners with a clearly outlined rationale for, and steps to foster, an environment of “positive teamwork.” Lessons include:

• Why it pays to start slow. “Time and time again, we’ve seen that if you invest time early on to build the alignment, you may start out slowly, but eventually you will go fast,” Howe explained.

• Why it’s crucial to hire and train the right people and create the right energy that allows discretionary energy to flourish within your team.

• Why leaders should create a framework of shared values that establish how leaders and their teams will behave toward one another.

The Wonderful Company takes shared values seriously and created an annual performance review process called G.R.O.W., which stands for Goals, Recognition and Ongoing conversations at Wonderful. “Everyone at Wonderful is evaluated not only on what they achieved and plan to achieve,” Howe pointed out, “but also how they achieved it.”


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