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Why Dannon’s CEO Held a Global Meeting, and How He Got 75,000 Employees to Attend

The new CEO of global food company, Danone, the French parent of Dannon USA, ground operations almost to a halt recently for a 90-minute all-company meeting that was attended in person or via video by an estimated 75,000 of the yogurt maker’s roughly 100,000 employees worldwide. Emmanuel Faber’s ambitious gambit to get their attention was a stunning move from which other chiefs could learn.

From the headquarters of Dannon USA in White Plains, N.Y., to yogurt-making operations in Europe and other operations scattered around the globe, Danone employees halted their work en masse and mainly gathered in clusters to hear Faber and a supporting cast emphasize the importance of the company’s two-fold mission—ensuring growth for Danone, boosting health for mankind through its products—and employees’ crucial roles in achieving these goals.

The main message conveyed by the CEO appointed in October was “that ‘I am your chief inspiration officer,’” Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations for the Dannon USA arm of the Paris-based giant, told CEO Briefing. “This company will grow and be successful based not on me but on you and everyone else.’ It really was about fostering a culture of empowerment that is based on commitment: If you’re committed to the mission of Danone, then join us on a journey of realizing this mission to bring health through food to as many people as possible.”

“This company will grow and be successful based not on me but on you and everyone else.”

The meeting started at about 9 a.m. Eastern time, with about 300 people assembling in New York to watch the proceedings on video screens, Neuwirth said. In Danone plants, the company stopped production and used video screens to accommodate viewing by groups as large as possible. Danone employees who were on the road or otherwise unavailable could watch the meeting on their own laptops or mobile devices.

“This was a huge undertaking for someone in our industry sector, because we’re not a media company,” Neuwirth noted. But the effort was worthwhile, he said, “because it was really an impactful event based on the technology we used as well as the content. One of [Faber’s] overarching messages is that, to keep Danone as a place with a special culture, we need to keep changing Danone and evolve continually.”

Other CEOs certainly have made wide use of video lately—IBM CEO Virginia Rometty’s use of a recorded video message to dress down company troops a couple of years ago comes to mind, and many chiefs make company-wide announcements using the medium—but rarely if ever on this kind of scale for a live event and with the kind of scope and simultaneity worldwide that Danone demonstrated.

Obviously there was a huge cost to stopping production of the company’s yogurt, infant formula and other products, but the fact that Faber insisted on doing so was another effective way to underscore the importance of his message and its timing.

Thus, Danone’s global “company meeting” could provide lessons for other CEOs, even of much smaller operations. Interrupting business as usual can be a really effective way of delivering a message that’s not usual. Creating a “tentpole” event to which everyone in the company can refer as time goes on also can be very valuable.

Merely making himself or herself visible to everyone in the company for 90 minutes can pay huge benefits. Faber has been supplementing that visibility with a global road trip to Danone operations.

Some day, Faber’s global “meeting” may be looked at as one of the hallmarks of his tenure with Danone. And it may provide lessons for other CEOs right now.


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