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Unprecedented with Stuart Branch

Published 20th May 2022

Here at Unprecedented, we had the opportunity to talk with Stuart Branch, the Chief People & Digital Officer at Weetabix Food Company. He spoke to us about the work they’ve done for Diversity and Inclusion, and Mental Health over the last few years and the challenges of attracting top talent but also retaining it.

A background into you and your business

Weetabix Food Company makes Weetabix, the UK’s number one selling, most trusted and most recommended cereals. It is home to some of Britain’s most famous and iconic brands including Weetabix, Weetabix Minis, Alpen, Weetabix On The Go Breakfast Drink, Ready brek, Weetos and the popular Alpen bars.

The organisation is owned by Post Holdings Inc., a consumer-packaged goods holding company. Weetabix Food Company has been proudly fuelling families around the world for 90 years with nutritious cereals and snacks produced in Burton Latimer, Corby and Ashton. The company which has its global headquarters in Northamptonshire operates across North America, South Africa, Kenya, Germany and Spain and exports to more than 90 countries around the world.

I have over 15 years of executive-level experience in business. My career has taken in a diverse range of sectors – from hospitality and retail to financial services to manufacturing – where I’ve driven business change at an extensive scale. I joined Weetabix in the autumn of 2012 and hold the role of Group People & Technology Director. Being responsible for the organisation and effectiveness of people, systems, technology, culture & performance of The Weetabix Food Company creating and executing the Weetabix People, Information & Technology Agenda.

Define leadership and what being a leader means to you.

My work focuses on organisation design, talent & capability, employee engagement, business systems & processes, data & insight, as well as leadership development, performance and reward. Leadership is often being many things to many people, but also about ensuring your team has the tools, knowledge and support to work to their full potential. You can’t, indeed shouldn’t, provide every answer, but you should give your colleagues the equipment, vision and context to make decisions and show initiative – whilst of course, being on hand to support and challenge where needed. 

A big part of leadership is keeping people engaged and motivated, whilst also developing future talent who can be the leaders of tomorrow. 

We have a senior team here at Weetabix who recognise that in order to make brilliant food we need brilliant people, so we put a lot of focus on training our management and giving staff and colleagues the opportunities to further their careers if they wish to. 

What would you like your Leadership Legacy to be? 

I have a customer-centric, commercially focused approach which is perfectly suited to the fast-paced world of FMCG. As a leader, I would like to be known as someone who has belief in their colleagues and is also a significant supporter of Diversity and Inclusion. 

Diversity and Inclusion is a fundamental pillar of our people's culture at Weetabix and is integral to our ways of working. We’ve put time, effort and resources into this and the fruits of our labour are coming through thick and fast. Whilst the financial investment may be modest, the leadership effort, from my colleagues, has been considerable and significant. A company is only as good as the people within it, so it’s therefore vital to make your workplace as fair, empowering and inclusive as it can be.

A select group of senior leaders have demonstrated their agency to lead, inspire and collaborate with the organisation across a spectrum of diversity and inclusion actions under our ‘Inclusion Without Exception’ strategy.

What are the Unprecedented opportunities or challenges you / your business are now facing? 

Talent will remain absolutely key in the years ahead. It is important for all businesses to focus on not only attracting top talent but also retaining it. This starts by creating a working environment which encourages and empowers people to bring their best selves to work every day so that they can enjoy a rewarding career and keep striving to learn more and improve. 

We’re putting a spotlight on designing and creating the future workplace. Covid has obviously been an extremely challenging time for many, but it has given us space to reflect on how we want to work going forward. Our teams have been fantastic during this period, whether that’s working in the factories to ensure we can continue to supply the nation with its number one breakfast cereal, or those working from home to ensure the smooth running of the business at every level, everyone has stepped up to the challenge. 

Fast forward to 2050 .... what would you say to your future self… that you did well or badly in 2020 to learn from.

I’m really proud of the work we’ve done around Diversity and Inclusion, and Mental Health in the last couple of years, but we of course recognise that we are still very much on a journey. By 2050 I expect our commitments and achievements will only have accelerated and proliferated. 

None of our current activities is driving a more profound impact than our ‘Breakfast With…’ sessions - several senior team members now facilitate a wide range of speakers, sharing very personal reflections and stories of their own experiences of Inclusion and Diversity.

In the last year, our Inclusion work has centred around communication. We expanded the impact of our Inclusion and Diversity forum, ‘Inclusion without Exception’, which was established two years ago to create space for individuals to raise concerns, celebrate successes, educate team members, and develop our inclusive culture even further.

We will continue to prioritise our ‘Inclusion Without Exception’ strategy for all our staff – from those that have been with us for decades, to those just starting out. We’ve always taken care to nurture the workplace culture and environment at Weetabix, but there has certainly been more focus on Mental Health in the last couple of years. We saw an increased uptake in our pre-existing resources, such as our Employee Assistance Helpline, which is fulfilled via AXA Health. We’ve built on our existing mental health initiatives as a direct response to COVID-19, as we had clear feedback about just how beneficial many of our colleagues found them.

We’ve also recently introduced the opportunity for colleagues to become trained Mental Health first aiders – this has already been a success, with a new wave of volunteers signing up for the next training course. We’re expecting to have 40+ Mental Health first aiders across the business within the next three months. We are also piloting areas for reflection or ‘quiet areas’, for use by both head office and our manufacturing teams. 

Our most important learning post-COVID has been about the importance of reducing the stigma of mental health struggles and signposting the resources available as clearly as possible. To encourage honest conversation on this topic, mental health blogs written by employees during the pandemic are now a permanent fixture. 

The challenges of the last two years have seen our philosophy evolve to recognise that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to mental health.

Looking ahead, what are your predictions for the economy? For your business/sector?

It has of course been a challenging couple of years for workplaces and businesses across the country. During the Covid-19 pandemic, taking care of our employees - many of whom are designated by the government as key workers - has been our first priority. Being resolutely committed to our purpose and our beliefs has never been more important, and we are proud to have continued our commitment to positive impact through this difficult time – promoting Inclusion in the business is no exception. 

Cereal is still the number one breakfast product - it offers great value for money, which will be important to shoppers in the months ahead with more people monitoring what they are spending.

As restrictions ease, we are now shaping what our future workplace looks like, in terms of where we work, how we work and the environment we want to work in. Both our factories and offices are on the same site at Burton Latimer and this will continue in the years ahead. Whilst we will be offering our office-based colleagues increased flexibility with working from home and office hours, there is still a place for coming together in person, when safe to do so, to collaborate on projects and ensure we continue to foster a positive workplace culture.

Most business leaders are talking about the lack of available talent being the main inhibitor of growth (achieving their strategic goals) – what are your thoughts on this and what are you doing about it?

A company, whatever sector it might be in, is only as good as the people within it, and focusing on your people is a key part of being sustainable for years to come. It is important for all businesses they focus on not only attracting top talent but also retaining it. 

We are seeing more and more applicants asking about our approach to Inclusion. Being honest and transparent about our journey undoubtedly supports our employer brand. If you want to attract and nurture top talent, then creating a fair, empowering and inclusive workplace culture supports this goal. We are as proud of our journey over the past two years as we are of the 88 years before that. We are delighted to be able to tell an authentic story of how we have looked after our employees, our consumers, and our brands, and we seem to be faring well.        

The Pandemic has caused many of us to reassess what is important in our lives. In what ways have you recalibrated your own personal priorities and goals.

For me personally, I have always advocated work-life integration rather than work-life balance. I truly believe we are at our best when there is congruence between who we are at work and who we are outside of work. I work best when I allow the lines between the two to blur. I am as happy taking a call into an evening as I am switching off my phone to have quality, focused time with the family. I truly believe in the importance of renewal, in taking the time to switch off and recharge the mental battery, 

I actively take advantage of a number of initiatives we have at Weetabix to support healthy working lives, from core hours, flexible working, and walking meetings, to summer hours - early finishes on a Friday during the summer months to make the most of the beautiful weather.

If you enjoyed this blog and would like to learn more about Stuart, you can request to connect with him on Linkedin. If you want to learn more about the Weetabix Food Company, then visit their website here. 

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