Crafting a shared purpose at Danone: Liz Ellis, HRD

Written by
Sarah Clark

08 Aug 2016

08 Aug 2016 • by Sarah Clark

What are your current responsibilities; how many employees do you oversee over how many locations?

I have a broad remit of responsibilities that include  organisation design and planning, engagement, internal communication, talent management (acquisition through to development) for our 250 staff across the UK.

Like most businesses, our people are our greatest asset. We believe in Danone that everyone is a talent and has talent. Our role is to ensure that all 'Danoners' have the right opportunities for growth.

We are also a business that is built on a sense of purpose so connecting our Danoners to the purpose and providing a connection to our wider organisational goals, is really important to ensure our business continues to evolve and succeed.

Whats involved in your everyday role?

Every day is different. Being a member of the executive team means that the main part of my role is working with my colleagues on the strategic imperatives of the business; be it from an Early Life Nutrition perspective or a Danone Company perspective.

In HR specifically it varies, however there are two main threads running through that generally touch on my day. One is talent in our business, and the other is culture and engagement. With regard to engagement it is ensuring that the core purpose of our business – nourishing early life today because it really matters tomorrow – is understood and brought to life through our key touch points; from internal communication through to our employee programmes. Whether it is entry level staff or the executive board, we have a number of initiatives, from coaching to idea sharing forums, to empower our people with the skills and information they need to deliver this purpose throughout our business activities.

Why did you choose to work for Danone?

I have worked in various roles across the Danone business for 27 years, and for me it is the company’s social values and principles that have most inspired and motivated me. It’s a business with a core purpose, and we’re all working towards the same shared goal.

I love that our mission goes beyond our commercial offer. For example, we’ve embedded the scientific insights that underpin each of our product lines in to a number of educational and nutritional programmes, to support pregnant women, mothers and babies – as well as the wider communities in which they live – make informed decisions about their children’s health. These programmes, called HEY! and the Early Years’ Nutrition Partnership, provide vital support for consumers away from the supermarket aisles and help to drive meaningful behavioural change.

How have you seen your role and the organisation evolve?

There have been lots of changes over the years, though the biggest came in 2014 when we evolved from a purely baby nutrition business to an early life nutrition business. Our focus moved from ‘birth to toddlerhood’ to the ‘importance of the first 1,000 days’ – from conception to toddlerhood – which meant a new business name, a new mission and entering new markets such as products for pregnant and breast-feeding women.

It was a new way of doing things, but very much a natural evolution and opportunity to build on the strong foundation we already had in the early years’ nutrition field. The most important issue we faced was ensuring our business’ history and pride continued to be relevant as we pushed into an exciting new category certainly became even more important. For me, regular and open internal communication across the business was key, to ensure that our people were taken on that journey with us and were on board with the changing shape and nature of the business.

What do you feel creates a strong sense of purpose within the DN ELN business?

Developing a strong sense of purpose is all about empowering each and every person in your business with the knowledge that what they’re doing matters, and is making a difference as part of a bigger picture.

We have a culture of openness in which we clearly communicate our plans and problems, and draw our people into the very heart of our commercial planning. We have dedicated idea and innovation programmes through which staff are encouraged to contribute their thoughts on how we can solve real issues and progress our business. In this year’s 'ideation fortnight', we received more than 700 ideas on everything from minor process tweaks to major business strategy changes. The best of these were worked on, tested in focus groups and then fed into our annual Connect live event for further development.

This is a really important way for us to remain connected to our Danoners and ensure they understand and are engaged with where our company is going. And it works; our annual Danone People Survey recorded 93% employee engagement levels, and we achieved our top 10 ranking in this year’s Great Place To Work Awards as a result of our employees’ strong identification with our values, mission and commercial strategy.

What benefits does a strong sense of purpose bring?

Our shared sense of purpose has been crucial in encouraging us to innovate and push the boundaries of what we can offer the category. Engaged in and driven by our central values and ambitions, our people take it upon themselves to look for new ways of working.

Cross-team collaboration is integral to our business, helping our people develop new perspectives and working practices. This is complemented by learning and development initiatives such as our coaching programme, which empowers employees with new skills and challenges them to push themselves, and the company as a whole.


How can you cultivate a shared purpose among staff?

It is really important to ensure that the business’ activities, goals and values are relevant to your staff, and in line with the current landscape they – and the business – are operating in. It’s an ongoing process and creating regular opportunities to expose people to new ideas and inspirations is a great way of keeping the purpose fresh and front of mind.

When we underwent our business development in 2014, we took the entire team to visit our R&D facility in Utrecht to show them what our role was as a business, and what their role was within it. It was all about making sure our people understood why what we’re doing is meaningful and important, and how we can all challenge ourselves to enhance not just the business, but also the early life nutrition category as a whole.

Guest speakers and special coaching sessions help to engage our people on a more regular, low-scale basis, and we also have a volunteering programme through which our people can reconnect with our core purpose by donating their skills and knowledge to help local community initiatives that are making a difference in the world around our business. All of this is in line with our belief in 'One Learning a Day'; the principle by which we aim to breakdown people’s personal development into around 70% daily job experience, 20% exchanging with others and 10% training.

How can business leaders prove that shared purpose drives sustainable organisational performance?

I – like the full exec team at the helm of DN ELN – believe that people are our greatest brand ambassadors; not only carrying out our work and mission on a daily basis but also providing invaluable insight and ideas. Creating an environment in which they feel they not only ‘fit’, but can develop and thrive, is absolutely critical to keeping people inspired and motivated for longer, and encouraging higher productivity and lower turnover.

On a corporate level, it is hard to deny the impact that full staff support, engagement and empowerment can have on your firm’s bottom-line – for example through enhanced performance and happier customers. For us as a business, the benefits of our shared purpose are clear. Our high levels of staff engagement have created the underlying support that has driven our business from strength to strength, and we are delighted to now be celebrating our tenth year of strong growth.

Whats next; what agenda are you working on now?

In all honesty, our plan for the future is to continue what we’re doing, and do it even better. Science is constantly evolving and our focus in on keeping our people up to date with the latest developments and innovations, and making sure that they are relevant and utilised in our business.

As a start, we’re working on developing the tools our staff need to share their knowledge and ideas more quickly. For example, if one person gains some new insight from a meeting with a health care professional, they need to be able to tell the wider business about it so we can adopt it into our operations and strategy.