Building Strong Teams & Fostering A Culture of Aiming High

By: Divyangana Kumar, Managing Director, Foodservice North America, Cargill | Thursday, 6 June 2024

Divyangana Kumar is an accomplished Strategic Director in the food and agriculture sector. With a robust background in commercial management, strategy, and business development, she has excelled in roles spanning Corporate Strategy, Transformation Management, and Strategic Pricing across global Cargill offices. She values collaboration and personal growth, aspiring to lead teams that deliver value and fulfillment.

In a recent conversation with The Global Woman Leader Magazine, Divyangana shares her insights on fostering a collaborative, diverse team culture. She highlights transforming teams into high performers, balancing ambitious yet realistic goals, and creating an environment encouraging experimentation and innovative thinking.

As a leader, how do you cultivate a team culture that embraces diverse perspectives while fostering collaboration? Could you share a specific example where you transformed a group into a cohesive, high-performing team, detailing the strategies you implemented?

Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to build teams from the ground up on multiple occasions. My focus is on assembling a diverse group of individuals with complementary skills, considering various aspects such as ethnicity, gender, and experiences. I look for baseline capabilities that every team member should possess, alongside unique strengths that each person brings to the table, ensuring the team is well-rounded. Initially, this requires considerable effort due to the diversity of perspectives. As a leader, it is crucial to orchestrate these elements effectively. Once the team connects, they can achieve extraordinary results. Leading such a team involves a balance of challenge and support: pushing them to excel, recognizing their efforts, and always having their back.

I was tasked with building a new Strategic Pricing team from scratch for the EMEA region. As with any new initiative in an established organization, there was a significant amount of apprehension and resistance to change. Reflecting on the success of this deployment, which is now a high-performing and valued team within the business, the most critical factor was team selection and the journey we undertook. I ensured that our team was diverse, achieving a 50-50 male-to-female ratio and including members from six different countries within a team of ten. We struck a balance by including both individuals from outside the organization, who brought fresh ideas and perspectives, and those from within, who had a deep understanding of the current operations. I was deliberate and patient during the hiring process, prioritizing vision and individual brilliance over simply filling seats. Each team member was chosen for their unique strengths and how they complemented each other as a cohesive unit. Once the team was formed, we went through the stages of norming, forming, and storming. The first six to twelve months were the most crucial as the team faced challenges from existing teams within the business while simultaneously trying to gel internally. This period required strong, active leadership to guide the team through these initial hurdles.

When it comes to fostering a culture of aiming high, how do leaders balance setting ambitious goals with ensuring they are attainable and realistic within the context of the industry's challenges and limitations?

The most critical aspect of team building is establishing a clear vision and purpose, then assembling individuals who feel connected and excited about that vision. Cultivating a culture of high standards starts with the leaders, who must lead by example. Leaders need to set high expectations for themselves and communicate these standards to the team. During meetings, it is essential to engage thoughtfully, having done your homework beforehand. In discussions, whether it is a performance review or daily feedback, leaders must provide genuine and specific feedback. This demonstrates their commitment and effort, which in turn fosters a culture of high standards within the team. It is akin to parenting you cannot eat junk food and expect your child to develop healthy eating habits. It is important for a leader to challenge the team members to explore their full potential and never settle for less. As one of my leaders wisely says, "Never burden your team with low expectations."

Innovation is crucial in today's competitive landscape. How do we cultivate an environment where team members feel empowered to experiment with new ideas and approaches?

I believe fostering an open, honest culture within the team is crucial. Team members should feel empowered and comfortable to present new and unconventional ideas. Simultaneously, the rest of the team should feel free to challenge and debate these ideas. It is important that the idea proposer does not take these challenges personally but views them as a way to thoroughly test the idea from various perspectives. This approach ensures high-quality ideas enter the innovation funnel. By rigorously stress-testing ideas, we reduce the likelihood of failure due to foreseeable issues. However, this does not guarantee success for all executed ideas, as unknowns and calculated risks may still lead to failure. In such cases, it is vital to take ownership of the failure and ensure the lessons learned are thoroughly documented. Capturing and utilizing these lessons is often overlooked but is essential. This responsibility starts with the leader.

Continuous improvement is crucial for staying competitive. Could you describe how leaders need to encourage their team to actively seek out opportunities for improvement and innovation, even in areas that may seem well-established or traditional in the food and agriculture industry?

In today's dynamic world, the answer is clear: the concept of being well-established no longer makes sense. We experience constant changes across multiple dimensions every day. I firmly believe that the pace of change will only accelerate. Therefore, continuous improvement is not just desirable but essential for operating and succeeding in today's environment. I encourage my team to seek outside perspectives, which naturally drives them to think about innovations and improvements. In large corporations, there is a risk of becoming too inward-focused and losing touch with the dynamic world. We must avoid this to ensure our teams stay relevant and effective.

Building a positive organizational culture is essential for long-term success. How do professionals embed values such as integrity, respect, and inclusivity into the fabric of their team dynamics and organizational culture?

Building a strong, value-based, results-driven, and people-oriented culture is essential for an organization's long-term success. It is important to clearly articulate the culture we aspire to achieve. However, for a truly strong culture to take root, everyone in the organization must embody it in their daily actions, both big and small. This begins with the leader, whose behavior is closely observed by others, often without them realizing it. These behaviors and reactions shape the culture far more than speeches or presentations. For example, a leader's decision to uphold commitments to customers despite short-term financial setbacks or how they treat employees during challenging times profoundly influences the organization's culture.