CEO Talent Champion: Greg Heckman, Bunge

An interview on developing talent with stretch roles and embracing change

This video and the following Q&A do not depict the entire interview.

Executive leaders can improve their talent outcomes by focusing on employees as individuals, encouraging and supporting stretch roles, and embracing organizational change. Bunge CEO Greg Heckman shares how he approaches these essentials.

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Q&A With Greg Heckman

Greg Heckman has been Bunge’s CEO since 2019 and has more than 30 years of experience in the agriculture, energy and food processing industries. He is a founding partner of Flatwater Partners and served as CEO of Gavilon from 2008 through 2015. He also served as COO of Conagra Foods Commercial Products and president and COO of Conagra Trade Group. Heckman holds a Bachelor of Science in agriculture economics and marketing from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.


What has really served myself and my team well on the big decisions is transparency about my thought process. I like to be very collaborative as we are weighing the alternatives and making the decision, and often drive for consensus. If we do not get the consensus, people may not ultimately agree with the final decision, but they will absolutely understand the thought process and respect the path by which we got there.


The other advice I’d give is to make a decision. Have a sense of urgency — because everything seems to take a really long time for organizations, especially when it’s about people.


Make the decisions, and then rally around them to ensure that they’re successful. Some of the decisions you make won’t be perfect. Sometimes you have to make a decision when you’re not comfortable or you don’t have all the information, and that’s when the organization really needs to rally around to make sure it’s successful. If you’re not perfect, you course-correct. I call it making an “action mistake.” You’re better off being in motion because you have momentum. And if you don’t get it perfect, you can course-correct. You’re still farther on your journey than you would have been if you had continued in analysis paralysis.


I think one of the best examples would be deciding what to do when we came back to the office: What’s the right number of days in the office versus days working out of the office? Who’s allowed to work remotely? How’s the process going to work? We took the information that we had, and we made the best decision possible.


And then we talked to the employees saying, “You know what, we don’t know what the right thing to do is, but let us tell you how we got to this place. And this was our thought process. Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to try it, and we want you to keep talking to us. We’re going to figure this out together.” People responded well. They appreciated that we were willing to listen and be flexible. And we did end up making some adjustments.


I think the big trade-offs that really come to mind are the internal versus external, the known versus the unknown. The organization likes familiarity, but sometimes it is good for the organization to get a different view and to have best practices from outside of our own walls come in so that we can challenge ourselves to grow and improve.


The other [part of that] is stretching someone into a role when they’re ready — and sometimes even when they don’t know they’re ready. The organization may not think they’re ready, or the board of directors may not think they’re ready, but if we feel as a leadership team that they are, then it’s about getting that alignment. Through the communication, the transparency and the thought process, we can stretch an internal candidate into a new big role. Those decisions are probably the ones where we end up spending the most time, but getting those right really pays some big dividends.


I’m a big believer in the “highest best use” of people and finding that right role for the individual where they can create the most value for the organization, create the most value for themselves and create the most value in helping their team be successful. And that’s really key because, at the end of the day, the first thing we’ve got to do is retain our great talent, and then we’ve got to be able to develop that talent. 


Placing people into bigger roles then opens their previous roles, and we are able to attract new talent to support the growth that we have. So, it really all fits together; it’s really hand in glove.


The key is that we all understand where we need to rally around and cover some of the blind spots while someone grows into a role. It’s not always perfect; business doesn’t run on our clock. And we always say we like to move at commercial speed, which means you’d better be pretty externally focused — pay attention to your customers, pay attention to the competitive set and pay attention to the environment — because the world doesn’t run on our clock.


I consider the CHRO a key partner in helping me to think through some of the most sticky and complex and emotional issues — emotional for individuals and emotional for the organization. It is important that we have a very good, open, transparent relationship.


Sometimes people don’t always tell me everything that they will tell the CHRO or the HR organization. So, the CHRO also is someone who keeps a pulse on the organization internally and can give me insight that I can’t get on my own.


I also look to the CHRO to stay plugged in externally so that we have a feel for what’s happening in our industry, and in other key industries, which helps us make decisions around recruiting the competitive set. 


So, it is a key role. The CHRO is one of my key partners.

Whether it’s the CHRO or any member of my leadership team, my job is to gain alignment, and then I’m here to support them, whether it’s clearing a blockade, helping motivate at a town hall or helping recruit for a key hire.


It’s what needs to be done to help the team be successful, and nothing’s more important than our people. So of course, I want to support the entire HR organization and ensure that all of our functional teams who support our businesses are very, very successful.


You know, we talk a lot about that here at Bunge; either you support an internal customer, you support an internal customer that supports an external customer, or you support an external customer. We must have a customer lens and a customer focus on everything that we do, and that’s got to start with me. And I’ve got to support everyone as well.

Start early and often, but be targeted. You don’t want to flood the zone with information. You need to be very specific that you’re talking about the things that really matter and that you’ve prioritized them chronologically on where the organization is going to need to make decisions next.


Also, look for key partners that can help the other board members understand the context of what you’re doing. If it’s in a technology role, a risk role, a commercial role or a role where someone on the board has particular expertise, you may want to spend some extra time with them. They can help translate for the rest of the board.

When I joined the company, I went on a listening tour. I traveled around the world and met with people, met with customers, met with investors, met with our employees, visited plants, held town halls and did Q&As until people were exhausted and didn’t have any more questions or comments to give me. And then I looked for themes.


I’ve told the organization before, “be careful what you ask for because you might get it.” And when someone feels strongly about something, they can really make a difference. Sometimes we put them in a position to make that difference, and then we empower them to do so. We make them accountable, and we make sure we’ve got the reward systems right when they’re successful. And you can really get a lot of speed and a lot of power out of getting the organization to work together and to see things the same way. And again, you’ve got to do that by engaging people and getting them to open up, getting them to share, and then do something about it.


Some of that is with employee surveys. If you take employee surveys and don’t react to what employees tell you, it makes them really mad. So you’d better be ready to listen. You’d better be willing to engage, and you’d better be willing to make some change.

I’m most proud of how we talk things through and work together. During this change, the CHRO and I talked some people through some roles that they didn’t expect to be asked to take on. Some of them weren’t sure, and we explained why we thought that was the highest best use of these individuals and why they could be very successful in these roles.


And these people took on these challenges, and we did it in a way that was fairly riskless to them. And they trusted us. They’ve worked out very well, and they now say, “Thanks, I’m glad you saw that. I really enjoy this role and the impact that I’m making on the organization, and on my team and on our customers.”


The key that we continue to talk about is embracing change. I mean, human beings by nature don’t like change, right? But if we start to understand change, change is good and change can be exciting. It provides growth and opportunity, not only personally but also for the company. And we start to embrace change and enjoy change and the rate of change because that’s the world we live in. And I think the companies that will be the most successful are the ones that can really manage change and enjoy it; it becomes part of who they are and a big part of their culture.


We’ve lived through a lot of change in the past three years, and I’m incredibly proud of this organization. I’m incredibly proud of the success that we have had, not just financially but also in doing what we said we were going to do internally, as well as doing what we said we were going to do externally. We’ve done that with very high retention rates during a very difficult time when a lot of other companies didn’t have the same retention rates. And I think our people are truly so passionate about the company and our customers, and they truly like one another and like working here at Bunge. I couldn’t be prouder of that. It’s one of the things that I get the most satisfaction from.

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