Elizabeth Adefioye joined Ingredion as Vice President of Human Resources for North America in 2016, and is now Chief Human Resources Officer. During her tenure, she has led the company’s culture transformation and led the development of a new purpose and contemporized values, built around three simple words: Make Life Better. Elizabeth is focused on delivering people strategies that achieve a high-performance culture by attracting and developing world-class talent and building a high-performing organization.
Elizabeth spoke with us about the recent culture initiative at Ingredion, her work within other Fortune 500 companies, and the war for talent.
Q: Your first job was at an assisted living home for the elderly in the United Kingdom. Could you explain how you went from there to becoming CHRO at Ingredion?
That was many moons ago. It was my first job, actually a part-time job, but it’s a role that helped to keep me grounded and taught me from a very early age how to take on responsibility. When you talk about the road to Ingredion, it’s been an interesting one and a challenging one because I was born and raised in the United Kingdom, but I’ve also had the opportunity to work all across Europe and Russia, China, Asia-Pacific and now the United States. For me, all of those diverse experiences and international opportunities have helped to shape who I am today.
Q: You’ve worked for some Fortune 500 companies (including Ingredion). What have you learned at these larger organizations that helps you in your current thinking?
Fundamentally for me, it’s really about finding your purpose in life. When you know what that is you’re able to align your passion with your purpose, which allows you to realize your potential. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and I always knew I wanted to work with people and help them reach their potential. It’s fundamental to who I am. Most of my experiences have been with life sciences companies – like Bristol Myers Squibb and Johnson & Johnson — and all of them have helped me understand the essentials of leading an HR organization and the impact HR can have.
I also believe that HR is at an important time in its journey, evolving from humble beginnings as the “personnel department” to now serving as a strategic business partner, focused on having the right talent in the right place and at the right time. Successful organizations today have forward-thinking HR departments that really understand the business strategy and the human capital implications of that strategy. They’re able to develop a compelling approach that allows them to attract and retain talent.
Q: Let’s pivot now to the cultural transformation you’ve been leading at Ingredion. What was the inspiration for this initiative, and what were some of the first steps? If you can, tell us about the beginning “drawing board” moments.
First and foremost, I feel privileged to be leading transformative change for Ingredion. It’s not often that HR gets that opportunity. The inspiration for this work was under the leadership of our new CEO, James Zallie, who came into the role in January 2018. Jim has a tremendous passion for talent, culture and the power of building a diverse and inclusive organization. When our team came together, we thought about what we wanted to write as the next chapter for Ingredion – asking questions like, what are the hopes and aspirations for the business, where have we been and where do we need to go?
The drawing-board moment was taking the executive leadership team through an exercise to examine how other Fortune 500 companies have developed their values. We wanted to choose values that were representative of Ingredion. It really centered around our people and how they feel about our company. We had focus groups with more than 600 employees and they spoke to us about what they appreciated about the current culture and how they would like to see us evolve. So, we were armed with data points, which helped us define the corporate transformation agenda for the next 18 to 24 months.
Q: You eventually decided on the phrase “make life better” as the primary motivator. What was the inspiration for that?
We thought about this a lot. Ingredion’s purpose is to bring the potential of people and technology together in order to create solutions that make life better – which inspires me not to be content with the status quo. Since we’re a food and ingredient company, we want to be there to offer on-trend ingredients and solutions that consumers trust. Consumer preferences continually change, and we want to be right there at the center of that evolution. What this means for employees is that we want a culture where people can make a meaningful, lasting difference both in the world and in themselves – so “make life better” is multifaceted and all encompassing. If I boiled it down to its essence, it’s making sure we stay close to the pace of change, we understand consumer preferences and we’re able to provide that solution they need, whenever they need it.
Q: Your work has also led to identifying values that Ingredion holds most dear. Can you outline some of them, and briefly explain what they mean in the context of Ingredion?
The values are the building blocks of culture for our company – they define our character and the principles we hold dear. Our values were refreshed – they were 20 years old and we needed to contemporize them. Research tell us that the people you want to hire today want to work for organizations that have an overarching purpose and clear aspirational values. While certain tenets of values essentially remain the same, we wanted to make sure they were contemporary. For example, we had a value called safety, but we wanted it to be all-encompassing and at a higher level, so we elevated it to “care first.” We actively want to safeguard the wellbeing of our people, the quality of our products, and our reputation for trust and integrity.
All our values are important and carry equal weight, but we have one centered around how we want to “be preferred,” by our customers, our consumers and by our employees. Another value used to be about respect but is now about embracing diversity and proactively focusing on an inclusive environment. We know that to continue to be successful, win this race and be innovative, we need a diversity of opinions and an environment where people’s voices can be heard – where they can speak their own truth.
Q: Let’s close by asking about the Values and Purpose initiative: Why was it important to do it in the first place? Put another way, why is it important for organizations to take a step back and assess their values and purpose every so often?
There’s research out there that companies with strong cultures also have strong business results. Their thinking is really grounded in a shared purpose and values. We do know that consumers’ food preferences are changing rapidly, and at the same time, we are in a war for top talent. For us to be able to win talent, we had to make sure we had an overarching purpose that people can identify with and understand the good Ingredion is trying to do in the world, and why they should choose Ingredion over the next company. The exciting thing is, we’ve started a new movement within our company, and it’s rewarding to see our employees energized and passionate about this work.