Case study: Diversity Management in Danone

30 Aug 2011 23:11 | Deleted user

"Diversity management starts with developing people, one by one"
Alessandra Zocca and Hilde Helsen from PWI met Albert RAGON, CEO Danone Belgium

Albert Ragon

Mr.Albert RAGON
CEO  DANONE Belgium (Administrateur Délégué)

The first “AXA Wo_Men@Work Award” was bestowed to Albert Ragon, General Manager of Danone Belgium.

As you might know, this award goes to managers of companies, champions in promoting a fair gender balance within their company in Belgium.

Since “equality” is on the PWI Brussels agenda, we went and talked with Mr. Ragon to know more about how Danone manages diversity and equality.

By receiving the AXA Award, Danone has been publicly recognized as a company displaying best practice in gender balance management ...

Mr. Ragon – Between the nomination and the granting of the AXA award I had to step back and reflect on the model in place at Danone, because for me what we do is managing individuals, not women or men. We do not have a “plan for women” specifically, but, indeed, at Danone 60% of senior management positions are filled by women, we have 3 ladies in our executive committee, our approach works.

The issue is not gender balance, on the contrary diversity has not to be taken as a constraint, but as an opportunity, a source of wealth.
The real problem for a company is talent: how to acquire and retain it, therefore talent management is part of the core business and a key pillar of Danone Individual Development Plan (IDP). We are talking here about 800 people, 500 in one of the biggest manufacturing sites of Danone in Rotselaar and 300 in the office in Brussels.
It is important to address people one by one, not to consider them as a group, they are not clones …If you address them one by one, you create enormous loyalty to the company and provide professional opportunities (we can source 80% of jobs from inside).

In the Individual Development Plan (IDP) we clearly separate “Potential” from “Speed of Career”, they are two different dimensions, this is the major point: at Danone potential is not equal to speed in career. 
Potential is a mix of technical skills and leadership, while with speed of career we mean that there are a number of possible career paths for employees based on their potential and several accelerating factors or constraints (for ex. travelling, sabbatical leave etc.). In other words there is flexibility for employees in how to achieve their own potential.
A lot of energy is spent in identifying each employee’s potential and we are very transparent in communicating the evaluation results, what they could reach, because people need to see their possible future in the company.
On the other side employees share with the company their medium-term ambitions and aspirations in order to shape together their career path; it is crucial to talk to each single individual, one by one, to understand what they want both professionally and in their personal life.

You underlined leadership; in your opinion, can leadership be learned, developed?

Mr. Ragon - Sure, 50% of our training budget goes to leadership training. We need to ensure we have enough leaders for the future of this company! Today 250 out 800 employees are leading at least one person.

Leadership can be learned and developed. For that, we need a common language of leadership. Some people have real talent for that, some have more limitations; some people are very shy, some have empathy, but leadership t does not come only naturally. Things like giving feed-back, communicating efficiently, delegating to other people, active listening, are skills that you learn, not a natural behavior. We invest in our people to develop the CODE leadership: committed, open, doer, empowered/empowering.

The Leadership CODE

Committed: being committed to living the Danone values each and every day; being dedicated, steadfast, engaging in an ambitious vision
Open: demonstrating empathy and respect on all levels; Networking, connecting outside Danone

Doer: taking responsibility and risks to show the way forward; being practical, resourceful, and responsive; doing the necessary leg-work efficiently and effectively

Empowered/Empowering: delegating to other employees, which means relying on the potential of group strength; providing regular and constructive feedback based on accurate individual assessment. Developing healthy ambition, search for opportunity to grow, for self and others.

Have you remarked differences in leadership between men and women? And in team-working?

Mr. Ragon – I do not see generally a lack of leadership in ladies compared to men. I see some men with stronger leadership, some men with weaker leadership; I see some men who are introverted and some women who are extroverts and vice-versa.  I rather think, instead, that men always try to show what they have achieved or what they are best at doing, while women tend to be more modest with what they have achieved.
Regarding leadership, the best leadership skills I have observed belong to women, who combine the childcare responsibility with working, they show high flexibility, resistance to pressure and multi-tasking ability. Female employees do not stop their career because of their leadership style, but often because they have a clash between work and family. From my experience the real pressure that forces some women to give up, to stop the battle, is the maternity period (senior managers), where some of them lose confidence they can develop their career.

Regarding team-work, I do not see a difference in teamwork between men and women at Danone.
Team work is an essential, is part of leadership, is a necessity, not “a nice to have”. So you don’t become an employee of Danone, if you don’t have this attitude. We want very talented people that work well together.
When you talk about managing the leadership of each individual, how do you deal with the diversity of situations?  How does this individual focus help gender balance?

Mr. Ragon – Let me give you some examples, true stories: one of our talented young sales people came to us and expressed his intention to take one-year leave to develop some social business in Africa. We let him go, he started a social business in Senegal and after one year he came back. It was clear that he had gained a lot of experience and maturity. In the short term the organization suffered from lacking this talented person, but in the end it was an advantage, because he is back stronger.

Another example: some years ago a young lady in our company was managing small customers very successfully.  She went on maternity leave for her first child and when she came back she had the opportunity to be promoted and  take a bigger customer. But in fact she decided to stay with her previous customer, not to increase her workload after coming back from her maternity leave. It was not easy to manage in the team but we accepted it. A few months later there was another opportunity and she took it.

Another example: I joined Danone Belgium in 2001 and I decided to create a new position. After a long process and a shortlist of two candidates, a woman got selected. When I called her she said she could not take the role because in the meantime she was now pregnant. But we stuck to our principle of the importance of potential and, as she was the best candidate, we chose to struggle for four months without her. Looking back at those years, this person has achieved a lot for us and made a brilliant career for herself. It can mean sacrifices in the short term, but it pays back in the medium/ long term.

As you can see through these stories, taking each individual into account and accepting not only his/her talent but also his/her constraints or wishes, enables us to leverage these talents. As women are as talented as men, they also find more opportunities to develop their careers.

In the history of Danone, Antoine Riboud described in the 1970’s the “double projet économique et social” (Dual economic and social project), leading our organization to take into account the expectations of all counterparts around our business. It has led to all the Social Responsibility initiatives in our Group. But in the area of People Management, it makes it natural to us to listen and to find career solutions that are acceptable both for the company and for each individual. And we see every day the added value it brings to our business : talent, enthusiasm, commitment. From women as well as from men.

Apart from the potential maternity constraint, do you envisage other barriers to women’s professional progress to the board? It cannot be only maternity … not all business women are “moms”

Mr. Ragon – You are right, actually we should talk in broader terms. In addition  to children, we must consider any other factors that can interfere with the career speed, for example a personal passion for sport or art or theatre or music, social or political engagement.

Again, I think, there are not mental barriers anymore at Danone. Today in my senior management I have 60% of women, so there is no gender problem here; however I have seen cases of ladies that struggled and were close to giving up or who left, and in many cases it was a question of maternity. And of course there are objective constraints related to maternity - e.g. in jobs that require intensive traveling - that results in a choice for employees who are mothers to take or continue that job or concentrate more on the children, but this is equally applicable to any other passion of the single individual.
The issue is when the employees feel the pressure from their company that if they do not accept a situation or a promotion which does not fit with their personal life, then their career will be over. In Danone, the separation between career paths and potential enables the resolution of situations caused by temporary personal constraints.

In Danone and, I think, in other modern companies people are open minded, there is a real growing acceptance of equality of opportunity, the question is more the way to achieve it. In my 21 years in Danone - CEO of Danone Belgium for the last 4 years - I have never seen men consciously stopping the career advancement of women.

I wonder whether there are there still men at the top of organizations that do not favor the promotion of women to the board: if you refer to a few years ago, then there were men (individually) that could see women as a change, as competition, as a problem. Probably it still exists in some places as a principle. If there is a choice,  more or less consciously, taking a man is considered as safer.

How can equality of chance be increased?

Since I have received the “AXA Wo_Men@Work Award”, I had the opportunity to think more about equality.  I had the chance to be invited by some companies to talk about gender balance issues and I was surprised that in those big companies the audience consisted nearly only of women … who confessed maternity was a real concern regarding their career.

I believe men do not realise the situation of women, men believe that there is equality of chances, but they underestimate the difficulties for women. It is not that they do not want to take measures in this direction. It is more that they do not “feel” the need.
If men talk publicly about favoring gender equality, this will move the issue forward. Therefore, the real challenge is to involve men in the gender balance agenda.
I am more aware now that it is crucial to address the topic of equality with  practical elements and not based on theories or ideals, men should talk “openly and honestly” about the gender balance. It opens new perspectives, and I re-emphasize: you need to fully embark men in the process.

Do you think that quotas will help women professionally?

It is still true that for a woman to achieve exactly the same career as a man is harder, so it is important that women and women’s organizations strongly raise the issue of equality of opportunity.
But, ... I fear that quotas will not be the answer because, if you lose  women (for example for work/life balance issues) at the age of 38-42, two or three levels below reaching the board level, then they are not there when you need them for the board. You need to have gender balance along the whole pipeline.

However, I believe quotas  can have a wake-up effect on the topic of gender equality  in the company agenda.

Probably, in Europe in 2020 40% of the members of boards will be women, I think it will happen, but this will not solve the issue of gender equality, unless it is managed at all career levels, from the beginning.

Diversity should not be only related to gender …

Yes, agreed, we have other diversities to take into account, for example the social side, the 50+ employees, employees pre-retirement… how to keep these people motivated? The population at work is older than in the past, the age of retirement is higher, there will be this major issue in our geographical area. By managing employees one by one you can sort out the diversity and gender balance issues, taking them into consideration case by case.

At Danone we take all diversity problems very seriously, we have part of our objectives/bonus based on social results (for example safety at work). We check with HR that the objectives, including the social ones, are met.

 Short Biography
Albert Ragon started his career with the Danone Group in 1989, as a Marketer with Kronenbourg, and then progressed through various marketing and sales positions, before being appointed International Marketing Director Health Brands within the Dairy Products Division in 1999. 

He was appointed Marketing Director of Danone Belgium in 2001.  In 2005, Albert Ragon became General Manager of Danone Ireland.  In October 2007, he returned to Belgium to become General Manager of Danone Belgium.

Disclaimer - Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Danone, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.

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