Amid the pandemic in 2020, Robbie Lock knew he was ready for a career change.
Having spent the last two years in media, managing a peer-to-peer network of sustainability professionals across major brands including Adobe, Boeing and Hershey, Lock knew he was after an internal role that would allow him to go deep and really to get to know the ins and outs of a company.
Now senior sustainability manager at major U.S. dairy company HP Hood, Lock shares the reality of settling into a new role remotely, the key role of farm-level change in creating a sustainable supply chain and how not all companies want to lead from the front.
Shannon Houde: You joined HP Hood in December 2020 having previously been working in media. It’s quite a big change. Tell us what drove you to make it?
Robbie Lock: I think for a lot of people, with both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, 2020 was a time of change, and I was certainly ready for change professionally. I’ve dedicated my career to sustainability — I started out installing solar electric and solar thermal systems — and I was looking for a role in house. I wanted to be doing the nuts and bolts, the “in the weeds” work, and really get to know a company and the people working for it.
Houde: With such a diverse background, you’re perhaps more of a generalist rather than a specialist. How did you leverage that as an advantage when interviewing for the role?
Lock: Companies with a legacy sustainability program tend to hire roles with specific expertise. Hood is at an earlier stage of its sustainability journey, so my background as a generalist is valuable. If your background is as a generalist, I recommend focusing on companies with nascent sustainability programs or focusing on a particular skill or area of sustainability experience that you want to provide.
Houde: So, tell us a bit about HP Hood and where it sits in the food value chain?
Lock: Hood is a privately held 175-year-old dairy company that’s had only three owners in that time. We’re a very old company in an old industry, but we also now own and operate the largest oat milk brand in the country, Planet Oat Oatmilk, as well as having a national license to manufacture Almond Breeze products. So, we’re a very diversified dairy company.
I honestly probably wouldn’t have joined if Hood had been just a dairy company. The dairy industry has unique challenges, and having a diversified company is really important these days. We do not own or operate any farms either. So, we have major suppliers across the country, co-ops and privately held farms, but that’s where our supply chain ends.
Houde: You joined the business at a time when work was still largely remote too. Tell us how you’ve been able to build relationships in a new company remotely over these last 18 months?
Lock: It is a unique situation. Firstly, I think I lucked out a little bit as far as a welcoming culture goes. Folks at Hood don’t really seem to mind whether you’ve been there a year or 25 years. If you’re there to help figure something out, they’ll welcome you into a conversation and get you the information you need.
Second, though, is that my manager, the vice president of environmental health and safety and sustainability, did a marathon of introductions. There were introductions to various departments, including 13 calls with all of our manufacturing facilities and that all happened within my first month. That was really invaluable in being able to put some faces to names and figure out where people sat internally, what their roles and responsibilities were. If you are in a new role and that doesn’t seem to be happening, it’s absolutely something I’d advocate for. Set up intro meetings, put time in people’s calendars or ask an internal champion to help connect you to a department that you need to know a little bit more about.
Hood doesn’t want to lead [on sustainability] … I am not going to suggest a vision or a goal or a pillar that would put us ahead of any of the [leading sustainability] companies, because that’s just not going to sit well with our leadership.
It’s all about communication. I think we all know that when you can’t just swivel your chair around or walk down to an office, it requires that extra level of communication to ensure you’re on the same page.
Plus, I was the first sustainability manager at Hood, so a lot of people didn’t know what I did or what I was there to do. So, a little extra communication goes a long way just to let people know you’re listening. That you’re ready to ask questions and help out.
Houde: In those 1-1’s, are there particular questions you asked to establish relationships quickly and effectively?
Lock: For introductory conversations, I like to ask how long someone has been with Hood and what is their role and responsibilities. If there’s time, I ask about their background and how they came to the company.
For introductory sustainability conversations, I send a few, high-level questions in advance. My questions were along the lines of: What do you think are opportunities/challenges in these areas? What have you already done in these areas and what worked and what didn’t? What’s on your wish list for energy, water and waste?
Keeping these conversations high-level will tell you a lot about someone’s interest in sustainability and enable you to identify similarities and differences.
Houde: Tell us about a little about what your focus is right now in terms of your day-to-day?
Lock: It’s been an exciting and busy 18 months. For Hood, year one was Sustainability 101 in many ways. It was materiality assessments; it was setting up the strategy and starting to define our goals against that. I’ve also got reporting obligations to our retail customers, and we report annually to the carbon disclosure project.
As we’ve shifted into year two, we are certifying more of our sites to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certification. We actually have an audit [this spring] for four new facilities, so I’m in the midst of an audit prep. …
I was also working on packaging. We’re adding the “how to recycle” icon to a lot of our packaging, so I’m working with our marketing and packaging teams on that. We are also in the R&D process of integrating recycled plastic contents into a number of our beverage containers, which is a big undertaking. And there’s also science-based targets. We have set a goal to set a science-based target this year and get that approved, and that is a big undertaking.
All these things, whether it’s palm, packaging or setting a science-based target, it requires me to work with a lot of different teams across the company. And I love that.
Houde: With a lot of internal sustainability roles, it seems it’s very much about influencing without authority across cross-functional teams. Do you find there’s ever a challenge in trying to get that internal buy-in?
Lock: I think the challenge is a practical one in that folks already have their day job. Everyone’s working really hard and has a lot on their plate right now. And sustainability might not be their immediate priority. So, it’s about how do you get up and running with something that is valuable to start now but may not actually pay off for another 18 months or three years? It’s all about finding the right balance with recognizing that everyone has their day job and therefore how can sustainability add value and become integrated to that, as well as help them be proactive or meet customer’s expectations?
I’m always very cognizant of what people have to do on a day-to-day basis. There are things I’d love to snap my fingers with and have move forward more quickly. But it’s about patience.
Houde: And in terms of the broader sphere of sustainable food and agriculture, how do you see it evolving? Where will the focus be in the coming years?
Lock: It’s going right back to the farm, whether that’s a dairy farm, an almond farm or a vanilla farm in Madagascar. It is very much going to the farm level, with an operational focus on your factories, your distribution footprint… Certainly, consumers and our retail customers want to get back to the farm side. That’s not just the environmental side but the social side, as well. It creates questions, though, on how much insight do you have into your farm-level procurement? And how do your policies and approaches to your suppliers end up trickling down to the product that you’re making?
A big takeaway from listening early on was that sustainability had been what our customers wanted for a very long time.
Hood is lucky in many ways because we’re an American company, and so our sourcing footprint is much smaller than say, the larger global consumer packaged goods companies that are sourcing from all over the world and operate in tons of countries.
It’s a very exciting time for the food and beverage industry. The industry does need to work together, whether it’s dairy or other kinds of products to figure it all out. But it’s exciting.
Houde: Finally, what is your vision for the company? What types of seeds do you see yourself planting across the company that can be obviously cultivated over time?
Lock: Well, a big takeaway from listening early on was that sustainability had been what our customers wanted for a very long time. But though it’s really important to understand what your customers want you to do, it’s also really important to think about the business value and the cultural value to Hood of something like sustainability.
Hood doesn’t want to lead in our industry. And it’s a funny thing to acknowledge, but I think it’s really, really important because I am not going to suggest a vision or a goal or a pillar that would put us ahead of any of the [leading sustainability] companies, because that’s just not going to sit well with our leadership. That’s just not who we are. And that doesn’t mean we’re not going to remain competitive. We’re going to be proactive, but there’s a little bit of a balancing act there.
So, where we ended up establishing our vision last year was to demonstrate continuous improvement through the stewardship of our people, products and environment. That is not an earth-shattering vision but it works really well for Hood.
Shannon Houde is an ICF certified career and leadership coach who founded Walk of Life Coaching in 2009. Her life’s purpose is to enable change leaders to turn their passion into action and to live into their potential — creating scalable social and environmental impact globally. To follow more stories like these, join Shannon for Coffee & Connect where she interviews sustainability practitioners every month to learn more about what their ‘day in the life’ involves.