While sitting in a conference room in Hershey in August, Leslie Johnson suddenly felt chills go through her body.
Johnson, who is a Customer Sales Executive on the Hershey Strategic Convenience team, looked around the room and saw 35 colleagues from all around the world —Mexico, Canada, Brazil and beyond — who, like her, had been selected to participate in a three-day leadership development program for future Hershey commercial operators. When we announced that Johnson and the other participants represent a group of leaders that Hershey is choosing to invest in, Johnson said she had an “aha” moment, realizing what a special opportunity this was.
“It struck me that this is an investment by Hershey, and their way of saying we see potential in you in the next five, 10, 20 years as a leader of this organization,” shared Johnson. “I feel honored and humbled, and I want to ensure that the work I’m doing is at a high level, at all times.”
The August session was our capstone for Hershey’s Commercial Operator Development Program, which kicked off in January. Next year the program will merge into the new Development Potential Program where the participants, who have roles in sales, marketing, finance, supply chain and our salty snacks division, will receive data-centric assessments to pinpoint strengths and development needs, coaching to build a personalized development plan and exclusive access to mentors, along with a formal learning curriculum and rotations through different jobs and experiences.
The leadership initiative started with a simple question: How do we accelerate development for people who will be the future commercial leaders of our organization? By focusing on four distinct categories — analytical and strategic thinking, financial acumen, entrepreneurial ownership and consumer and customer knowledge — participants will learn new insights and skills each quarter. We see them as future leaders of the organization, and building their skills in those key areas are critical for Hershey to be successful commercially.
The new program reflects the commitment of Hershey to our “employee value proposition,” which is the pledge Hershey makes to our own employees to help them continue learning, growing and reaching toward their full potential. At the same time, Hershey, which recently earned its Great Place to Work Certification™ for the U.S. business, becomes stronger when it builds leaders from within.
The recent three-day program started—and ended—with candy. Joao Vitor Yazawa Gueretta, who is Commercial Excellence, Senior Manager for Brazil, was excited to share regional Hershey treats with his colleagues, like the new Coffee Creation line, with flavors such as caramel macchiato, cappuccino and espresso; along with Chocotubes, which are rolled wafers dipped and filled with chocolate. “It was a great way to break the ice and bring a little goodness and sweetness to the team,” says Gueretta. Plus, after two years of remote work, he adds that coming together in Hershey energized participants.
One highlight of the gathering was a business simulation, where different groups competed in running a company through as many quarters as possible. The teams had to decide which markets to enter and how to set pricing as they debated ways to reduce risk, increase profitability and fuel growth. After the exercise, each team presented the business strategies they developed to our senior leadership. “Every one of the groups had the opportunity to get feedback that was really transformative, and it was nice to see all the different points of view,” says Gueretta.
In addition, the group toured the town of Hershey and learned about the company's history; they also toured the Twizzlers factory. That was another highlight for Gueretta. “We are all so driven by chocolate that to see a different factory was really nice, and it was rewarding to see how people in the factory are so engaged,” he says.
On the final day, groups competed in a team-building exercise that involved a cake designing contest at Hershey’s Chocolate World attraction using Hershey products, like Jolly Ranchers and various chocolate bars, to communicate some of the lessons they’d learned. Johnson says she loved the activity for its playfulness and strategic thinking. “You're like a little kid adding candy to a cake, but you’re also creating a story and relying on your teammates,” she says. For Gueretta, the challenge allowed him to express how meaningful the whole experience had been, sharing “My group decided to build a bridge, to say that before this weekend we were all separate. But now, we will try to link ideas across the world, bridging between countries and across the United States to share our knowledge.”
Looking back on the experience, both Johnson and Gueretta say they learned a great deal about business leadership, while also having fun and building meaningful relationships with colleagues. Both say they took what they learned back to their teams, and are putting several new lessons to work.
For Johnson, the importance of collaboration emerged as a prominent theme. Through the business simulation and the cake-building challenge, she says she began to think differently about how people interact and how everyone brings unique strengths to the table. That will help her in planning and goal-setting with her own team.
When Gueretta reflects on what he’s learned, he believes the broad range of activities, which demanded analytical and strategic thinking, financial acumen, customer knowledge and more, will make him a stronger, more balanced leader in the future. He left the three-day meetup feeling grateful to work for a company committed to investing in its future leaders. “We have two ways to have great leaders, we hire them from the market, or we build them,” says Gueretta. “My opinion, and, I think, Hershey’s opinion, is it's better to build those leaders and develop their capabilities, along with their connection to the business and its history.”
And that is, indeed, our goal at Hershey: we know that when we invest in developing future leaders, we’re also investing in our own future.