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Cultivating Empathy through Authenticity with Jason Lioy, Chief People Officer at Dawn Foods | 5 Key Takeaways on Driving Engagement + Retention

May 6, 2022 Deana LaFauci

As organizations recommit to building and supporting cultures of inclusion in a changing world, it is critically important to seek out the expertise and advice from organizational leaders who are blazing a trail for positive change.  

Dawn Foods, a longtime client partner of Linkage, has created a psychologically safe environment for people to bring their whole selves to work. They are unlocking the power of inclusion, empathy and authenticity to drive retention and their core business strategy. And, they are engaging and developing leaders to “walk the talk” when it comes to authenticity.  

Jason Lioy, Chief People Officer at Dawn Foods, is a champion of this work, and recently sat down for a conversation with Maureen Metcalf, CEO of the Innovative Leadership Institute, as part of the Connex Executive Insights Series sponsored by Connex Partners. Their conversation is timely, relevant, inspiring—a true “must-listen” for organizational leaders who are building out or refreshing their DEI and development strategy. 

“During this pandemic, people are connecting with their teams on a personal level—where they are at, as opposed to where they want them to be,” said Lioy. “We embrace all people at Dawn Foods.” 

Check out five key takeaways below and then listen to the entire conversation here.

1. Organizations need to invite employees to bring their true selves to work by creating the environment that empowers them to do this successfully.

“We want people to feel confident bringing their true selves to work every day, and they need to feel safe doing that, so we have created leadership awareness and training so that leaders understand what this means,” said Lioy. “It’s about making sure our leadership models that behavior by bringing their full selves to work and also allowing their teams to do the same.”  

2. Focus on the areas where you can drive immediate impact and measure return. 

“We focus where we get the most return on investment in terms of leadership,” said Lioy. “Once you blaze a trail, everyone is following you.” 

Dawn Foods is committed to the support, retention and advancement of their women leaders and relies on Linkage’s Advancing Women Leaders Signature Solution to power their strategy to support and advance women leaders. Dawn Foods also utilizes Linkage’s Women in Leadership Institute™ to meaningfully engage their women leaders each year.  

“It was great to have the Women in Leadership program,” said Lioy. “We have a CEO woman—a very powerful woman—and we have a lot of great leaders at Dawn who are women in high-profile roles. It seemed a natural place to start since we have such great talent there.”  

MORE | Dawn Foods Women in Leadership Partnership with Linkage Featured in Commercial Baking

3. Organizations must go beyond mentorship to embrace executive sponsorship of women and other underrepresented leaders.

Every woman who experiences the Women in Leadership program is assigned a sponsor, a formalized role that goes beyond the informal and less structured approach of traditional mentorship. “The sponsor’s job is to ensure that these women have every tool and opportunity available to them to break through every paradigm,” said Lioy.  

Lioy explains that, for these sponsors, it is not just about passively supporting a leader. “Anyone can support—through words or money,” said Lioy. “To be a true ally, you must be able to run through a wall for somebody because you believe in them as their sponsor.” 

That mandate—to actively advocate and act on behalf of a sponsored leader—is what makes the program so powerful, says Lioy. “And, if sponsors are hesitant to ask for something from their leader, it is your job to make sure they have what they need to make that ask. Then, sensitize that leader to be open to that ask. The sponsors pave the way for their people.” 

To help power this strategy, Dawn Foods relies on Linkage’s Executive Sponsorship Program, which is designed to provide executives with the skills and mindset to sponsor underrepresented leaders to enhance the leadership pipeline. 

4. Consider your recipe for success, but don’t be afraid to mix it up.

The baking experts at Dawn Foods know a little something about creating successful recipes and how big the impact can be from even a small adjustment. “A change to any recipe—a little bit here and a little bit there—makes a huge difference in what the output is,” said Lioy. “If you mix too much flour or let it sit too long, it could get ugly! Or you might create something far better than it was before.” 

Above all, Lioy explained, organizations must have a culture where employees have access to what they need and the freedom to experiment.  

“You have to be able to have the environment where people have the right  ingredients, and you start to mess around with it a bit and see what you can come up with,” said Lioy. “As long as you have an organization that is open and receptive, and you have leaders that, at a basic level, treat people with respect, that’s what works here. At the core of it all, treat people with respect and you will go far.” 

5. A people-focused strategy will deliver a competitive advantage—every time. 

Labor markets are tight—and expectations have never been higher as organizations strive to meet the demands and opportunities of a pandemic-changed world. Lioy points to the importance of a people-first strategy when it comes to creating better business outcomes. 

“With this labor shortage and supply chain shortage, and all of these challenges, we started to see our competition really struggle, because they weren’t taking care of their people,” said Lioy. 

At the same time, opportunities started to flow to Dawn Foods. “We started seeing work and business come to us,” said Lioy. “And we had a tough time hiring people. So, very quickly, we made quite a few adjustments from a compensation perspective to hire people into our plants. 

Lioy knew that the organization would leave millions of dollars on the table if they tried to save a small amount on wages. “We started investing in our people and decided to see what would happen,” said Lioy. “And, we are starting to see some very good growth from a top-line perspective. We are starting to see some big wins from customers we would never have touched before because of the investments we have made in our people.” 

The result? A people-focused strategy, with inclusion, empathy and authenticity at its core, has empowered Dawn to seize opportunity and unlock the best possible outcomes for the organization and their people.  

“For those who may think investing in people is not worth it from a bottom-line perspective, they haven’t learned anything over the last two years,” said Lioy. “Companies that have really taken care of their people and focused on a people-first strategy from a leadership perspective are the ones that are going to win and will always win in the long run—and especially coming out of this pandemic.” 

Dark haired woman watches from audience of conference event

Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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