View from the C-Suite: Mondelez leans into a new vision of work

Canadian president Martin Parent says the pandemic confirmed the need to foster a culture that prioritizes flexibility.

Martin Parent

Martin Parent stepped into his role as president of Mondelez Canada in March 2019 with big plans.

The former Cadbury VP of marketing was returning to his home country to lead the snack giant’s new Canadian business unit. Like so many other leaders, he was unaware his mandate would soon turn to managing a crisis of a scale few people in leadership positions have ever faced.

The pandemic ushered in new snacking habits and occasions and required a total rethink of the work environment, including new health and safety measures intended to keep its 2,600 employees across retail, logistics and five Ontario-based factory operations safe. In the end, the disruption only helped prove to Parent that fostering a strong workplace culture is a winning ingredient both during regular and exceptional times.

It’s why the president decided, some six or seven months ago, to move the company’s Toronto-based headquarters out of a high-rise in the city’s western outskirts and into its downtown Gladstone facility near Little Portugal – where Parent worked while at Cadbury – either before or in early 2022. A collaborative workspace, surrounded by the wafting smell of chocolate, and a work schedule that prioritizes choice and flexibility are now all on the agenda.

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You were hired to lead a new Canadian business unit for Mondelez back in 2019. What have you worked to accomplish over that period? 

I used to be Canadian VP of marketing for Cadbury, so it was a bit of a coming back to the organization I was hoping to lead before I left to go abroad. I was extremely pleased to rejoin the organization for a few reasons.

One, I love the brands. And I knew that by creating a sense of opportunity for the employees and the organization, we could turn the business around. Because it was – and still is – an organization that requires a lot of work to get back on track of leading the future of snacking. When I arrived in 2019, I said, ‘My vision is to be the powerhouse of snacking in Canada. We have the brands, and I know what we can do when we put our efforts behind it.’ That’s where we started.

Naturally, the pandemic accelerated change for a lot of organizations. It did for us, too. But it also identified new opportunities. The differentiating factor for me has always been people and culture. If you can give employees a sense of belonging, of opportunity within a diverse workforce, you’re going to get better [results]. That’s the journey we’re on. And that’s a key element of my strategic premise, basically.

Has that strategy had any bearing on your plans around returning to the office? 

For the last 25 years, I’ve always been on the road. So it was nice, for the first few months of the pandemic, to be at home. But what we’re missing, especially in an organization that wants to push boundaries, is socializing. So the office will be important moving forward, but it will be important also for us to push boundaries of thinking.

We have changed completely in that we were a very traditional organization – you’re in the office from Monday to Friday, you can work from home, but it’s more to accommodate specific situations. Now, we’re not going to dictate what people can do. We’re going to give them flexibility. We’re going to give them the opportunity to decide. And I think it’s going to make us a really desired employer going forward.

The other thing that we realize is that we’re in back-to-back meetings all day – it’s more regimented than it’s ever been – and I want to give a bit more freedom. If we trust our employees to drive the business forward, we should trust them to manage their schedule and the opportunities around that schedule.

The head office used to have about 300 people. So are they all going to show up? No, we’re expecting about 30% of them to show up at any time. And we won’t make it mandatory in any way for people to come in. It’s more like people will say, I want to book some time with my chocolate team or with my biscuit team and then there’s going to be rooms within the space that we’re redesigning to get that done.

There has been much talk about “The Big Quit” or “The Great Resignation,” with a wave of people quitting their jobs for reasons that include wanting to maintain some flexibility at work. Are your plans a response to that? 

There are a lot of things that I have learned or confirmed during the pandemic – that a winning culture is critical is one of them. It’s critical to retaining talent in regular times, and it’s critical to retaining talent in these extraordinary times.

The first few months of the pandemic, everybody was worried about losing their job. We expected this big collapse [of the workforce]. Now, people have choices. They have decided, ‘I don’t want to work the same way. I want a place where the employee is not a tool strictly used for delivering results, but is a part of an entity that creates good.’ And I believe that’s what we are doing at Mondelez.

What other pandemic lessons will you be carrying forward with you? What other challenges or opportunities do you see on the horizon? 

Our strategies remain the same, even though we are accelerating some of them. Talent is the most difficult element to build and develop because it fluctuates and is influenced by so many elements, including the environment you’re in. So I need to make sure that we’re always ahead of the curve on that one.

We’ve also seen that, from a global supply chain standpoint, the pressures are much greater than we ever anticipated. This pandemic has created a lot more pressure and a lot more questions around where we are sourcing our products from. So I’m trying to bring a lot of manufacturing closer to home and into our five facilities in the GTA, and working with other organizations that want to support the sourcing of ingredients.

Because when you’re dependent on elements of the supply chain coming from Asia, right now with logistics being the way they are, it’s more challenging. But that’s where having the best teams and the best people allows you to be agile and to find solutions faster than others. So to me, that’s where the battle is won.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities.