What I’ve learned from this crisis: a Global Director of Corporate Affairs on her lockdown lessons.

24 Nov 2020

What I’ve learned from this crisis: a Global Director of Corporate Affairs on her lockdown lessons.

An interview with Caoimhe Buckley on her experience of lockdown.

Since our first interview in the summer, we returned to ask Caoimhe Buckley, Global Director of Corporate Affairs, Fyffes, about what so many months of the COVID-19 crisis have taught her.

What lessons has this pandemic taught you about your leadership role and its responsibilities? What would you do differently, or with any change of emphasis?

Yes, there are a few things which have been reinforced, and a few which can be tweaked or enhanced for the next phase.

Whilst we were right to increase our communications with our people, in hindsight, I feel we could have done even more to reassure our people during the pandemic.

We have just stated global virtual townhalls with our new CEO, set up an email dedicated to taking employees’ questions and held our first global employee engagement survey.

Listening, at this time, is just as important as communicating.

As predicted, many countries are now in a second lockdown after some relaxation of rules and guidelines. Universally we are observing lockdown-fatigue by the wider population. Our own people are no different. Although our workplaces conform to the highest standards, people’s behaviour at home and community transmission caused positive cases.

Like many companies, we invested in equipment to physically separate people, take temperatures, disinfect surfaces, plus mandatory handwashing and mask-wearing. But we heard of people being less careful at home. One good example is car-sharing to work, normally a very sensible thing to do, but during a pandemic it’s highly problematic. So, we updated our policy on car-sharing.

It’s very challenging to try to moderate people’s behaviour outside work, especially in countries where with less strict government guidelines.

At the end of the day, companies must rely on the goodwill of their people and doing everything possible to foster a culture of safety and wellbeing.

I continue to be impressed by our focus on health and wellbeing. Our HR and compliance teams continue to come up with innovative ways to engage people virtually through yoga and meditation and other fun activities. This helps connect us to our colleagues and reduce stress..

In our previous interview, you predicted that ‘the next stage is about performance’. How do you think this has unfolded?

As a tropical fruit and mushroom company, many stakeholders assume we must be highly profitable during this time. The reality is more nuanced. Substantial investment in equipment to keep people safe and as socially-distant as possible added huge costs to the business.

In the absence of government-funded COVID-19 tests, in Costa Rica, for example, we paid for them. Repeatedly testing thousands of workers is very expensive, but it’s the most accurate way to identify cases, as most of our positive cases have (very thankfully) been asymptomatic.

Our winter melon business that supplies retailers in North America was badly impacted by the pandemic. Melons are a discretionary purchase, unlike bananas that are more of a basket staple. Supermarket display is really important – if a shopper sees juicy melons in an attractive display, they are likely to buy. With the pandemic, people preferred to shop online or if they did visit the supermarket, they were in and out as quickly as possible.

The other factor is our wholesale and food service business – the business we do with restaurants, hotels and other smaller retailers. This business evaporated as governments mandated their closure.

So now the focus must be on improving performance to come back from a very tough year.

We are optimistic. Our products all contribute to a healthy lifestyle, something that seems to be growing in importance thanks to the pandemic.

I could talk at length about the nutritional benefits of our fresh produce. Just one excellent example: two slices of pineapple contain 120% of your recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C – critical for the immune system. Our melons and mushrooms all have their health benefits too.
Fyffes is in a strong position to build on the increased focus on wellbeing by health-consciousness consumers, plus the investment we’ve made in our communities and in keeping our people safe.

We are investing in gathering data and information to inform our new strategy. For my part, I am so proud to work for a company employing lots of people in Central America, producing such great products.

How have the demands on your team changed? And how have they and you responded?

In my role, I lead on sustainability, compliance, stakeholder engagement and communications.

Our interactions with stakeholders in Central America have switched to zoom or MS teams. Our amazing interpreter in Honduras hosts all our Spanish-speaking meetings on Zoom. Each participant chooses their language, making simultaneous translation possible.

The biggest challenge is in training our workers and doing audits. We have had to conduct virtual audits or pause them, and we have not been able to do training in person. These things are so important.

My team is responsible for ensuring that we comply with Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade certifications. With international travel banned in some countries, we had to hit pause. We are catching up now as the Americas relax their restrictions, but like Europe, we anticipate a further tightening of the restrictions.

You praised the ‘ingenuity, creativity and agility’ of your colleagues in responding to the initial lockdown period. Any examples you might want to celebrate?

Well, I really admire the ingenuity of the sustainability and compliance functions in monitoring standards virtually and developing online training programmes. Nothing replaces the physical presence, but during 2020, they have really risen to the challenge to get things done.

Also, our human resources team in getting such a high response rate to the employee engagement survey, when most of our people do not have laptops or sit at desks. This tells you a lot about how much people want to have their voices heard and contribute to the company’s future plans.

Is ‘trust’ still your watchword in your philosophy of managing people, and is this proving to be the case even in the ‘new normal’?

Trust is everything. This is even more so now because it is more difficult to visit locations and see with your own eyes. In October this year, we published our Human Rights Impact Assessment and mitigation plan. We worked with the Californian-based NGO BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) to conduct the assessment, interviewing external stakeholders and employees, as well as leveraging their expertise in this field to identify our salient risks.

What our stakeholders value is transparency.

During the pandemic, we had time to rebuild our website. Easier to navigate, it will now share more information: where our products come from, the people who help grow them, our standards and certifications, as well as the environmental footprint of our products. We will also publish our first ever Sustainability Report next Spring.

Has the strategic nature of your role changed at all, and how has your interaction with the board and CEO evolved?

I’ve always felt that Corporate Affairs is a strategic role and I believe its role is increasing in relevance to the Board of Directors at any company.

I recently presented to the Board and they expect to hear more from my team in the future.

The Board are concerned with how we are protecting our people and helping our smallholders and communities during the pandemic.

We have made significant contributions in cash and fresh produce to charities helping those most vulnerable people without enough to eat as supermarkets closed and supply chains were interrupted. Not to mention, being hit by rising job losses and the general economic downturn too.

In Costa Rica, we donated 100,000 pounds of bananas. In Honduras, Fyffes donated over 100,000 pounds of bananas and 112,000 melons to 21 communities surrounding our farms in the Choluteca region. We also donated 430,000 pounds of bananas in Belize, as well as 25,000 cardboard boxes to ease the distribution and delivery of other donations.

Here in Ireland, we have a long-standing relationship with FoodCloud – an amazing charity that matches charities with food donations, and the UK’s FareShare.

Our new CEO is very much focused on sustainability and corporate affairs, seeing them as critical drivers in performance.

Looking around, what are the leadership traits that have really worked during the crisis?

Energy and resilience are the two key leadership attributes. With little variety in your day, no travel or face-to-face interactions, it’s easy to lose energy and motivation.

To be able to tap into your inner pool of energy, and draw it out of others, is a great skill.

Resilience is so important too. All too often, people burn out by not taking care of themselves because they are running on adrenaline. Unfortunately, crises like a pandemic last too long and no one has limitless reserves of adrenaline. It’s important to see friends, take walks, sleep and do whatever you need to rest. Good leaders encourage their teams to take breaks and look after themselves.

Finally, what personal adjustments have you made as the pandemic’s disruption stays with us for far longer than we might have imagined back in the Spring? Any tips for personal resilience and inspiration?

I could not do without my early-morning runs with my running buddies. It was much easier during the first lockdown when the sun rose so early. Now we wear torches on our heads and reflective running gear. Knowing we have a time in the diary forces us to get up and out before work. We’re fit enough to be able to chat while we run so it’s not just good exercise but a great way to boost our mental health too.

I really miss my yoga sessions – it’s just not the same listening to an app – but it’s better than nothing. I also love going on walks with the family and calling in to my parents and siblings, even if it’s just to wave at them from the garden.

Finally, I have finally set up a second screen in my home office. I think working from home – at least three days a week – is here to stay.

Thank you, Caoimhe, for your time and your insights.