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Jan 11, 2022
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33. Principal, Vision Mgmt Consultants

33. Principal, Vision Mgmt Consultants
Jeff’s guest is Xavier Naville, Author of “The Lettuce Diaries: How A Frenchman Found Gold Growing Vegetables in China.” He is the Principal at Vision Management Consultants, but was formerly the CEO of the Creative Food Group, a key supplier to major restaurant chains in China, like McDonald's, KFC, and Starbucks. Xavier grew the company to one that now has nine factories serving 6,500 restaurants a day and over $150MM in revenue. Jeff and Xavier discuss how his business experiences in China were vastly different than what is typical in most western companies. They talk about which leadership principles are universal, regardless of the country or industry. Xavier shares his personal stories about managing a Chinese team as a foreigner, trying to work with Chinese farmers to improve how they conducted agriculture, all while navigating investor demands. He and Jeff discuss the five ingredients that make up the “Complete Leader.” Xavier shares vulnerably from his leadership journey, which included some nail-biting experiences of being an expatriate in China, almost failing at his business, and his eventual successful exit.


Intro: Duration: (02:59)

Opening music jingle & sound effects

Jeff Hunt:

Welcome to the Human Capital podcast, I'm Jeff Hunt. As we start the new year, I'd like to give a shout-out to the GoalSpan team who produces this show every other week, and a special thanks to Francisco Ortiz. Our show would not happen without all your hard work so thank you. If you've listened to many episodes of my show, you'll know that I believe effective leadership is at the core of making our workplaces more human.

On today's episode you'll see that being a leader is not for the faint of heart. In fact, if done well, leadership requires a number of ingredients, things like fierce tenacity or grit, compassion, humility, and the willingness to actually admit when you don't have the answers. Today, I get to speak to an exceptional leader who embodies these characteristics in my opinion.

I met my guest Xavier Neville through a CEO book club that I'm a member of. Xavier is the author of a book we discussed in our group called “The lettuce diaries, how a Frenchman found gold growing vegetables in China”, got to love the title, my fellow CEOs and I could so relate to many of experiences in the book.

So I invited him to share some of those on my show. His story is really about managing a Chinese team as a foreigner. Trying to work with Chinese farmers to improve how they conducted agriculture all the while navigating investor demands. Full disclosure if you aspire to become a CEO, you may want to not actually read this book.

Of course, I'm saying this tongue in cheek, but one of the things I loved about Xavier book is his descriptions were very clear about the realities of what it took to run and grow his company. And the number of times he was living on the edge. So to speak. And for a lot of people, this would sort of make them rethink their desire to be in the hot seat.

Xavier business experiences in China were vastly different than what is typical in most Western companies. And this is true from both a cultural and a leadership context. And what I'm most interested in, which we'll talk about today is which leadership principles apply universally regardless of country or industry.

And so this should make for a good episode, a little bit more about Xavier. He was the founder and CEO of the creative food group, which is a key supplier to major restaurant chains in China, like McDonald's KFC, and Starbucks. He grew that company to what is now an organization with nine factories serving 6,500 restaurants a day and over 150 million in revenue since his exit from creative food.

Xavier has been principal at vision management consultants and he works on numerous strategy and M& projects in the food sector for multinationals in China. And he's also an executive coach he's located near me here in the beautiful. San Francisco bay area. And he allocates his time between here and China as COVID allows of course.

Welcome, Xavier.

Xavier Naville:

Thank you very much, Jeff, for this glowing introduction, I look forward to a great conversation.

Jeff Hunt:

Well, it's great to have you on the show. I want to point out I'm, I'm trying to pronounce your name correctly because you're originally from France and in France if I'm correct.

Your name is pronounced Xavier and here in the US, we pronounce it Xavier. am I right?

Xavier Naville:

Your pronunciation is perfect.

Topic 1. How the Frenchman moved to China to grow vegetables (03:50)

Jeff Hunt:

Excellent. I want to jump in because your book tells the story beautifully, but I'd love it if you would give our listeners the backstory on your journey from France to China and how you ultimately became the CEO of a large food producer there.

Xavier Naville:

Yeah, thank you. I came to China in 97 and left in 2015 to come to the bay area. So I spent nearly 20 years in China and I never really wanted to go to China in particular. I was a finance executive in a large multinational called compass catering that was doing all the staff canteens around the world.

And I wanted an adventure. I wanted to see the world and when there was an opportunity to become CFO of their China business. I raised my hand and I was sent as an expatriate to China. I thought it would be just for two years. It ended up being much longer. I started as a CFO and to pay the bills.

We had this large central kitchen that was not useful to make meals for Chinese workers. So we started to cook on onsite on our client's premises to have fresher food, nicer food, and better customer satisfaction. And I had this big empty kitchen and I had to find some use for it. So I started to cut vegetables for kids.

At the time to put in the, you know, the shredded lettuce that goes into the burger and that's what became creative food down the road. And that's what became the $115 million business that you described today. So, it's a short introduction, but that's the way I started. An ex-pat that came to China and turn despite his own instinct into an entrepreneur.

Jeff Hunt:

That's amazing. And if I understand it correctly, You didn't know the language when you showed up, right?

Xavier Naville:

Oh yeah. I didn't know the language. I was dressing like a corporate executive in Paris. I had my harness tie and my beautiful wingtip shoes. And I had no idea that I would end up in the fields of China and supervising Chinese farmers.

Topic 2. The Superhero Savior Syndrome (06:07)

Jeff Hunt:

And so I'm really interested in this concept and I want to unpack it with you because it's obviously over time, you changed the way that you managed and led people in that organization and your approach. And I was actually thinking before our episode, I would like to coin a new term that I'm going to call the superhero savior syndrome.

And my definition of this is when Western businesses go into less developed nations with the pretense that they can import success. Oftentimes problems actually result, and it might look something like they are attempting to insert leadership practices that worked in the west or process disciplines that have worked.

Do you feel like this is a real thing? Is this something that you experienced? And if so, can you speak about that?

Xavier Naville:

Oh yeah. I mean, you're completely right. There was a lot of arrogance in me when I came in, I just did not realize that I was arrogant. I said I had this beautiful suit and, and I was an executive from a multinational and I thought that I knew what needed to be done to succeed in business.

And that I was there to evangelize the Chinese about the benefit of food safety and convenience. The back salad categories, the back salads that you buy in a supermarket, it's a relatively young category in the US it started in the late nineties, roughly at the time when I moved to China.

And I thought I would bring that category that is now a $10 billion category in the US, to the Chinese and give them this benefit of convenience and save foods and I was completely wrong. I did not take into account this is a very big country. When you think of China, you have to think of America times for, and I was reading just this morning that China has been adding 60 million middle-class members.

To its country every year for the past 10 years. So, it’s just amazing from the time when I arrived in China to today, you've got a middle class of 600 million people that has been essentially formed in China. And these are people who have their inspiration. They have their own cultural context, their background, they do things in a different way.

And that just came in thinking that I would educate them. And I see a lot of foreigners during this. Arriving in a foreign country and thinking that because we've been successful elsewhere, we're going to be successful in this country. So that's one thing I describe in the book and how I got hurt in a painful way, but by adopting that kind of thinking.

Jeff Hunt:

What were some of the first telltale signs that helped you understand your need for change and what you needed to do differently?

Xavier Naville:

Well, that's a very good question. I think I was not very smart because it took me probably three years. When the company got on the verge of bankruptcy to realize that I was doing it a little wrong. So I let go of all the expatriates that were working for me. And you know, for three years I was working in China, but all the people reporting to me spoke English.

They were sophisticated American executives. And I had a false understanding of what was happening. When the company was on the verge of bankruptcy I let go of everybody. And I find myself with this small group of young Chinese executive who we're not very articulate in English because their English was not that good.

And even in Chinese, they were not very articulate because that's not what Chinese education system teaches you. My kids here in the US system, they from grade one, you've got shortage. I mean you're trying to be a public speaker in America and in China is not the case. It's a lot of cramming, a lot of broad memory exercises.

So people did not know how to express themselves and I had to slowly, completely change my mindset and become much more humble about what I do not know. And it happened not because I made a conscious choice about it, just because I had no other choice. The company was nearly bankrupt. And I sat down in front of these people and I said, for the past three years, I've essentially failed to do my job and I need help.

And guess what? People stepped up and people offered their help. And that's one of the big lessons that you probably want to unpack a bit more, during our conversation is that, when you ask for help and you're not behaving like a superhero savior, as you described, people do step up and they do help.

It's just counterintuitive.

Topic 3. Universal leadership principles and motivation (11:07)

Jeff Hunt:

Definitely. And so sort of the opposite of this question, is there, do you feel like there are certain common leadership principles that did work well, that you would say are universal regardless of, of, of country culture company, industry, sector?

Xavier Naville:

I guess that's the point. What I did in China applied in the Chinese context, in a different culture.

I had no choice, you know, I didn't know that culturally, I didn’t know that country, but I really believed that whatever I did. Which at the time was not intentional, can be done in a more intentional way here in the U S. I think that teams are increasingly diverse. You can't assume that people think as you do.

Environments are increasingly complicated, things are moving faster. And as a CEO, the idea that you could be a pattern, the general pattern type of leader, an omniscient type of leader is completely false. And unfortunately, the literature, the business magazine, tends to convey that kind of message. Not in an open way, but this idea that success is linear.

This idea that you know, you look at the Elon Musk story and you're saying, okay, I want to be an Elon Musk. That guy had a vision. He executed. And guess what? I've talked to one of the investors of Elon Musk and Tesla early on. And she told me that there was one weekend where the company was essentially bust and it's one of the investors meeting his dentist.

Who shared the bad news. And his dentist said he says, you know what? I know these people are Toyota, they're also a patient of mine. The general manager of Toyota maybe I can connect you. And in the end, Toyota invested and saved Tesla, and guess what nobody talks about that. When you say that the book makes you feel uncomfortable because of all of the ups and downs, that's exactly what I wanted to convey.

It's nice to eat the sausage, but you don't want to know how that sausage is made. It's a lot of challenges and you've got to get ready for that. And if there's one lesson to draw from what I did is that I wasn't exceptional and I'm certainly not exceptional, but I refuse to fail. And all along, I refuse to fail.

I made lots of mistakes. I asked for lots of help from incredible people and in the end. I figured it out. And succeeded in the end. So if there are principles that you want to draw from that, and if I had to do it intentionally today, I would say one, start with a humble mindset. Accept that you don’t know, you know, shut down this voice in your head that tells you that you're an imposter because you don't have the answers to everything, so just be humble and people will sense it and you will increase the engagement.

The second is to build a shared context. And what do I mean about that is creating a culture in the company. At the time I was a financier, I was pretty soft on the aspects of vision and purpose and corporate values. I thought this was all HR talk and it was not meaningful. If I had to do it again, I would spend 80% of my time building these three elements of the culture.

So building the shared context, because when you have complex trade-offs and rivalries within your leadership team, it's really important to be able to bring them back to that shared context that we all agreed on, and that makes them more willing to accept the decisions that you're going to make as a leader.

The third one is to have a clear strategic direction. People tend to quickly get confused as a CEO, you get a lot of information you make trade-offs all the time and you tend to forget that your team doesn't have access to as much information as you have. And from their point of view, they may think that you're tiptoeing or changing direction or changing course or repeating constantly the direction and explaining why you're doing things that make a lot of sense.

The fourth thing. Create a culture of accountability. And that's very important because it balances out that humble mindset that I talk about. Being humble doesn't mean being weak. Or being everybody's friend you're still the boss and you still need to hold people accountable. You still need to terminate people and fire people.

You just do it in a different way. And the last one is to have mechanisms in the organization, call it whatever you want. Meet with them to synchronize. It's just incredible. When companies grow fast people start to build their own empires everywhere and leaders of different departments. I had an organization with 1500 people across nine factories.

When people start to build empires, then it's over. So you need to constantly remind the department leaders that they're not acting as representatives of the department, on the executive committee, they are acting as a member of that particular leadership team. And when they go back to their department, they have to advocate for whatever has been discussed and not undermine the decisions that have been made here.

So I guess the five points would be a humble mindset, a clear culture, a shared context. The third one would be a clear strategic direction that is repeated again and again and again, the fourth one is a culture of accountability and the fifth one would be this element of synchronization, that I just described.

Jeff Hunt:

It seems like everything is underscored by your ability to communicate effectively.

So, if you're not doing that well, regardless, you're going to be in trouble. So even if you have a clear and compelling vision and purpose, and if you're not communicating that well, you're going to lose people and you will end up with silos, correct?

Xavier Naville:

Yeah! And, you know, research shows that leaders need to have essentially four qualities and none of the leaders have them four.

We have maybe one or two, one is sense-making. So you're able to see patterns in your environment to design strategies. Another one is vision it's about the ability to create images that will inspire people, as you just said, that's the Amazon, Jeff Bezos, everything store, you know, nobody understood what he meant when he said everything stores.

And the third one is this idea that you need to be able to relate. As you said, to communicate this vision to people. And the fourth one is inventing. When there are hurdles, when there is a problem, you come up with creative solutions and again, you know, I was not very good at inventing because I didn't understand your operating context in China, but I was good at sense-making and, and that relating.

But then I had to find other people who were better than me to the other two.

Jeff Hunt:

So, thinking about some of your experiences, what motivated you to persist through such tremendous odds? Especially because you, and it's very clearly articulated in your book.

You had so many points along the way, where there was uncertainty about the future of the business and whether you're going to make it, it was going back to investors and you were trying to raise more capital and making the business case and, and then dealing with things like, you know, trying to keep the product quality in check and things like that. So what really motivated you Xavier to continue and persist? Despite those odds.

Xavier Naville:

Call me naive, but I had this vision that I would provide the business model, that allows the hundreds of thousands of farmers that were indirectly working for me to make a better living.

And I stuck to that vision and I never wavered. When I wavered, my wife lit a fire under me and she said, you're not resigning. You're not leaving. And you'll see. I mean, you'll see in the book that there were times where people try to push me all the time and I considered that it would be an easier way to leave the company than to stay on.

It was never really a consideration. I would say that probably because at the end half the experience to have nobody was expecting me. And as a result, I was overly optimistic. If I had to do it again. I'm not sure I will have the courage to do that, but the division is what helped me. And the second element is the loyalty toward the people who trusted me with their own money.

So there was a group of shareholders who gave me their money. I just couldn't imagine the situation where I would look at myself in the mirror and say, you just walked away and left them hiding dry. You're in China it's not easy to find another guy who's going to run that business. So I think the combination of the two, we all come from we in the west, we tend to come from the Judaeo-Christian background.

Maybe the guilt paid off, but that's what drove me at the time.

Topic 4. Hiring the right people to get the ideal team (20:21)

Jeff Hunt:

Well, I appreciate that. So one of the things that struck me in your book was commonly found among leaders. And it's the challenge around people hiring the right people, uh, firing the wrong people and really the timing.

And I'm wondering if you can share any of your experiences around that, what you learned about hiring, getting the right people on the bus and the right positions. And then when somebody is not working out making a change.

Xavier Naville:

Yeah, and that's a very important point and I did not do it very well, to be honest with you.

I was not very intentional about it. I hired people fired. I hired people because they came from big multinationals and they had a big title. And I thought I was really lucky to hire somebody who had been VP marketing of Colgate or Kraft in China. And I fired people in a haphazard way. Every time I was underperforming financially.

I had to fire a lot of people. So looking back I guess. The one mistake I did when I grew the business is underestimating these elements of culture that I talked about before. I hired these people coming from multinationals, not realizing that they would bring their own culture. And you know, somebody comes from Colgate.

Somebody comes from Kraft, they think they know it all. They think that your tiny little company needs to change and they bring their culture. And if you're not vigilant as a leader. Then all the people who built that culture, that is there, but not expressed or reinforced regularly by you as a leader.

And these people start to feel betrayed because they see all these middle managers who come in and build a new culture and they dilute your culture and these people leave. And these people are fundamental. They are the rock on which you build your business. If they start to leave, then you're starting again from zero, because guess what?

The guy coming from a multinational. It's going to quickly get frustrated with your small company mentality and he might leave and then you have nobody else. So there's this balance the way you want to do that is repeat again and again and again what your core values are, what your vision is, what your purpose is.

I mean repeat because research shows that if you don't say it seven times, people don't think you're serious about it. So you want to repeat it to the point where people are rolling their eyes, might sound nearly fake it so much, but more real is the way you use your culture to make decisions and give context to the decision.

So I'll give you an example. You'll say I'll terminate you. You know, could be issues of productivity, but mainly it's because you don't meet the core value of the business. And then you'll announce to your executive team that you terminated that person because he's in breach of the core values of the business.

And I mean, Jack Mar the founder of Alibaba was saying that when his business had seven people just at the beginning, he fired two people who made up 50% of the company sales, because. He realized that they were paying bribes to the customer in order to get the business. And he said, if I start like that, that's going to be like cancer that's in total breach of the core value.

You're the country where bribes are more common than in the US. So the fact that he did that set the tone from day one. So I would say that terminating people. Being very vigilant when you recruit people that they meet your company's core values through a series of interviews is fundamental.

Because it's very expensive and time-consuming to bring people, train them and then let them go. And the second is to not hesitate to terminate people. For other reasons and productivity for their inability to bind the company vision to further the company purpose or to meet or live the company values.

Jeff Hunt:

Well, I love your examples and it takes me back to the superhero savior syndrome, which I mentioned at the beginning. And basically, I think that's applicable. Every organization is vulnerable to that, especially when we bring in outsiders, I think we have to be so cautious and careful to make sure that those when we're hiring a competency.

We don't have that internal competency, so we bring it in from the outside. It's so critical to make sure that these people are a cultural fit. They can embody our core values. They can live them out. They do have that essence of humility. So if they're coming in with all the answers, then we're going to have a train wreck on our hands potentially. So, wouldn't you say?

Xavier Naville:

Yeah. And you do that by doing long interviews. Sometimes we're afraid of, we're always in a rush to hire people because we need them fast and we're afraid of taking them through multiple rounds of interviews. So the way I did it is I did long interviews digging into the people.

Especially in China. People got really good over the years at staging themselves, in a resume in the interviews. So I did it by really trying to pick details that would indicate that their core values are aligned with our company's core values. And then what I did also is that I involved the rest of the leadership team in the interviews and ask them to do the same thing to constantly dig, find examples.

So you did this and you were successful at this project, but you left the company. So what happened? And then suddenly the guy's going to say, well, you know, my boss was a prick and I went behind his back and I complained about the manager and whatever. And you realize that he's doing things that would never, never be acceptable in these companies.

Jeff Hunt:

Xavier, what are some things that you underestimated regarding your own abilities as a leader?

Xavier Naville:

I guess I underestimated how fast I could just let people go. I'm a nice guy. I don't like to terminate people. But I've learned that over the years, I've fired a lot of people and I've learned to do it in a very constructive way. I guess the dependence of this humble side that you described is that you still, the boss, you still have to hold people accountable.

And the way I convinced myself, That I had to terminate people is that it's not fair for the rest of the organization these people stay on board. And too often, as a CEO, you spend way too much time and energy and emotional energy on trying to fix the wrong players.

They may be a good fit somewhere else. And it's unfair because day in day out, your team is dealing with them, and their incompetence and they have to fill the gap. So I guess that back in 2007, I had sold the company to a multinational already. I was running the company for four years. So to the company that bought me was based in London, they were listed in London.

The financial crisis hit and suddenly all the cash flows that were coming from London to support the development of China stopped all the banks, brought fence the company in the UK, and they said, you're getting no money. And I remember they were telling me at the time we're going to fix it.

We're going to figure out the thing and we're going to refinance and hold steady. Don't fire anybody. We don't want our strategy in China to be affected. Guess what? I had been through that too many times before, and I fired 40% of the organization, the overheads, and essentially went back to the early days of me running.

Everybody having five or six different hats and running the organization for cash three months later, it still had not refinanced anything. And they were so grateful because I was able to meet all the financial covenants because the banks became ruthless at the time. I surprised. In that sense, because all the mistakes I had done paid off at that moment when I had to quickly make, make a decision and very quickly reduce the size of the organization.

So I don't know if it answers your question. That's what comes to mind.

Jeff Hunt:

That's a great story. I appreciate that, and at the end of the day, you think about all these things that we're involved in within business and how much time and effort, and emotional energy that they take. I know some of the things you shared in your book were about your personal experiences and how that re-grounded you on what was really important in life.

And I'm wondering if you want to share anything about that.

Xavier Naville:

When I sold the business and after I left the business. There was this assumption in everybody's mind that I was a serial entrepreneur and I would do it again. And I was just done. I didn't have the energy to do it again.

And in my idea I had done relatively well financially by selling the business, I had two healthy kids and I had a loving wife and had a good life, but I thought it was too symmetric. And I said my next adventure is not going to be a new business. And I just didn’t know what it would be, and it happened that I came across a little girl who was abandoned and adopted.

That was my adventure. She had lots of severe health problems and that took her around the world to see the best doctor. So the lesson from that is that despite my success, I was not ready to do another adventure. And I felt that there was more meaning in helping others than in doing it again myself. And in my activity today as an advisor and coach, that's a bit what drives me.

I think I can have a bigger impact across a large number of entrepreneurs who themselves build larger organizations than trying to do another business.

Topic 5. Lighting round questions (30:54)

Jeff Hunt:

Makes sense. Let's shift to some lightning round questions, very easy questions. And you give me top-of-mind answers. The first one is what are you most grateful for?

Xavier Naville:

Waking up every day next to my loving wife.

Jeff Hunt:

What's the most difficult leadership lesson you've learned over your career?

Xavier Naville:

Accepting that I don't have to know it all, but I have to learn it all.

Jeff Hunt:

Who is one person you would interview if you could living or not?

Xavier Naville:

Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Boeing and Ford is my reference in terms of vulnerable leadership.

He's the kind of guy who turned around a giant organization with entrenched cultures and he did it in a humble way. Always nice, but he got things done.

Jeff Hunt:

Do you have a top book recommendation?

Xavier Naville:

On China, I would. I would recommend factory girls, which is an amazing book by Leslie Chang, who was a page one wall street journal reporter.

Who took the opposite side of what the media at the time. At the time, the media was describing Chinese factory workers as quasi slaves and exploited by their owners. And she described a group of young women coming from villages and finding purpose in their independent life and growing and learning and changing jobs every time didn't look like a company.

And that's a remarkably well-written book and very instructive. In general, about leadership, I like 10 lessons of conscious leadership. I think this is something that I refer, again and again, to this idea of being above the line or below the line, when I feel that the world is against me and nobody understands me, I go back and say, you got to move from that victim stage too.

Jeff Hunt:

One of the things that you talk about is the complete leader in your coaching I believe. Can you say a little bit about what the complete leader is or looks like? Before we wrap up.

Xavier Naville:

Yeah. So, the complete leader in my view is the one who accepts that is incomplete. That's the first premise and he's got five attributes. He's humble. He creates a strong culture or shared context that I described. He creates a clear direction, clear strategy. He creates elements of accountability and five, a rhythm of communication with his team so that people are clear. So he's leveraging his team and creating a context so that people get much more engaged than they normally are.

Just to reference research shows that most people say they only give 30 to 40% of their emotions and energy at work. So the complete leader basically brings that from 30 to 90%, by creating a shared context, then engaging people and stretching them and giving them meaning for what they do every day. I've built an assessment around that.

So that with my client. What I do is I go through the different parts, and we identify where he's strong and or where she's a bit weaker. And that gives us a list of tasks to work on, to improve.

Jeff Hunt:

Perfect. Where can people find you by the way?

Xavier Naville:

So I'm based in Oakland, California. And I've got a website called Xavier-Naville.com and you can contact me to make an appointment.

I'm always happy to have a half an hour conversation, take people through the complete leader assessment, and identify whether there's a way to work together.

Jeff Hunt:

Perfect. And just as a reminder, Xavier’s book is called the lettuce diaries, how a Frenchman found gold growing vegetables in China and Xavier I've really appreciated our conversation and the wisdom that you've shared with our listeners today.

Xavier Naville:

Thank you very much, Jeff, that was a pleasure to be here.


Closing music jingle/sound effects

Jeff Hunt:

Thanks for listening to the show this week. We release new episodes every other Tuesday. Let me know what you thought of this episode by emailing humancapitalgoalspan.com. Human capital is produced by GoalSpan. Subscribe, wherever you get your podcasts. And please share this podcast with your colleagues, team, or friends. Thanks for being human kind.

Human Capital — 33. Principal, Vision Mgmt Consultants
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