A Skills-Exchange Program Devoted to Sustainability

Joy Ambassadors boost cocoa farmers' business skills and come back as better leaders.
By: | June 25, 2018 • 7 min read
A happy, female cocoa farmer participating in the skills-exchange program

Mondelēz International, a global purveyor of chocolate, has made sure to discover new ways to obtain ethically sourced, sustainable cocoa. The company wants to encourage its employees to respect and understand the process from beginning to end—which starts with farmers in Ghana who harvest the cocoa beans and ends with delicious chocolate.

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Making sure every Mondelēz worker appreciates the cocoa-to-chocolate process is no small feat, as the company employs approximately 90,000 people worldwide. Keeping all these workers fully engaged in the company’s mission has been a key concern for the global HR team—which aims to grow Mondelēz’s people, business and impact while remaining ethical, sustainable, socially conscious and employee- and customer-focused. After brainstorming how all these factors could be tied into employee engagement, leadership teams designed a program in which Mondelēz employees share their knowledge and expertise with local communities in developing nations. A skills-exchange program at this level can present several challenges, from employee selection to on-the-ground logistics; however, if these obstacles are navigated successfully, such an initiative can fuel employee engagement and business growth.

Building a Skills-Exchange Program

Joy Ambassadors participate in an annual, two-week skills-exchange program, in which professional-level employees working at any of Mondelēz International’s locations travel to cocoa-farming communities, most often in Ghana. The farming communities are part of Cocoa Life, Mondelēz’s version of fair trade, which it started in 2012 to help maintain the long-term stability of the cocoa supply chain and improve the welfare of cocoa farmers and their communities. The company will invest $400 million by 2022 to empower 200,000 cocoa farmers and reach 1 million community members in six key cocoa-growing nations: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia, India, the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

According to Kelly France, Mondelēz International’s senior manager of community involvement and employee engagement and the Joy Ambassador program manager, the “on-the-ground” nature of the initiative helps employees connect with Cocoa Life. Mondelēz’s impact team helped launch Joy Ambassadors by collaborating with VSO, a non-profit that fights global poverty through volunteerism.

“We wanted to ensure this program was about creating an outstanding employee experience that would help drive one of our company goals to grow our positive impact,” says France. “We wanted it and other engagement programs to be relevant and personal for employees, no matter the size. Joy Ambassadors is a small [given the size of the group of employees who travel to Ghana] moment in time that can have a big impact for our colleagues and people on the ground in our Cocoa Life communities.”

Most of the Joy Ambassadors are nominated by leaders, but one slot in the program is reserved for a peer nomination. Nominees must meet several criteria, including flexibility, ability to learn and respect a new culture and a high comfort level with living in a developing nation. During the annual trip, 12 to 15 employees learn about the challenges and opportunities that arise from supporting a sustainable cocoa supply. Employees see what it takes to bring cocoa sustainability to life while passing on leadership lessons to farmers.

“Our colleagues know strategy development, stakeholder engagement, finance and business acumen,” says France. “They bring their expert insight to farmers who are running their own businesses and who may not have access to learn these valuable skills or know how to properly implement them for profitability and growth.”

Joy Ambassadors leading a community workshop.

Dick Beatty, adjunct professor of business administration and executive education at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, says Mondelēz’s skills-exchange program sounds unique when compared to other socially conscious corporate initiatives, as its goal is “introducing new and better ways [to farm cocoa] and making sure it’s environmentally sound,” he says. “It’s also a benefit to the company [by] trying to secure a pipeline of product while increasing the yields for a continuous, sustainable supply.”

Since the onset of Joy Ambassadors in 2013, the company has reduced its environmental footprint (CO2 emissions decreased by 7 percent and water usage decreased by 18 percent as of 2016) and continued to increase the portion of cocoa that’s sustainably sourced. According to its 2017 Cocoa Life Progress Report, 35 percent of Mondelēz’s cocoa has been sustainably sourced, and the company’s goal is to reach 100 percent.

Beatty mentions that many companies often try to “do good,” but to be successful and do good involves factors beyond humanitarian desires. He says companies need to ensure that good-will projects have clear goals with measurable outcomes, and stakeholders see value in the programs.

“We need to put ourselves in the investors’ shoes—what’s this costing, and what kind of return are we getting?” he says. “To send 15 people overseas will [be costly]. Did we get what we wanted from this? Are we really making a difference in Ghana and securing a pipeline supply? And as a result, are we getting better yields or better prices?”

Customers are also a factor for companies considering implementing a program like Joy Ambassadors, he adds. While there has been a push for more socially conscious practices in business, Beatty says, there are still customers who would prefer to pay less for a chocolate bar than have 15 employees participate in a skills-exchange program in a developing nation.

“Publicly traded companies that play with other people’s money, be it investors or customers, have to think about what’s in the best interest of these stakeholders,” he says.

Beatty mentions that more and more investors are looking to make “clean investments,” which, simply put, means investors want to know that a company is “doing good” with the money and holdings given to them.

France adds that Mondelēz not only has clear goals for the program, but they also align with the organization’s mission and values.

“Programs like Joy Ambassadors aren’t one-size-fits-all,” she says. “Companies looking to implement something similar need to ensure they build a program that’s within the context of the business strategy and authentic to brand identity. Additionally, clear, focused program goals are critical for success.”

Learning the Cocoa Process

Cocoa farmers tasting chocolate for the first time

Alice Bertholin Rice, talent and learning global service lead at Mondelēz, participated in the Joy Ambassadors program in 2016. One of the many things she says she enjoyed about the skills-exchange program was learning about the chocolate Mondelēz produces.

“Other teams are closer to our products through branding or supply-chain management and sourcing,” she says. “In HR, we’re further removed, so this was a great way for me to feel closer to our products and the ingredients we use.”

Before embarking on the trip, Bertholin Rice and the other ambassadors participated in phone calls, meetings and debriefings about what to expect in Ghana. Employees were also instructed about the community’s needs, such as financial-literacy training or community-development committees, which were determined by Cocoa Life non-governmental-organization partners who served as “buddies” and translators for the Joy Ambassadors.

“The program is so multi-layered—part of the experience was just being there,” says Bertholin Rice. “Participating in the program gave us an end-to-end perspective. We visited the cocoa farms and a cocoa-processing plant where I learned all that it takes to produce chocolate. I think this helped us feel more connected to the company.”

Joy Ambassadors deliver supplies to schools and speak with elders in the community to learn about the Ghanaian culture, but the bulk of the two weeks is spent either working on the farms or teaching the community and NGO partners in skills-building and train-the-trainer workshops.

When it came to teaching the Ghanaian communities, the ambassadors did encounter some challenges. Beyond the language barrier, Bertholin Rice says, the ambassadors also had to adjust to teaching in non-traditional environments (churches, community centers or outside in the open) and creating effective lessons targeting multiple generations of farmers.

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“We trained people with different levels of literacy and language skills and had to be creative, as we did not have modern technology available,” she says. “We relied on drawings [in place of PowerPoint slides] and we had our ‘Cocoa Life buddies’ translate key messages. The biggest question we asked [ourselves] was, ‘How do we make our lessons simple but highly impactful?’ ”

Each Joy Ambassador was assigned to a team tasked with presenting on specific business topics; Bertholin Rice’s were problem solving and action planning, for which the team utilized Lean Six Sigma tools.

Alice Bertholin Rice holding cocoa beans.

Bertholin Rice says she has been able to apply her Joy Ambassadors experience to her work.

“We learned many leadership competencies—inspiring others, coaching, mentoring, listening, cross-cultural understanding, dealing with ambiguity, flexibility, resilience, adaptability. The list seems endless,” she says. “We learned that completing any task is about the things you can do versus what you can’t, [or] what you don’t have.”

A “sweet spot” of programs like Joy Ambassadors, says France, is when employees become ambassadors of the company.

“They’re inspired, and business benefits from the inspiration,” she says.

Danielle Westermann King, staff writer for HRE, received her bachelor’s degree in English from Temple University. She has written and edited articles for various print and online healthcare publications and is now setting her sights on human resources. She can be reached at [email protected]

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