Marie Jackson’s Leadership and Performance in Renfield Farms

Introduction

Leading any organization through a change is a challenging process – doubly so if the organization in question is the company going through hard times and steadily losing its share of the market. Renfield Farms, an important player in the natural foods market, began experiencing considerable difficulties in the early 2010s, as the company was unable to introduce new products and faced increased competition. To overcome these challenges, the company hired Marie Jackson, an executive with a successful background in the processed foods industry, as its new CEO in June 2013. Jackson demonstrated notable strengths and some weaknesses as a leader, but Renfield’s march toward change often stalled because of stiff organizational culture and the lack of political support for the company’s new vision.

Mary Jackson’s Leadership and Performance

Jackson’s tenure as the CEO of Renfield Farms demonstrated several notable strengths of her personality and leadership skills. To begin with, she proved to be an innovative leader not only open to new ideas but actively pushed toward their development and adoption. This was one of her defining traits even before becoming the CEO of Renfield, as she successfully added new and innovative product lines during her tenure in the candy company Crivelli (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). Once in Renfield, Jackson also began to push for the development of new products, especially since the company scored relatively low “on innovation and product distinctiveness” (Mayo & Beckham, 2015, p. 4). The prime example of her effort in this field was her continuous insistence that Renfield should go beyond the familiar natural food market to introduce new products (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). This consistent focus on innovation lines up with openness to experience, which is one of the Big Five personality traits, usually associated with higher intelligence and adaptation capabilities (DuBrin, 2019). Jackson’s high score in openness was one of her notable strengths as a leader demonstrated during her tenure at Renfield.

Apart from that, Jackson, as the CEO, also demonstrated laudable tenacity in learning about her new company from the people who worked there and from the end customers. Upon getting the position, she devoted a considerable part of her first three months in the organization to acquaint herself with the inner working of Renfield personally. She actively employed virtual town-hall meetings to reach a large proportion of the employees to understand their concerns, ideas, and hopes (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). She also put a heavy emphasis on personal interaction with customers, meeting the buyers from the company’s every major retailer, and discussing their perceptions of Renfield as well (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). This attention to the public image was particularly crucial during the early part of her tenure, as the animal mistreatment incident has severely damaged Renfield’s reputation among its loyal customers (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). In this light, Jackson’s behavior as a leader demonstrates a high degree of extraversion – another essential trait from the Big Five associated with sociability (DuBrin, 2019). This quality is crucial for a CEO and was one more of Jackson’s strengths.

Finally, Jackson also demonstrated significant emotional stability during the turbulent beginning of her tenure at Renfield. She faced considerable obstacles in her new position, starting with the fact that an outsider CEO was a frowned-upon rarity in Renfield’s organizational culture (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). Additionally, her vision for Renfield to develop new products beyond the natural foods market also encountered stubborn opposition from those who believed it went against the company’s distinctive image and traditions. Progress in deciding the change of direction and developing the new vision for the company was slow, with string opinions clashing with each other (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). Still, Jackson herself described her first eighteen months in Renfield as “arduous and frustrating at times, yet invigorating” (Mayo & Beckham, 2015, p. 1). This assessment demonstrates emotional stability – a Top Five trait responsible for being calm and confident under pressure (DuBrin, 2019). Without it, Jackson would not have been able to cope with the numerous psychological challenges of her new position productively, which means it was yet another of her strengths as a leader.

One of Jackson’s weaknesses demonstrated during her tenure was an excessive degree of agreeableness. It manifested most clearly in the extremely slow pace of progress in developing the company’s new vision. This was one of the earliest tasks that Jackson set before herself upon assuming her role as a CEO in Renfield, and it proved to be a long and difficult process. As early as August 2013, Jackson initiated the first meeting for this purpose with the group of twelve selected managers (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). In November 201, the group finally agreed on the immediate strategic priorities, yet no vision emerged (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). It was only in 2014 when Jackson decisively “challenged skeptics and resistors to provide constructive feedback,” and the vision appeared soon after (Mayo & Beckham, 2015, p. 7). These events suggest that Jackson’s agreeableness – the Top Five trait responsible for being “courteous, flexible, trusting, good-natured, cooperative” – got the better of her (DuBrin, 2019, p. 28). While invaluable at the customer service positions, excessive agreeableness may become a weakness for a CEO who sometimes has to enforce certain decisions to make progress.

Another weakness of Jackson’s leadership style demonstrated in the first eighteen months of her tenure at Renfield was the inability to delegate properly. During the afore-mentioned introduction of the Greek yogurt Hale Fresh to the market, Jackson spearheaded the launch personally (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). While the product itself turned to be a considerable success, it should not overshadow the fact that Jackson had to do the job personally because Hale Fresh had no other potential champion (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). As a transformational leader, Jackson’s task should have been to motivate her employees to champion new promising products rather than doing it for them (DuBrin, 2019). One may assume that the launch of Hale Fresh was an attempt to lead by example. It is also possible that after the stalling progress with the company’s vision, Jackson had no confidence in authorizing any of her subordinates with the launch at the time. Regardless, the situation when a CEO has to champion a product because she cannot rely on her subordinates in doing that is an evident case of leadership weakness.

There also appears to have been at least one aspect in which Jackson had overestimated her capabilities as a leader. As mentioned above, the new CEO, likely influenced by her innovative successes at Crivelli, made the expansion of the Renfield product line her priority from the very beginning. However, Jackson underestimated the potential resistance rooted in Renfield’s organizational culture and a strong corporate identity based on creating natural products. The company’s founder emphasized Renfield’s image as centered on “healthy living and honest nutrition,” and the employee internalized these values (Mayo & Beckham, 2015, p. 2). Reservations about expanding beyond the natural foods market were the primary reason why crafting the new vision statement for the company took so long (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). Opposition to Jackson’s proposed change direction proved strong enough that the new CEO was only able to enforce her vision of Renfield’s expansion beyond natural foods by late 2014 (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). These events suggest that Jackson underestimated the strength of possible dissent and overestimated her capability to overcome it as a leader.

Renfield’s Change Process

There were both successes and failures of varying magnitude in Renfield’s change process, thus making it a mixed case, but Jackson’s attempts to reinvigorate and reformat the company yielded several significant positive results. One notable achievement would be her contribution to the company’s marketing strategy. Prior to her arrival, Renfield largely concentrated on print and television in its marketing efforts (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). In the age of the Internet, with people consistently increasing their digital literacy and technological savvy, this approach was outdated and fairly inefficient. As DuBrin (2019) notes, behavioral changes introduced by the information technology are among the most notable challenges for contemporary business enterprises, and Renfield was lagging behind in this field. Jackson bolstered the company’s digital impact, revitalized its Facebook account, and created a Twitter presence, all with the focus on reconnecting with the customers. The evidence of her success was the popularity of the company’s nutrition app or the snack challenge to accumulate ideas that accompanied the launch of Hale Fresh (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). Hence, Jackson succeeded in introducing profound changes to the company’s overly conservative marketing strategy.

A particularly important aspect of Jackson’s changes to the company’s’ approach to digital technologies was the corresponding structural change at Renfield. The new CEO did not merely introduce new marketing methods based on digital media but also created an entirely new “department for monitoring and analytics” (Mayo & Beckham, 2015, p. 6). According to DuBrin (2019), one of the key ways to introduce behavioral changes into organizations is by developing talent and skills. In this regard, Renfield’s change process was a positive achievement, as Jackson picked talents that would be essential for the functioning of the new department and put them into a position that would facilitate change. This example suggests at least a certain success at introducing change through developing talents and skills as an essential component of introducing change to organizations.

Another example of the company’s relative success in going through change is the launch of Hale Fresh discussed above. Prior to Jackson’s arrival, Renfield lagged dangerously behind other companies on the natural foods market due to the stagnating organizational culture. While other companies launched their Greek yogurt products and established the market, Renfield’s Hale Fresh “languished un R&D because it lacked a champion” (Mayo & Beckham, 2015, p. 6). The new product proved to be a considerable financial success and an important moral win for the company. Apart from that – and even more importantly – Jackson had set a precedent for energetic leadership for innovation and product development, even though its impact was not as considerable as she had hoped.

As with the increased focus on digital technology and the creation of the monitoring and analytics department, the launch of Hale Fresh is representative of Jackson’s attempts to introduce change by developing talents and skills. Yet, in this case, it did little to overhaul organizational behavior in Renfield. The product’s evident success in the market boosted moral and led to a short period of “renewed enthusiasm and confidence” among some of the workforce (Mayo & Beckham, 2015, p. 6). Yet Jackson’s example, however inspiring, failed to motivate the employees to follow her suit. The company’s regional managers remained reluctant to pursue innovative growth opportunities and introduce new products, fearing personal responsibility for possible failure (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). Jackson’s attempt to develop the ability to take risks when championing new products did not produce the bold spirit of innovation she had hoped for, as the organizational inertia proved resistant to this initial attempt. In this particular respect, Renfield’s change initiated by the company’s new CEO was unsuccessful and failed to achieve the desired result.

Renfield’s resistance to change is an interesting case, as it occurred despite the existence of push and pull factors that coincided with Jackson’s vision for the company. As mentioned above, expanding beyond the natural foods market was the cornerstone of Jackson’s long-term strategy. Push factors working for this included the increasing competition in Renfield’s original niche, losing grounds to both farmer-owned cooperatives and traditional companies like Group Danone (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). Consequently, there was little potential for growth in the company’s traditional market, which necessitated branching out. Pull factors included the necessity to attract new, younger consumers with varying dietary habits (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). Considering these facts, one might expect Renfield’s employees to be more open to Jackson’s idea of developing new products outside the natural foods market. This case demonstrates how organizational culture – the “system of shared values and beliefs that influence worker behavior” – may impede the company’s adaptability in the case when changes are necessary (DuBrin, 2019, p. 339). Renfield’s employees were so dedicated to the company’s original vision as solely a natural food producer that they rejected the very idea of entering other markets.

Renfield’s failures in the change process may also serve as a case study in why organizations and their individual members may prove change-resistant. One obvious reason – a fear of failure – has already been mentioned. A regional manager admitted that he avoided launching new products because failure would “wipe out [his] bonus” (Mayo & Beckham, 2015, p. 7). Yet there is more to this resistance than merely the surface level. Renfield’s experience also demonstrates what organizational behavior analysis calls “competing commitments” (DuBrin, 2019, p. 363). Even when the employees are not opposed to change out of principle, they may resist it for unrecognized reasons. An employee working on a difficult project may be subconsciously hesitant to finish it out of fear that success will cause the management to assign him and even more monumental task (DuBrin, 2019). This competing commitment to stall may also account for the risk-averse behavior of Renfield’s employees in the initial phase of Jackson’s tenure as the company’s CEO.

With that in mind, one should also remember that an organizational change does not happen overnight – especially in big companies. Large organizations are always more resistant to change than small ones. First of all, larger size means that the variety of attitudes among the organization members will also be grater, complicating the process (DuBrin, 2019). Secondly, and, perhaps, more importantly, organizations with a more complex hierarchical structure have more level of approval – formal and informal alike- that have to be passed for a change to genuinely occur (DuBrin, 2019). Hence, even though Jackson’s first eighteen months as a CEO did not feature significant breakthroughs in the change process, one may at least partially explain it by the company’s sheer size.

Advice and Strategy for Jackson and Renfield

One of the obstacles that Jackson consistently encountered in her attempts to revitalize Renfield was the lack of support among the employees. It may well have been the single most important challenge she encountered during her first months as the company’s new CEO and the reason why her drive toward change stalled. It is evidenced by the fact that it took a year and a half to finally craft the vision statement – and even then, those involved in its discussion barely agreed upon it (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). In this light, the first advice to Jackson in overcoming her challenges in Redfield would be amassing better political support for the change that she promoted. In this case, “political support” refers to the CEO “forming alliances with people who will support his or her proposals” (DuBrin, 2019, p. 364). The importance of such support would be even greater due to Renfield’s organizational culture, with its emphasis on promotion from within (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). As an outsider, Jackson needed even more support for the changes she wanted to initiate, and ensuring this support should have been one of her top priorities.

The second piece of advice would be to delegate and relay more tasks to the executives rather than performing them personally. The prime example that highlights the validity of this advice is the launch of Hale Fresh spearheaded by Jackson. While it was a commercial success, it failed to produce a desired behavioral change, and the employees’ reaction was that of “confusion and wariness” (Mayo & Beckham, 2015, p. 6). One may attribute it to Renfield’s organizational culture: in a company fiercely loyal to their own, Jackson’s example as an outsider might have been not the best choice to motivate the employees. Jackson later ruminated whether she should have assigned one of her executives to launch Hale Fresh instead of doing it herself (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). Yet this problem is directly linked to the one above: apparently, at the moment of making the decision, Jackson had no employee in sight whim she trusted with the realization of her vision. Thus, the second recommendation is to delegate more, but it is ultimately dependent on identifying those who can become agents of desired change – that is, securing political support.

As for the strategy, Jackson’s idea of taking Renfield to the next level seems fundamentally solid. Her central idea of moving beyond the natural foods market is reasonable. Renfield occupied its prominent position when wholesome nutrition was still and “underdeveloped, niche market,” but it was no longer the case by the time Jackson took her position (Mayo & Beckham, 2015, p. 2). Considering the shrinking growth opportunities and growing competition in the company’s traditional market, branching out beyond it is a sensible decision. Its potential tradeoffs are the possibility of launching a wide range of new products and the acquirement of new customer demographics. Potential risks include losing Renfield’s characteristic outlook as the company focused on natural and wholesome nutrition and, by extension, some of its existing customer base. This risk should be alleviated through a PR company that would communicate the changes and address the customers’ reservations through digital media, which is something Jackson proved herself competent at (Mayo & Beckham, 2015). Overall, Jackson’s strategy for change in Renfield is fairly robust, and it is not the strategy itself, but the means of its execution that could use improvement.

Conclusion

As one can see, the first eighteen months of Marie Jackson’s tenure as a CEO of Renfield Farms represents an interesting and educational case study in leadership for change. Jackson demonstrated several important strengths as a leader, including such Top Five personality traits as openness, extraversion, and emotional stability. However, she also showed a limited ability to delegate and an excessive degree of agreeableness, which prevented her from enforcing her vision sooner. Renfield’s change process was not very significant, featuring both successes and failures. On the one hand, Jackson launched a new product, overhauled PR and analytics, and demonstrated some competency in noting and developing the talents and skills of her employees. On the other hand, the precedent set by the launch of Hale Fresh did not motivate others to follow her suit, which one can partially attribute to organizational inertia and the company’s size. Jacksons’ overall strategy for change in Renfield is solid, as it offers significant tradeoffs, and the CEO is likely capable of handling the risks involved. Still, it would be advisable for Jackson to pay greater attention to enlisting political support and delegating.

References

DuBrin, J. A. (2019). Fundamentals of organizational behavior (6th ed.). Academic Media Solutions.

Mayo, A. J., & Beckham. H. (2015). Marie Jackson: Revitalizing Renfield Farms. Harvard Business Review Brief Cases. Web.