What 2020 Taught Us: Interview with Stemilt President West Mathison

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While we all hope we are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, the pandemic continues to spread through our communities, disrupting lives and businesses. Ganaz caught up with West Mathison, the President of Stemilt, to find out what he has learned during this crisis.

Ganaz: What informed your thinking on how to respond to this crisis?

Mathison: Through PMA and United Fresh, I took a number of crisis management classes. I started out my career in human resources, which is a great place to cut your teeth as a young person on how to deal with people and dynamics, which are always a challenge. As we approach the COVID-19 crisis, we try to think about how there's so much unknown. Most people--well, 100 percent of the people on the planet--are trying to figure this thing out, and we're doing so together.

As we thought about how to respond here at Stemilt, it was really about how do we share with our team that we're trying to figure this out? And how do we let them know what we know so they know that we're worried about it and we're working on it? And, in fact, if they have some ideas, [they should] feel free to chime in. We acknowledged that we didn't have all the answers, but we wanted to communicate our path to find the answers.

We would try to tell people what we knew, and doing so would communicate the fact that we care and that we are worried about the same things that they’re worried about. Just a little thing is that we would tell the entire company how many positives [COVID test results] we had for the week. Some folks might say, ‘well that was pointless,’ but what it did was engage our teams so that they knew that we knew what the numbers were and that we were trying to manage it. 

In the absence of [information], people usually will make up their own story. Ninety-nine percent of the time when people make up a story, it's negative. Granted, a lot of this stuff that we communicated wasn't positive information, but it was accurate, it was truthful, and it was timely. I think that's what people appreciate. It helps folks stay engaged without becoming cynical or overly fearful.

In the absence of [information], people usually will make up their own story. Ninety-nine percent of the time when people make up a story, it’s negative.

Ganaz: Many of us, including myself, were pretty sure COVID would be over in six weeks. You seemed to know or plan or communicate otherwise. What set you up to act that way?

Mathison: Well, we also thought it would be over soon. However, we decided that we've got to manage the business as well as manage this crisis, and we decided that we would develop a cadence of communication so that we all could go work in the business. When it first started, we said we’re going to meet every day at [a certain] time. We were all going to update each other with what we knew then. At first the meetings were an hour to two hours long. Then they turned into 10 minutes long and then into five minutes long. We just had a rhythm of how we were going to manage the crisis and the communication. 

We distributed the roles in terms of who's going to work with the teams, who's going to be drafting the messages, and who's going to be working with the health district and all the other regulatory bodies. Everyone had their piece of the issue, and then there is just the human element of how do we handle certain circumstances as they come up? Every time we had to solve a problem we thought, ‘Okay, how do we systematize the approach to the problem?’ Now, the answer might be different each time. But we need to have an approach to the discussion and communication of the issues as they come up. We ended up creating a system and a cadence of communication that helped us manage the rate and the pace of how we were communicating. 

We thought it would go away sooner, but after about six weeks we decided we’re just going to call this a marathon. This is not a sprint. I think there was this initial thought of, ‘We're going to sprint. We're going to flatten the curve,’ but ultimately it turned into a marathon that had peaks and valleys and uphills and downhills throughout the process.

Ganaz: What were some of the strengths that you've been developing over the years in your business and your leadership team that made you more prepared for this?

Mathison: As we think about our values and our cultural norms, one of our values is trust. We want to always build trust with whatever we do. Part of building trust is being vulnerable. 

A cultural norm [at Stemilt] is humble confidence. Some people think humility is being timid. That's why we put the qualifier on there as humble confidence. You can be humble and take your shoe off and bang on the table to get attention, but we really want people to use their voice. This cultural norm [is about] leading with humble confidence and personal accountability [by saying], ‘This is what we know. Here's what we think we should do. What are people’s thoughts?’ 

Those are some of the cultural aspects that helped us in this pandemic because the definition of humility is to be courageous enough to be curious about what the other person is thinking. 

The definition of humility is to be courageous enough to be curious about what the other person is thinking.

Ganaz: In the earliest days of the crisis, how did you and your team respond? Why did you respond in these ways?

Mathison: Early on in the pandemic, I would say we were fortunate and unfortunate. We were the first ag employer to have an outbreak in an H2A housing complex. Circumstances would have it that we had four people test positive over a four-day period and we decided just to press into the issue and get everyone tested the next day. Of course, the results came back a few days later and that was part of the challenge of this. But we learned how pervasive and aggressive the virus can spread, and that was a real sober dose of reality of what can happen. That energized the team [around the fact that] the earlier we respond, the better the ultimate outcome. 

A couple things that we battled in this crisis were the unknown and the unanswered. We felt like the sooner that we knew the answer, the better and more confidently we could respond. I think at the beginning there is this defensive mechanism: ‘Well, let's not test too many people because we might get too many positives’ or ‘What are we going to do if they come out positive?’ Really, the question is ‘What are you going to do if you don't test them and they are asymptomatic positive, and you do nothing?’ The problem could just become that much larger.

We were fortunate to have had that experience where four people were initially symptomatic and 73% of the population became positive within a ten-day period. Of the other handful of people, only about 50% of them demonstrated any symptoms. We really got to capture analytically those results, and we tried to share those with the industry as best as possible. We held a zoom call with labor advocates to discuss with them what we experienced and give them both sides of the story. We also did an open invitation to the tree fruit industry, my competitors and colleagues, about what happened to us and what we learned from it. That initial event that occurred in March kind of sobered us up to the real harsh realities and unexpected outcomes that the virus could create.

Ganaz: How did you decide how to communicate with your workforce and how transparent to be with them? 

Mathison: We felt like we wanted to be as timely and as accurate as possible with what we knew. You couldn't get together face-to-face, and so we're really thankful that we had worked with Ganaz and had developed a mechanism of communication. [Prior to the pandemic], this was just with our farm teams, and our farm teams are more spread out. The ability to have face-to-face meetings with them has always been relatively low. We were able to use the best practices from using the Ganaz tool to communicate to our farm teams. Then it was like, ‘We have to do this for all of our warehouse processing teams.’ And in fact, we'll do it with all of our team members, both seasonal temporary as well as our year-round staff. We turned the tool on to all of our Stemilt team members. We were able to close the gap really quickly in terms of being able to communicate to all of our team members.

Creating systems of communication that come from the bottom up as well as communicate down really help businesses become more resilient in the face of challenges.

Ganaz: How and why have you adapted your response as this crisis has continued?

Mathison: One thing we changed was our protocol from fewer, longer messages [to shorter messages]. We found it was just better to quickly update folks at least once a week. 

And in fact, we used the Ganaz tool to survey all of our team members. [We asked,] ‘How often do you want to hear from us?’  Initially, [their response] was ‘multiple times a week’. We surveyed the group again [later] and that turned into once a week as people became more familiar with the virus, how to respond, and how it impacted them every day. There was less of a need to have the more frequent communication. 

We used the Ganaz survey tool, and it was impressive. Out of about 3,000 people, within 48 hours we got 800 responses. That gives you very statistically relevant data to how to respond better than before.

Ganaz: What do you wish you had known before the pandemic?

Mathison: I'm not sure what I wish I would have known, but going through this pandemic has really taught us about how frail our whole supply chain is relative to the health and well-being of our team members. It doesn't take much of a disruption with the health of our team members to create a big disruption. 

I think this pandemic has taught us to think about risk management differently as well as the importance of the health management of our people. We've always been big advocates of health for our team members and we provide free primary health care and free prescription drugs for our team members, spouses, and their children. We find it's a great way to have great access to healthcare and it also reduces the overall cost because people catch the preventable stuff sooner. The pandemic really taught us how human-intensive the produce world is. 

Ganaz: Have there been any positive developments that came about as by-products of the crisis?

Mathison: One element that we did learn about is how to be concise, how to be transparent and how to effectively communicate in a rapidly changing environment. Produce is very sensitive to weather, so I think this is going to help us become better managers of our supply chain because, when we have fields that are in the Central Valley of California or down in the lower Columbia River Valley and things happen, how does that translate to orders and packing sheds and customers? We've had to become better communicators as a result of this.

Ganaz: What recommendations do you have for other employers?

Mathison: Within our supply chains and our organizational charts, you've got the breadth and scope of how the supply chain works and you have a hierarchical aspect of all of our organizational charts. At the lower levels of all our operations, there's a lot of activity going on. There are a lot of stories being made up. A lot of them are true; a lot of them are not true. A lot of them are based on facts, others not. Creating systems of communication that come from the bottom up as well as communicate down really help businesses become more resilient in the face of challenges. Also, when you get effective communication up, it helps leadership learn how to respond better. 

Whether it's through email or through Ganaz or some sort of mechanism of communicating with all your team members, getting clear, consistent communication out to all of your team members is super important. Historically we've relied on a lot of face-to-face line meetings, and there's always an element that is lost in translation or emphasized more or less based on the speaker of whoever is giving the line meeting.

Creating a different platform to communicate helps to strengthen communication, and then the face-to-face interactions can be more about asking questions and clarifying issues rather than communicating issues to folks. They're actually engaging in active listening by asking clarifying questions, and you get a deeper penetration of the message.

Ganaz: Thanks, West, for sharing your experiences and wisdom with us!