In the latest instalment of HC Insider’s Diversity Champion series, we sat down with Usha Kakaria-Cayaux, Chief Human Resources Officer at olam food ingredients (ofi).
In this interview, Usha shares her career journey, insights gained from a variety of leadership roles spanning HR, finance, and marketing, along with her pivotal role in driving inclusion, diversity, and equity (ID&E) efforts at ofi. We also talk about her approach to shaping ofi’s culture, emphasizing the value of individual initiative while maintaining a sense of shared responsibility.
HC Insider: Can you share your career journey leading up to your current role as Chief Human Resources Officer at ofi?
Usha Kakaria-Cayaux: I pursued a business degree at Queen’s University in Canada, focusing mainly on international business and marketing because I was very interested in global brands; both their human and commercial impact. After my third year, I went abroad for the summer to get some work experience and broaden my horizons and I fell in love. That resulted in an intentional change of course and I moved from Canada to the Netherlands.
The company I was working for as an intern offered me a permanent role in finance, but I realised quite quickly that it didn’t bring me joy and I still wanted to get into the marketing and PR space. I started my own business and that was when my entrepreneurial spirit was ignited. I enjoyed that tremendously as I learned so much. I then took a career break with my husband – we went travelling for almost a year.
When we got back to the Netherlands, I re-entered the workforce and I found a fit in recruitment. The marketing and sales side of bringing in new clients tied into the relationship building aspect of coaching people on their career choices was a great balance. A few years later I pursued my long-standing goal of working for a large global brand, taking a targeted approach with a few companies that I was passionate about, leading me to an opportunity at Nike in Europe. This marked my entry into HR.
Skipping several years forward, I progressed in HR through various roles, gaining more responsibility and depth. I purposely transitioned from Nike to Heineken, where I was able to take on a global role in talent management without moving country and disrupting my family and my husband’s career – there I eventually took on my first HR business partner job. Later, Heineken provided my first international assignment, moving us from the Netherlands to the U.S. where I led HR for the America’s Exports business.
After spending six years at Heineken, I joined The Estée Lauder Companies Inc., where I held global business partner roles across functions and regions, and finally served as Chief of Staff to the Executive Vice President HR. This progression ultimately brought me to my role as Chief Human Resources Officer at ofi – where I’ve been for over a year now.
HC insider: You worked on the HR strategy at The Estée Lauder Companies Inc. Could you share a specific challenge you dealt with in that role and how you tackled it?
Usha: Whether you're dealing with a workforce of 6,000 or 60,000, HR strategy shares common elements, especially when you have a broad geographical footprint.
For HR strategy, the key is to deeply understand the business — knowing the drivers, revenue streams, and levers for growth, cost efficiency, and effectiveness. I believe HR strategy should seamlessly align with the overall business strategy, serving as a catalyst or enabler. I've learned to avoid a standalone HR strategy; HR’s role must be inextricably linked to the core ambition of the company. It serves as a guide for implementing people-centric processes, talent management, IDE and other HR processes and policies that accelerate the delivery of the business strategy.
The most important thing I have learnt is simplify, simplify, simplify. If you speak to the business in HR jargon, you will lose people. It's crucial to communicate in the language of the business to gain credibility and drive strategy to execution.
Maintaining focus is also crucial. It's tempting to pursue numerous initiatives and over-engage, but true impact comes from concentrating efforts on a select few. Your ability to pick two or three things and do them well has a greater impact on the business and you’ll be remembered for doing that. The other key thing is piloting initiatives. Piloting allows you to test on a smaller scale, reducing cost and stakeholder management and, if successful, facilitating a more seamless global rollout.
HC Insider: Your leadership roles span different industries, covering areas like HR, finance, and marketing. How has this varied background shaped the way you approach human resources and leadership overall?
Usha: Regardless of the function, business, industry, or geography, I believe the fundamental principle of leadership is acknowledging the importance of having two ears and one mouth. You should disproportionately listen, not just for show, but to genuinely understand. It's challenging to provide direction without a deep understanding of the situation. So, as a leader, my first and foremost priority is to listen, seek to understand, and ask critical questions.
The second aspect is recognizing that there's no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. That sounds cliché but it is hard to do. Tailoring strategies to individuals, teams, and businesses is vital. It's tempting to apply a successful formula from one experience to another, but that can lead to failure. Taking the time to adapt strategies to the specific context is a crucial aspect of leadership.
Lastly, leadership is all about people, and each person is unique with their own story and journey. Getting to know individuals on a personal level makes it easier to understand differences and adjust accordingly. Some of my most significant achievements have come from understanding the stories behind the people. Empathy is a powerful tool, and understanding someone else's story fosters a more compassionate and successful approach.
As you grow, recognizing your own strengths and using them to have a positive impact is crucial. Conforming to others' expectations can hinder job satisfaction, and as you progress in leadership, being comfortable in your own skin becomes essential. Embracing who you are and leveraging your unique qualities is what sets you apart.
HC Insider: In your current role, you lead the inclusion, diversity, and equity efforts at ofi. Could you talk about why IDE is crucial in today's business world and how it fits with ofi's overall strategy.
Usha: At ofi, we are intentional about calling it ID&E, leading with the "I" because creating an inclusive environment is paramount. Inclusion ensures everyone has a seat at the table and feels they belong. Diversity follows, ensuring that every unique voice at the table is heard, bringing forth diverse perspectives and ideas. Equity completes the cycle by actively considering and incorporating every input into decision-making.
Olam Group was co-founded by Sunny Verghese, a fantastic leader who helped build the company from the ground up. It grew with a predominantly highly skilled, and entrepreneurial workforce, initially mainly male, reflecting the nature of the business, with its origins in farming and trading in Africa and Asia. The ofi business was born out of Olam Group, with a clear focus on becoming a purpose-led integrated value-added ingredients and solutions company. Our dynamic customer base and widespread operational communities demand a diverse talent pool and that’s a journey we’re on right now, delivering real change and impact while honouring our heritage.
Diversity aligns with our business strategy as it directly impacts our ability to holistically engage with customers, communities, suppliers, farmers, and other stakeholders effectively. It is critical that our workforce reflects those that we serve so we can create meaningful connections and offer innovative approaches to how we do business. Research consistently supports the idea that creative disruption often stems from diverse perspectives.
Gender diversity is a specific focus area, recognizing opportunities for improvement. We're actively working on this through an integrated approach across hiring, promotions, talent development, and multiple internal initiatives. We have set up regional ID&E councils, so we have a consistent approach that is localized to address the challenges and opportunities that vary by region.
Finally, you want to work for a company where you feel like you can look up and see people that look like you. That then gives you ambition to be the next person at that level. Although there's work still to do, we're intentionally placing diverse talent in key roles, understanding it's a journey that spans multiple years. The board's strong support and our CEO's advocacy emphasize that this initiative is not just an HR effort; it's a strategic business imperative aligned with external expectations from customers and stakeholders.
HC Insider: Can you tell us about a specific success or achievement in your career that you are proud of?
Usha: I realize that accomplishments are often an accumulation of lots of little impactful moments rather than one significant event. I've always aimed to operate with the philosophy of focusing on small, continuous impacts rather than searching for one big achievement to define my career.
However, one moment that stands out is a small but meaningful interaction. Last year, someone I had worked with at Heineken reached out to me after I joined ofi. That person recalled a conversation we had in Amsterdam a decade ago, where I offered career advice that had a strong bearing on their professional journey. The satisfaction derived from realizing the positive impact I had made was truly fulfilling.
Mentoring – both formal and informal – has also been a consistent part of my career. I've actively participated in mentoring programs within companies and currently, we're working on expanding specific initiatives at ofi. It's a form of giving back as I recognize the courage it takes to seek guidance.
HC Insider: In your current role at ofi, you're responsible for developing the company's culture. How do you encourage a culture that values individual initiative while also keeping a sense of shared responsibility.
Usha: First and foremost, I want to emphasize that no single function or individual is solely responsible for shaping a company's culture. Culture is the collective result of how each member behaves, interacts, and cares for one another daily. It's a shared responsibility for everyone at ofi.
There are two approaches to culture – some businesses let it evolve organically, while others, like us at ofi, choose to be intentional about it. We've been deliberate about defining our purpose, aligning our values, and establishing ways of working that contribute to the culture we want. Our intentional efforts revolve around our purpose, to be the change for good food and a healthy future, guiding our behaviour, values, and collaborative ways of working.
Our culture values individual initiative and embodies an entrepreneurial spirit. Everyone is empowered to make decisions, take ownership of their responsibilities, and feel like a true business owner. Simultaneously, when working within product groups or functions, there's a strong emphasis on collective success, ensuring that every team contributes to the broader success of the business.
Maintaining this balance requires continuous intentionality. We're committed to perpetuating the entrepreneurial spirit that has been a differentiator for the business. The HR lens plays a crucial role in this. We recently evolved our incentive scheme to ensure alignment with the success of our teams and the overall business.
An important term at our business that reflects our direction of travel is "one ofi." This concept demonstrates our journey as a business of five distinct product verticals – cocoa, coffee, dairy, nuts and spices. Our shift to becoming a solutions-driven, customer-centric and purpose-led organization necessitates collaboration among these products to provide added value to our customers through our complementary portfolio.
Authenticity is also key to nurturing our culture. Employees should feel that they can bring their true selves to the workplace. During my own interview process with ofi, I felt that I was embraced for being me and I thought, “that’s a place where I can work”.
Discover more Diversity Champions:
- Yuki Ghantous, Japan Country President at BHP
- Salam Safi, Vice President Human Resources at Darling Ingredients
- Ephi Banaynal dela Cruz, Co-founder and CEO, Context Nature, and Chair Emeritus Steering Committee for Responsible Minerals Initiative
- Renata Costa Zingre, Managing Director, Iron Ore Sales Europe and North America at Vale