With innovation paramount, Kerry Graduates tapped their creativity and flexibility during COVID-19
Kerry’s Graduate Programme, which places recent graduates in mentored roles across the organisation, is designed to train and develop early career members of the food and beverage industry. Several current Kerry leaders got their start as Graduates, including Edmond Scanlon, Kerry Group CEO and Executive Director. But the nearly 50-year old programme does more than feed the talent pipeline—it also helps Kerry accelerate innovation.
During COVID-19, when workflows were disrupted and consumption patterns shifted overnight, Kerry Graduates helped teams to pull together, overcome new challenges and expand solution sets.
“There was an element of ‘all hands to the deck’”, says Deirdre Smyth, Kerry Vice President of Global RD&A Integrated Technology Systems. “Our Graduates’ eagerness to throw themselves into new situations was much appreciated throughout 2020 and ongoing in 2021, and together as a team we’ve reached new levels of creativity and innovation”.
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Following a proven formula for innovation
By regularly populating ideation sessions with people from a broad range of experiences—such as placing a Graduate from the UK next to a senior scientist from Singapore—Kerry automatically primes its innovation environment for success.
According to a recent McKinsey report titled Diversity Wins, “There is ample evidence that diverse and inclusive companies are more likely to make better, bolder decisions—a critical capability [during a] crisis. For example, diverse teams have been shown to be more likely to radically innovate and anticipate shifts in consumer needs and consumption patterns—helping their companies to gain a competitive edge”.
To maximise this advantage, all team members must have the courage to think big and speak up—something that can be a challenge early in a person’s career.
Growing the talent to innovate
Kerry remained agile at the onset of COVID-19, when challenges ranging from supply chain shortages to plant closures were rattling the industry. Many of the already on-site Kerry Graduates helped facilitate shifts in workflow, using their digital savvy to ensure teammates were set up for virtual meetings and chats, says Alice Bryant, a Kerry Foods R&D Technologist Graduate in Hyde, UK.
But Graduates took this role one step further, turning basic communication devices into connection-building tools. For example, ice breakers—a sometimes goofy technique long used by teams to increase comfort during collaboration sessions—were taken to another level by Graduates during remote sessions, says Bryant, who started one virtual meeting by asking her teammates to create self-portraits out of biscuits and another by soliciting favourite vacation memories.
Fostering connection to increase collaboration
While challenging colleagues to a biscuit decorating competition may not sound like productive meeting fodder, it helped break down barriers and create a judgement-free zone for ideation. With team interactions limited by social distancing, these sessions were key to creating a deeper connection with teammates and opening up space for big ideas to develop.
"Prior to joining the working world, I had a traditional expectation that a large company like Kerry would be hierarchical and that people with more experienced would be unapproachable”, says Esther Babatunde, an R&D Graduate with Kerry Foods in Wakefield, UK. “But that hasn’t been the case at all. The barriers brought on by Covid have led to more inclusion and connection, which makes for a more cohesive team. Before innovation sessions, these activities encourage us to relax and speak freely, which helps usher in new ideas".
That sentiment was echoed throughout the graduate cohort.
“Being comfortable in my team allowed me the freedom and support to try new ideas and ingredients”, says Sarah Kelly, a Technology Innovation RD&A Graduate with Kerry who spent much of the last year working on the new Kerrymaid meltable vegan slice. “It also benefited me hugely when collaborating with many other teams and functions globally across Kerry technologies including food protection, protein, hydrocolloid and taste”.
Learning in an untraditional work environment
When Babatunde learned, six months into her work with Kerry, that customarily an R&D manager would have sat just feet away from her at the lab bench, she was surprised. “Without having been at Kerry before social distancing, it hadn’t occurred to me that I would have had to share all this space,” says Babatunde.
Because some sites had to put in place new shifts to ensure social distancing in the lab, scientists—including Graduates—often worked alone, which required dedication, courage and drive, says Smyth. Graduates also took on new roles as needed. For example, Kelly often did door-to-door drop-offs, bringing vegan slice samples from the nearby Coleraine factory to the homes of key stakeholders so they could review and assess different iterations.
By experiencing these pandemic-related challenges so early in their careers, our graduates have the advantage of having already learned different ways of working and adapting, which is building resiliency and resourcefulness that will benefit them for years to come. They also developed the kind of deep and lasting connections that can only come from shared experiences—even trying ones.
“There is a deep sense of camaraderie amongst the group,” says Babatunde. “Because of Covid, we have had to be more creative in finding ways to keep the team spirit alive and new ideas flowing.”