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Scott Nielsen — Cultivating Culture

September 16, 2021
Scott Nielsen

Company culture is the glue that holds the organization together. It includes the norms, the values that are expected. 

Does your company culture align with the values of today's workforce? Scott Nielsen, chief culture and talent officer at Alltech, joins us on Ag Future to discuss the importance of identifying company culture and developing an organization's most important asset — its team. 

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Scott Nielsen hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.


Tom:                        Welcome to Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Join us as we explore the challenges and opportunities facing the global food supply chain and speak with experts working to support a Planet of Plenty™.


                                Scott Nielsen is chief culture and talent officer at Alltech. Scott has experience in human resources policy development and administration, benefits plan design and administration, employee relations, recruiting and staffing, compensation, training and development and employment law compliance with an emphasis on strategy, systems and organization design. At Alltech, it’s his mission to cultivate the growth and development of the company’s most important asset: its people.


                                So, our focuses for this conversation are the raw materials — the talent and culture — and why these things matter to the well-being and success of an organization.


                                Welcome, Scott    


Scott:                       Thank you, Tom. I’m delighted to be here.


Tom:                        And so, just to get our bearings, Scott, are culture and talent synonymous with human resources?


Scott:                       Generally, yes. The profession of human resources has evolved from personnel management to human resources to human capital. Now, you may see many companies using the term “people” instead of HR. Here at Alltech, our focus is on the fact that our culture and the talent of our people are strategic contributors to our success. So, for us, culture and talent can and should be cultivated and developed and can be a very meaningful part of our team members’ experience here.


Tom:                        Well, Scott, we're living in extraordinary times right now. Some of it very puzzling and we want to tap into your expertise to try to better comprehend the fact that there are some 10 million job openings out there in the U.S. right now, but about 8.5 million people are unemployed. These numbers just don't seem to add up. Lots of jobs. Too few takers. What's going on?


Scott:                       Well, you're right. It doesn't really add up. And in fact, the latest numbers that I think I saw this weekend were almost close to 11 million positions now, which is a record. So, to start, Tom, this is a very complex issue. There are a lot of factors at play. Not just the pandemic that we've been going through here. We know that childcare costs are making it difficult for parents to rejoin the workforce. Primarily, that's affecting women and single parents more than others. We also have learned that as people have been able to work remotely or have been unemployed for a period of time, many have been reevaluating what the work they do means to them and how it fits into their values.


                                So, I believe people want to contribute and provide for themselves and their families. However, they also want to feel like they've contributed something meaningful [to the workforce]. We’re seeing some geographic shifts in the workforce as well. Some people need to, or because of a loss of a job, or simply because they want to, are relocating to have a better quality of life. You know, Tom, we may be seeing or hearing comments that people just don't want to work. I don't think that's the case. I think people want to be more purposeful in what they're doing and the type of life they want to live.


Tom:                        Do you think the pandemic has brought about some sort of a reset in that respect?


Scott:                       I think in some ways it has because, again, people have had a situation where they can take a look at what is meaningful to them. And in some cases, it's been very difficult and very challenging for individuals who have had to figure their way through this difficult time. And what we're seeing is that… You know, I wouldn't call it a reluctance to get back to work. I would think of it more as a reluctance to go back to how things might have been, recognizing that they see that there might be something that is more meaningful to them.


Tom:                        Well, we're talking about a lot of job openings out there. What are three or four “most important” first steps that a hiring manager should take before beginning that hiring process?


Scott:                       I would say the first thing is to just be very clear about what the role is going to be and that sounds very simple. But fundamentally, we need to think about work from the perspective of the value that it adds as opposed to simply a job to fill. Perhaps a manager is looking to fill a position that has been vacated for whatever reason, and it may be a matter of, “Well, let's just replace that position.”


                                 And the reality is there may be an opportunity to rethink how that work can be done now. Can it be done more effectively in a different way? Can we align it with other objectives? So, being very clear on what that is, understanding what the needs are. And of course, opportunities and business needs are changing every day and that may create different opportunity for where we focus those resources.


Tom:                        How important are internal programs and initiatives to developing talent along their career path?


Scott:                       Well, as individuals, we never stop growing. We can identify some of those experiences that will create a more rich journey for the person. One of the things that we’re starting to look at very closely is the idea of the employee experience. You know, how are we engaging people even before they come onboard with us as we're in the recruiting and interviewing process? Once we do make a decision, how do we onboard them and make sure that they understand what the mission and the vision of the company are? I know those are phrases that might get tossed around, but it's actually very important for somebody to be able to align their personal interests with what the company is doing. That creates a lot of value. And then of course, you know, we have any type of educational programs or learning opportunities. These don't necessarily have to be formal programs. They can be job enrichment, where an individual expresses an interest or a manager notices that an individual might be able to expand their skillset. And so, they do something to help work through that.


                                 And then another piece of that is telling the story of all of those initiatives. For example, here at Alltech, we have a number of things that have been part of the culture from early on that truly create some of those development opportunities. We have a Back2Basics program. We also have a mini-MBA program that individuals might get tied into. And those are excellent opportunities for the individual to grow and develop and also create tremendous value for the company. So, that's probably one of the greatest opportunities we have, to find ways to continually encourage employees to develop and to give them those opportunities.


Tom:                        When you first walk into an organization, you're like a stranger in a strange land and there is a lot of orientation that has to go on. Does a good manager practice patience with that person and give them the space and time, you know, a week or so, a couple of weeks, to just become oriented, to find their sea legs, as it were?


Scott:                       I think it can go both ways there, Tom. Realistically, we all know that when somebody is joining it's because we have a need and we need to have them be productive. At the same time, we can't expect them to be productive right off the bat. And there are a lot of things that an employee needs to learn just to get a frame of reference of the organization. So, yes, absolutely a manager needs to have some patience with that. I would suggest that what a manager also is going to benefit from, and the employee more particularly will benefit from, is to have a plan.


                                So, what does the first day look like? What does the first week look like? Who are we going to connect this person to? Do we have a mentor, for example, that we can put them with, whether it's even just a job mentor or whether it's someone just to help them get to know the company a little better? How can we create some of the relationships that we know they will need to have to do their job well? Let's figure out a plan to put some of those things in place so that when they first show up, we kind of know what's in store for them. They can understand and, as you put it, get their legs underneath them and move forward and hopefully rise to productivity more quickly.


Tom:                       Culture has always been an important feature of the workplace and it can be a minefield, from hierarchy to humor.


                               Talk to us about company culture and why managers and owners need to pay particular attention to it.


Scott:                       Well, it's important to note that the company culture exists whether you pay attention to it or not. Culture consists of the ways we interact with each other, the activities or results we put emphasis on, how we recognize and support each other. Just a lot of things that are coming into play with that. Just as an example, growing up out west, my father had a small orchard of peach and pear trees, and we needed to irrigate the orchard. Now, of course, we had the furrows between the trees. But during the water turns, we had to make sure that the furrows weren’t clogged with leaves or other debris and make sure the water got to the end of the row.


                                Similarly, if a manager isn't thinking about the cultural attributes of their operations or how their people are behaving, if they're not paying attention to those things, they may give clear objectives for the work, but find that things aren't happening the way they would like it to be. So, I think that from that perspective, a manager needs to think about the organization and just be aware of what's happening. I would also suggest that culture is the glue that holds the organization together. It includes the norms, the values that are expected. We have to realize, every time we bring a new person into the workgroup, they're coming in with their own cultural norms and values. And that's one of the reasons that [carefully] selecting new hires is so important.


Tom:                        Let's drill down just a bit further and talk about micro cultures. What is a micro culture, and how do these micro cultures take on different meanings depending on one's role and department within a company?


Scott:                       I define micro culture as the culture of a workgroup. We know that within an organization, we may have a company culture. And that is absolutely important; for us to be as clear as we can on what the culture is that we want within the organization. At the same time, since culture is influenced by how individuals interact with each other, the behaviors, the norms that they have, you might find a group having a little different culture. You know, one group may be a little more focused on speed, if you will, whereas another is a little more focused on accuracy because of the type of work that they're doing. And those are cultural differences. So, that's a bit of how we get a difference in the cultures.


                                One other thought there is that we need to help managers and supervisors understand just how much of an impact their behaviors and interactions with their team members have on that micro culture. It can truly make a meaningful difference for the employer, the team member in how they contribute, and what they do, and how much they enjoy being a part of that team.


Tom:                       So, it remains important to lead by example.


Scott:                       Absolutely. Always has been the case. And oftentimes, a supervisor or a manager may not recognize that every piece of their example matters.


Tom:                        What can a team leader do to make sure the company culture has extended to their team and to establish a positive micro culture within their own team and one that ensures that everybody is on the same page and has the same goal?


Scott:                       Let me kind of back up and describe culture as a tapestry. This is the way that I've viewed culture for many years now, is it’s like a tapestry. If you think about a beautiful tapestry hanging on a wall, there are many different colors, patterns and designs in a tapestry. However, there are certain colors or designs — themes — that flow through the entire tapestry.


                                 And I think that as we look at culture, we need to think about what I'll call the thread running through the tapestry. And so, team leaders need to understand that broad picture, the whole tapestry, and how does my piece of the organization, the team that I'm leading, how does the work that they're doing fit into all of this and then tie that together. One of the key ways to do that is with communication; such an important part of what a team leader does.


                                 Be able to create a common language and understanding and make sure that everyone understands where are we going, how is this work aligning with the objective of the company. And the overall culture ties it together, whereas these micro cultures and the managers, the team leaders, are able to influence it at a very direct level.


Tom:                        As you described just a moment ago, one team might have emphasis on speed, another a deliberate focus on accuracy. So, various departments can have competing needs, agendas, ideas. Is there an approach to managing these various dynamics to ensure constructive outcomes?


Scott:                       Right. So, the differences are going to create a little bit of… I don't want to use the word “conflict.” I'd rather use the word “friction.” And along with thinking about friction is the whole idea of traction. So, too often we might think about some of these things as negatives. And the reality is that it's okay for us to have some of those differences, as long as we understand how they influence and help achieve the objectives across the organization. So, we can't really take a one-size-fits-all type approach to this.


                                 And coming back to the idea of a tapestry, if everything were the same, from my opinion, it would be a little bit of a boring tapestry. Rather, we need to have some of those differences. And the method for a team leader to do that again clearly comes back to understanding where are we going as an overall organization and how does this piece of the business that I have some responsibility for, how does that tie in and help the entire organization succeed?


Tom:                        Okay. Let's turn in a slightly different direction and talk about family operations and farming. These family operations actually account for about 96% of the farms in the United States. And it might seem that legacy is built in, but is that true? Does legacy need to be cultivated and how best to accomplish that mindset?


Scott:                       So, interestingly, a number of years ago, I did a little research on family transition, generational transition of businesses. And as we know, oftentimes, there's a big challenge associated with that, and many family operations struggle to continue for multiple generations. One of the strongest ways, both from what I learned and what I think we see with a lot of operations today, is just always, always tell the story. So, you know, why did the founder start and develop, in this case the farm, for example? You know, was it simply a matter of need or was there some other interest associated? Why was it continued? What are the challenges that have been overcome? And what are the accomplishments that have been achieved as it goes forward? Storytelling is by far the best way to maintain an ingrain the culture in an organization and to help that legacy come about.


Tom:                        Scott, I know that you have your own talent as a singer and a member of a barbershop harmony society. And I'm sure your colleagues and other employees bring their own to the table. Is it to a company's advantage to support and encourage talents and passion outside the workplace? And if so, why?


Scott:                       So, yes, this gets to the idea of recognizing a whole person. I have for a number of years been concerned with the idea that perhaps — I don't think everyone — but perhaps some organizations think that when someone walks through the door, they need to leave part of themselves outside the door. And that just doesn't feel natural to me because I don't do that. Now, I don't sing in the office. Some may like it. Some may not. But being able to find joy and fulfillment in an activity outside of the workplace definitely influences how someone is inside. We know the talents are not unidimensional. We know what when people can find that joy and meaning in their lives, regardless of where they find it, if they find it in their work and outside, it just allows them to be more energized and productive overall.


Tom:                        I'm sure you keep an eye on current trends, what's going on in the field. And I'm just wondering what of those trends that you're watching excites you and gives you confidence in the future.


Scott:                       Well, yes, there are a number of things that have been happening. One that really comes to mind is that I think we have to recognize that leaders are making significant efforts to be listening and to be empathetic. We understand that there have been a lot of challenges for many different reasons and different ways over the last period of time. And so, I think we've got some good focus there.


                                One of the things that really has jumped out at me is just the idea that there's an entire population of people that we now refer to as essential workers that have been getting the spotlight because they are so important and so integral to making our society run. I mean, from our perspective, that includes the folks in the agribusiness and associated companies. That is just so important. Additionally, I think we've got some attention that is being focused on inclusion, equity and diversity. We know that those have been issues for a number of years. And I think it's just good what we’re seeing some additional focus and hopefully some continued change there as we move forward.


Tom:                        All right. Scott Nielson is chief culture and talent officer at Alltech. Thank you so much, Scott.


Scott:                      Thank you. Glad to be here.


Tom:                        I'm Tom Martin. Thanks for listening. This has been Ag Future. Presented by Alltech. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts.