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Why People Should be the Center of Your Leadership Strategy

Jason Lioy

Jason Lioy

Chief People Officer at Dawn Foods

Jason Lioy, Dawn Foods

Sometimes the best leaders are humble, direct and to-the-point and this transparency can help build authentic connections in the workplace. 

Quartz Network Executive Correspondent Britt Erler sat down with Jason Lioy, Chief People Officer of Dawn Foods to discuss why people should be the center of your leadership strategy. 

Jason shares insight into: 

  • The benefits of direct, transparent leaders  
  • Why data insights should be part of the toolkit of every HR leader 
  • The importance of placing people top of mind in everything you do 

Quartz Network: Can you share a bit about your role at Dawn Foods? 

Jason Lioy: I’m a Chief People Officer with Dawn Foods. I’ve been with Dawn for about seven years, and I’ve been the Chief People Officer for the last two. I started as a Director of HR for our operations group, and progressed my way up through the ranks and assumed this role in March about two years ago.  

I have a pretty extensive history and background in Manufacturing organizations, ranging from manufacturing locomotives to CPAP devices to now sweet baked goods. This is by far the sweetest position I’ve had. That’s not to have a pun on it, but it is one of the best positions I’ve had. We’re a sweet baked goods manufacturer. We’re about a hundred years old, just celebrated our 100th anniversary last year. We service customers all over the globe. We have roughly 4000 team members. 

Quartz Network: How would you describe your overall leadership style and strategy 

Jason Lioy: My leadership style matches my perspective. I believe that leaders should be very direct, to the point, very transparent, very humble, and very honest with their workforces. That’s how I would describe myself as a leader. I’m very direct to the point. Some of that’s just how I was brought up, but a lot of it has its roots where I started. 

I started in a plant, working for a Plant Manager. He was very directly to the point with me on what he expected of me in terms of leadership, and that’s transcended every role I’ve had. It’s that style that you really don’t have a lot of time to explain things in a plant or operation. One, you maybe can’t hear the person talking. But two, you have to get production out. So people want you to be brief, be smart, and be gone. I mean, that’s pretty much what’s been expected of me my entire career. That’s what my style is adapted to. 

Quartz Network: What do you think makes a successful HR leader? 

Jason Lioy: If I were to go back to my first boss that I had, the way he described what he was expecting of me, he stated very simply, “Know the business, know the people, and never let them get surprised.” Those were his three expectations of me. If you break those things down, granted those can apply to every leader in every part of the organization, but as it relates to an HR leader, the HR leader, has got to be fluent in the P&L and fluent in how the business makes money just as much as in all the different inputs as relates to the people in the organization. So they have to have a very strong business acumen, strong financial acumen, but also have the other side of the house to where they understand the inputs as relates to people and the different elements that relate to people in organization because they go hand in hand. So HR executive that can do that, and balance both of those is going to be highly successful.  

I’ve benefited from having some very savvy leaders and savvy managers in my career that have taught me that. In fact, just being able to manipulate a spreadsheet and manipulate data for somebody, even at an executive level is incredibly important. Because data tells you a story, numbers tell you a story, and then be able to translate that with how it affects people. To me, that’s one of the single most important concept or important factor for an HR executive to have in their toolkit to be able to be a success. 

Quartz Network: You’ve shared that Dawn has a family-like company culture where its leaders are accessible to staff at all levels. How have you made this work in practice? 

Jason Lioy: It really starts with our founding brothers, Ron, Miles, and Steven. They developed this thing called the Circle of Excellence. It’s really a symbol that we use throughout our organization. You’ll see lots of circles throughout our organization. I’m wearing a team Dawn pin. The concept centers around people, products, and our customers. People are at the top of our Circle of Excellence. That’s a concept that, while it sounds kind of hokey because it’s a circle and people are at the top, it’s really how we drive our philosophy of how we treat our people. 

I indicated before that a successful leader has to understand the numbers, has to understand the inputs and outputs of the organization, but has to understand how the people fit in and how both they input and how the business outputs to people throughout the organization. So that, in our history, is what makes our company feel like a family company. We’re not owned by banks, we’re not owned by shareholders, we’ve got a family that has run us for the last 60 or so years. So we try to hold that feeling throughout organization that family feel. Even if we’re 4000 employees, the family takes a very hard stock into how they take an interest in everything that goes on throughout the world with Don and how it affects our team members.  

Quartz Network: Across levels of the organization, what role do employees play in influencing your company culture? 

Jason Lioy: We believe that everybody touches and plays a role in our culture. In this remote world, the way things have kind of come together between our people and our leadership has been fascinating to see the case study, and an improvement in our ability to connect with our people.  

Even though people might feel like remote has taken away that touch element to leadership by walking around and talking to people face to face, what it’s done for me and what it’s done for our leadership team is it has connected us with more people. It has been able to see us in a more real form, and us to be able connect with our people throughout the world of Dawn, and have them share experiences, and share how they’re connecting with their culture and their colleagues across the world at Dawn.  

Quartz Network: What advice would you give to other HR leaders and executives in this current climate? 

Jason Lioy: I’d say have a lot of patience. I think we are we are all struggling in one way or the other. We all have our demons that we deal with on a day-to-day basis through coming out of COVID. For me, if there’s one piece of advice, or there’s one thing I want to make sure that people walk away with is, if you want to be the top leader in the organization, your role as a leader is to do just that—to lead. How to lead doesn’t mean that you’ve got to be stoic and emotional, it means that you have to be emotional and you have to be humble. That means that you have to be open to what’s affecting you, and be okay with sharing that from time to time because that’s the way you help other people. When they know that you’re struggling, but you’re leading them, they will look to you with a stronger bond. 

I will never forget, during the middle of 2020, we are trying to get people to utilize our employee assistance program more. We were trying to understand what is preventing people from utilizing some of these resources, what’s preventing people from sharing their struggles. Well, I never forget. I was coming into the office and that previous week, I had a down week. Some folks that I knew that got affected by COVID. I was having a down week. My CEO asked me how I am doing because she saw me in the coffee room. She said, “How are you doing? Something seems off with you this week.” I shared what was going on. That next week, we had a global town hall. I asked her, “Can I share that story? So that I can get people to know that it’s okay not to be okay.” The feedback that I received was like, “Now I know it’s okay to not be okay, I know I can share my struggles because you shared your story.”  

So be humble. Don’t be a machine because we’re not machines, we’re people. That’s kind of my main mantra on why I am titled as the Chief People Officer and a Chief HR officer. Resources don’t have dreams, people have dreams. So that’s one thing that we strive to do is make sure that people can achieve their dreams at Dawn. To do that, they got to know who they’re connected to. They need to know what’s inside here to be able to do that. 

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