Ode to a struggling industry

(Transcription of a panel presentation given by Ngaio Hotte at the Leading Change Canada Emerging Leaders Forum on March 25, 2013.)

“The industry is suffering from an image problem.”

Who has heard this before?

This statement concerns me because it externalizes a problem. It suggests that what needs to be done is just to speak more loudly, in a sense, until whoever perceives the problem is convinced to change their mind.

In fact, an image problem may be a sign that your business needs to improve. See the problem not as something to debate or defend yourself against; see it as an opportunity to look at how you can do better.

My generation, the Millennials, is both an important human resource for businesses and an important consumer demographic. And for our generation, these two roles are inseparable. Millennials are the fastest growing segment of Canada’s workforce and by 2025, we will represent 75 per cent of the global workforce.

We were raised with the concept of voting with our dollars to show support for products that we believe in and we have extended that concept to voting with our hours. We spend our time working for businesses that we want to support.

If young people aren’t interested in working for your company, they are also probably not buying your product or, if they are, they are looking for alternatives. A perceived image problem offers useful information about how a growing (and maturing) segment of consumers, investors and skilled workers views your product.

There are many words that describe the values of our generation: sustainability, transparency, balance, respect. But in order to learn and adapt, both to a new and broader range of values, businesses need to adopt a practice of humility and self-awareness. They need to be willing to ask questions, accept feedback and learn to do better.

Self-awareness means accepting that you don’t have all the answers and learning. It can mean being willing to challenge your own beliefs and assumptions and even working to unlearn things and change patterns that no longer serve you. It also involves surrendering – letting go of your need to feel like you are in control. Importantly, becoming self-aware demands that you place humility above hubris, and a higher value on truth than on your ability to rationalize and justify your own actions and decisions.

I’d like to share one example that illustrates the importance of self awareness in business.

This example is from an industry that has suffered arguably the most severe image problem of the past half century: the Atlantic Canadian sealing industry. Over the last decade alone, the sealing industry has seen its landed value fall from $35 million in 2006, to less than $2 million in 2012. Why? Primarily, because the global public is concerned about the way in which seals are killed.
Starting with the EU in 2009, then Russia in 2011 and Taiwan in 2013, Canada has watched key markets shut their borders to seal products.

But over this same period, we’ve also witnessed a trend that could conceivably have been the sealing industry’s salvation: the sustainable food movement. Demand is strong and growing for foods that have low chemical and energy inputs and are free of antibiotics and added hormones. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic meat from animals that were raised in a natural environment and killed in a humane manner.

From an environmental standpoint, the seal hunt is sustainable: according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the harp seal population is at its highest level in 60 years. And seals require none of the inputs of conventional livestock. The sealing industry also generates economic activity for remote and northern coastal communities in Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador.

The sealing industry could have looked at how to improve hunting practices and then capitalized on consumer preferences for sustainable food. Instead, the industry focused its efforts on funding research to prove that what they were doing was right and marketing efforts to promote their products overseas. In pursuing efforts to convince the public that they were right, rather than accepting feedback and looking for ways to improve their practices, the sealing industry missed a golden opportunity.

Just think about it from your own perspective: would you rather work for a sealing industry association or for a sustainable seafood labelling organization, like OceanWise?

This just one example at the industry level that shows how important self awareness can be to business. The art of asking “how can we do better?” can help to make your business and your product more appealing not only to younger workers, but to a more diverse workforce, including women and people from different cultures and backgrounds. Businesses that adopt a practice of self awareness will be more prepared to adapt to new and changing values of global workers and consumers in the years and decades to come.