Celebrity cook and entrepreneur Annabel Langbein doesn’t take no for an answer. When she was told publishing her own cookbook was not possible, Annabel forged ahead anyway. Today, she has one of the most successful publishing houses in her native New Zealand, with books published in nine languages. And that TV series she was told would never get off the ground? It’s now in more than 90 countries.
With so much to talk about with this successful food entrepreneur — from retaining global distribution rights and control of your brand to the latest innovations in food to our global addiction to cooking shows — I had to literally cherry-pick her incredible insights. As an avid cook myself who considers “breaking bread” an essential team-building activity, I sought-out Annabel’s insights on what food can teach us about leadership, leadership styles and why potluck lunches at the office are needed.
Q: Food for me conjures up images of dinner parties and family gatherings, bringing people together in a shared experience. But strengthening the bonds of community are not the only benefits of gathering around the dinner table. What can food teach us about leadership?
A: The heart of a strong business is its culture, and leadership is about forging a culture around a shared vision and empowering a community of like-minded workers. At its heart, leadership is all about relationship-building and valuing people so they can achieve their best and feel a sense of participation and belonging. If you think about it, you can have a ton of meetings with people but you don’t feel like you’ve really got to know them until you’ve had a meal together. Turn the boardroom table into a dining table and watch the interactions start to happen.
Food is the new social. It starts the conversation and opens doors, all while enjoying a common thread — food — that’s both safe and interesting. Eating together is like an extension of the informal water-cooler moments that so quickly and easily create bonds and spark relationships. Creating mechanisms that enable eating together and sharing are key to your business culture.
Team-building and cross-disciplinary teams seem to be at the core of innovation. Any suggestions from the kitchen on how to build better teams?
Increasingly people’s lives are becoming more insular. With the virtual world taking up more of our focus and the pace of life becoming more demanding, many people are physically connecting with fewer people each day and often in a less meaningful way. Technology is replacing a good work-life balance with a blend of both interspersed throughout the day. And increasingly, for many people work is their life. By the time they have made the daily commute there’s often not a lot of downtime left in the day. It’s a weekly rhythm of get home, make dinner, go to bed, get up, have breakfast, go to work… and repeat. So work colleagues and the work environment are things that become very important. Often work will be the only place where people can get social interactions and find a sense of community.
So we are seeing more and more office buildings with purposely-designed eating areas offering really good, healthy food, encouraging staff not to eat at their desk, and to instead have downtime where they can connect with others. More and more you see staff setting up shared lunches and morning teas, and running bake-off competitions around ‘cake of the week’ and the like. Things like this become team-building exercises. It’s an extension of the culture and a means to create links between people from different parts of the organization.
Annabel Langbein Media has a campaign around the idea of potluck. It’s based on the idea that everyone likes to feel they contribute. Whether for office morning tea or lunch or celebrating staff birthdays, potluck gives everyone a chance to have a sense of participation, reinforcing a sense of community.
How can food preparation inspire innovation?
The innovation process is all about experimentation and looking at the known in new ways, often combining elements in surprisingly revolutionary ways to solve a problem.
In the same way, a good cook will understand the basics, but from there can improvise and experiment. So often you haven’t got all the ingredients on hand to make what you were planning, so you have to be resourceful and substitute. It’s the lack of something that inspires you to be resourceful and innovative. So innovation is a mindset. It’s that same approach that you take into business. Some of the best innovations happen when people don’t have everything at their fingertips. But to be innovative requires confidence. It’s only then that you are prepared to experiment.
What innovations in the food industry excite you the most?
I get really excited about innovations in the food industry that help drive a sustainable future and cut down our consumption and reliance on carbon and resources. Here are three to look at:
- FreshPaper by Fenugreen (www.fenugreen.com), is a magical product that addresses the enormous yet often overlooked global challenge of food waste (twenty-five per cent of the world’s food supply is lost to spoilage). It’s such a simple innovation: an organic paper that is infused with spices that prevents food from rotting and keeps food fresh for two to four times longer than normal.
- Investing heavily with worms is the basis of ByoEarth. Founded by Maria Rodriguez, this Guatemalan company (www.byoearth.com) is replacing chemical fertilizer, cleaning up trash, and giving poor women jobs and a path out of poverty. They recently teamed up with TechnoServe to build three fertilizer-production facilities owned and operated entirely by women in rural villages.
- Merdacotta is an innovative new recycling product developed in Italy that takes the waste product of dairying and cow dung, and turns it into useful household items, from flower pots to furniture. The waste goes through a biogas generator, which extracts methane to produce energy and leaves behind dry, odorless dung. Then it’s mixed with straw, farm waste and Tuscan clay, and molded into something new.
How did your own entrepreneurial career start?
Leaping in feet first! When I was in my twenties I decided to publish a book of my recipes that I had been writing for a national magazine. It didn’t occur to me to go to a publisher. And then once I had started on the journey I was hooked. Twenty-two books and three international television series later, I’m still hooked!
What are the challenges of building a global business from a smaller geographic market?
Coming from New Zealand there is this real can-do attitude. Like the USA, NZ is an entrepreneurial economy. We aren’t constrained by massively heirarchical structures and we continually push the boundaries of conventional thinking. Because New Zealand is a relatively small economy, you have to be resourceful. On a global level, every entrepreneur is pretty much in the same boat, trying to figure out how to use new technologies to reach a wider market. You also have to work out how your value proposition can be relevant, resonate and connect, transcending different cultures.
What was the most critical business decision you’ve had to make and why?
There’s a great saying that for every successful business someone made a brave decision. I remember sitting around our dining room table with our kids saying we were going to make a big investment in my first TV series and if it didn’t come off we would all be eating potatoes and not going on any holidays. The kids said, “GO MUM!” But no one knew if it would work. I was an unknown with an unproven idea. And then when the series sold into more than 90 countries there was this real sense of achievement and accomplishment, that eureka ‘WE DID IT’ moment. It’s so important to back yourself.
The thing I have realized most recently is that decision-making is an ongoing process. It doesn’t necessarily get any easier, there will always be challenges, and accepting and understanding that this is the norm is one of the most important things to understand. It’s easy to think that no one else has these challenges, but it’s not the case. The worst thing you can do is NOT to make a decision. That’s how you get stuck. Even if it’s the wrong decision, it’s put you in a process of evolution.
We’re addicted to cooking shows — whether for the food or to watch the egos in action! Thinking about how a chef orchestrates the team in her/his kitchen, how would you describe your own leadership style?
For me, leadership is about having a vision that empowers other people. After all these years I’ve learned the best thing I can do is to surround myself with a small, smart team of clever, passionate people whose skills complement mine. Each person enhances our business on different levels. They are better/ smarter/ more skilled than me in their area of expertise or passion. That way I can focus on my best skills and what I enjoy most and can do best. In this way I can provide the best value to the company and at the same time can keep the eye on the ball.