I pulled up to the guard shack at the sprawling Blue Diamond Campus near downtown Sacramento, Calif. The guard jokingly suggested that when I was done with my interview with Mark, that I should come back and interview him. My sense is that would’ve been a very interesting conversation.
As I walked into the lobby, I found myself nervous. My questions aren’t the ones typically asked of senior leaders. I never know how candid they will be in their response. As you will soon read, my worry was misplaced.
Mark Jansen is the CEO of Blue Diamond Growers, which was founded in 1910 as a cooperative owned by over 3,000 California farm families. Today, it’s the largest producer and marketer of almonds in the world, with products sold in over 90 countries. I arrived early, and Mark was still in a meeting. Rather than leave me in the lobby, Alicia Rockwell, Blue Diamond’s director of corporate communications and public relations, had me join her in her office. We had a great conversation, just like a couple of old friends. I knew very quickly that this was going to be an enjoyable experience and that Mark was extremely insightful and honest.
What keeps you up at night?
“It’s always about people.” He explained that Blue Diamond was a 105-year-old co-op and that when he arrived, of the top 30 people in leadership, over half of them were at retirement age or within two years of it.
“We were going to have a huge knowledge loss that was going to take place.” Coupled with that, “We’ve tripled in size in a six-year period.” So, he worries about “How do you bring in, develop, retain and grow the people and make sure they're in the right seats on the bus?”
He went on to say, “Increasingly, which is a good place to be, not only do I worry about do we have the right people, but are they surrounding themselves with the right people, and do they have a clear succession plan.” He shared that, “I look at this business and say, 'how do we set it up to last the next 100 years?'"
How do you attract people to Blue Diamond?
He thinks of it in terms of his "employee value proposition." "We work on behalf of 3,000 California almond-growing families. Our median size farm is 35 acres and our average is 75. It is the small family farmer that owns this business." I could sense that this was a big reason why he was at Blue Diamond, so I asked a follow-up question:
Does that deeper sense of purpose help to attract and retain people?
“It’s a chance to be a part of something great. I’ve been a part of businesses that aren’t growing and a part of businesses that are. It’s a hell of a lot more fun being part of one that’s growing.”
In an earnest way, he went on to add, “Having a company that you enjoy working for, that has values you can be proud of is a big part of being happy at work, and we all spend so much time at work. If you can’t be excited about getting out of bed in the morning, you need to find something different.”
Who do you think with?
Mark discussed how he attempts to surround himself with people who he knows “are better at what they do than I am capable of doing, true experts.”
“In my career, I’ve sought out and had great mentors along the way. When you get to the CEO level, suddenly you don’t have those internal business mentors any longer. So, you must look outside. I’ve got a network of people, friends that I trust and we talk. I am also a member of a CEO group,” he said, starting to chuckle. “A group of people who are unafraid to call out that I’ve got no clothes.”
Continuing to laugh. he added, “You need that. It’s too easy to get isolated and believe in your own work too much.”
How do you deal with doubt?
I found his answer extraordinarily honest and insightful. He said, “I’ve been blessed with the ability to be comfortable making decisions and making good decisions. There is an element of confidence and pride that I have in making them.” But, he added, “If doubt is creeping in, to me that’s a signal. It is a cue to dig in and get more perspective.”
He tries to “recognize why it’s creeping in, figure something out and ultimately do something about it.”
What do you do when you’re wrong?
“The first thing is to clearly and as loud as you can, own it, call it out." His next line really caught me.
“Part of the right to lead is the idea that you own and you’re accountable for what your organization is doing. If you’re not taking ownership of the mistakes, you shouldn’t be taking credit for what’s going right.”
How do you make room for the other important things in your life?
“Honestly, my priority is my family, and while I don’t always keep things perfectly in balance, I always keep a line of sight on that priority.”
“When you have a healthy and vibrant life outside of work, you have the advantage of being able to wake up Monday morning with the idea of hey, I can’t wait to get back to work.”
He went on to talk about a fishing trip that he went on with his son and his brother in celebration of his brother’s 40th. “It was the best of both worlds. I was able to have some time away, but it was also great to come back. Even though I didn’t feel run down, like I needed a break, I came back refreshed.”
What have you learned about connecting with people?
He said that, as a leader, it is critical that you are “making sure that there is a really clear vision of what success looks like.” He added that you’ve hit the sweet spot “when people see with real clarity how what they do contributes to the overall success. Everyone wants to know they are doing a good job and that their contribution is meaningful.”
He also said it’s important to “make yourself sort of vulnerable, display your humility and make yourself visible too.” He laughed as he said, “As my daughters would attest, I’m pretty normal in a lot of ways. I think I have some unique gifts for running a company, but the rest of me is pretty basic.”
What do you wish your current self could tell your former self?
I found his answer to this question interesting, but I think it would be beneficial to offer some commentary in order to better frame his response. Mark’s a relatively young CEO. This means that in every station, he has been on the youthful end. He answered this question saying, “Don’t assume that somebody else has it all figured out. No one has it all figured out or has all the answers. That gives you a license to go forward and make things happen.”
He added this nugget of wisdom, “Leadership happens at all levels, and there is a lot more than just your place on the org chart that determines how much of a leader that you are.”
What drives you to do this?
“I do feel this is a noble mission. There is a chance to ensure the success of California farm families. There’s the chance to help people eat healthy, and there’s also an opportunity to give our 1,400 employees a place where they can be a part of making a difference working in a high values environment, and to make a good living that supports their family.”
“Those are the things that are tremendously rewarding and make me feel blessed to be where I’m at.”
What do you want people to know about you?
“As CEO, you get too much credit for things.”
“We’ve been blessed with really great people here at Blue Diamond. That’s true of our growers as well as our employees. I get to serve as the face for both and that is a real privilege and an honor.”
As we concluded, we circled back to people. It’s obvious that for Mark there is nothing more vital. We talked about how that regardless of whether you are trying to motivate millennials or 60-year-olds, that “there are some fundamental truths. People want to be respected, they want to make a difference, and they want to give their best.”
I couldn’t agree more!