Natalia Wallenberg (Ahold Delhaize): 'It Starts with Psychological Safety'

Natalia Wallenberg (Ahold Delhaize): 'It Starts with Psychological Safety'
In 2022, Natalia Wallenberg took office as CHRO of Ahold Delhaize. A year later, she takes stock and discusses the challenges at a time when people are under pressure. ‘I believe that psychological safety is fundamental to well-being, inclusion and good performance.’

Ahold Delhaize's mission statement sounds simple: Eat well. Save time. Live better. But it is not that simple to give effect to it, says CHRO Natalia Wallenberg. ‘Certainly not at a time when the corona crisis is only just behind us, the Ukraine war continues and inflation is rampant. These things have a significant impact. Not just financially: as people worry about the state of the world and about the future, it has a detrimental effect on their mental well-being. And the well-being of people is of paramount importance to us, whether they are customers, employees or others. We are, after all, a people's business, with more than 420,000 employees in 10 different countries serving 55 million people every week through 7,500 stores and another 20 million through the online channel. What we do affects the daily lives of many.
Conversely, the daily lives of all those people have an enormous influence on Ahold Delhaize's activities, especially when it comes to the group's customers. This is because the customer is always central to us: we do our best to supply good and healthy products at a responsible price. Especially now that consumers are paying resolute attention to their spending habits and their well-being is under pressure, this is more important than ever.’

How can you best promote all that? Does Ahold Delhaize have a formula for this in line with its purpose?
‘We certainly do have such a formula. In a people's business like ours, success stands or falls with the performance of the people in the company. In order for people to perform better, they need to have a positive disposition towards  life. With accelerated development, knowledge gained at school or university is no longer enough for the rest of our careers. To keep up, we have to keep learning. In order to do that well, it is necessary that people not only rely on their existing knowledge, but are curious and willing to learn. This applies to the people who work in our company too. Indeed, it applies to all of us. At the same time, employees must feel connected to the company and be so involved that they enthusiastically commit themselves to the company. In other words, it is about having a culture of learning in which people participate fully.
‘Personally, I believe that everyone has potential to grow. In their own position, as an expert in what they do, or as a manager if that is where the ambition lies. What really makes the difference is the willingness to learn.’

And how does Ahold Delhaize try to foster such a culture?
‘We focus on inclusion and a sense of belonging. We all have a role to play in this, but especially people leaders such as store managers. HR supports them with all kinds of training programs to show inclusive leadership. Inclusive leadership primarily involves showing that all-important openness and curiosity yourself. This manifests itself in an empathetic and generous relationship with others. If you immerse yourself in others and try to put yourself in their shoes, this automatically leads to showing understanding for the other person. The other person is then more likely to feel positive about him- or herself, about what he or she can do and who he or she is. That in turn leads to people daring to express themselves, even if they have a point of view that differs from that of others. In short, inclusive leadership plays a key role in promoting a learning culture. It is of course important to be able to act decisively in the end, but ideally only after everyone has had their say. As has been said, the road to consensus is paved with disagreements.
I myself try to play a direct role in fostering that inclusive, learning culture. I make an effort to visit as many stores and other parts of the company as possible to talk to employees, really listen to them, and gain firsthand insight into their daily challenges. Of course, it is not possible to build a personal relationship with all those thousands of people. But it still helps. People I met in person are more likely to approach me with questions, concerns and ideas.’

Is it true that the learning culture is also reflected in HR policies and that policies are reviewed and adjusted from time to time?
‘Certainly. To give an example, a good sustainability strategy has become increasingly important for the company in recent years. Ahold Delhaize wants to play a leading role in sustainability. This is reflected in our ambition to become a net zero company by 2040 for our own operation, scope 1 and 2, and the entire supply chain or scope 3 by 2050. We also have ambitious medium-term reduction targets. By 2030, Ahold Delhaize wants to reduce its CO2 emissions for scope 1 and 2 by 50 percent and for scope 3 by 37 percent. But it goes beyond these targets. At HR, we think about how to help colleagues commit to these ambitions and help them build skills to do so through training. We organize workshops and expert sessions. Our leaders are integrally involved in this. With this in mind, we also revised our remuneration policy last year, with ESG objectives now reflected to a greater percentage in both our short-term and long-term plans.
To support our ambitions for diversity, equality and inclusion, we formulated an aspiration we call 100/100/100. We aim for 100 percent gender balance at all levels of the organization, 100 percent inclusion and we want to be 100 percent reflective of our markets. We measure our progress on all of these ambitions and also share them publicly with our stakeholders through our annual report. We also do other things, such as creating jobs for people with different physical abilities. And we have been able to give jobs to hundreds of Ukrainian citizens who fled the violence of war with our local brands.’

To what extent are you succeeding in taking that learning and inclusive culture further? 
We measure how inclusive we are by asking our employees for feedback: how safe do they feel in their team, do they belong completely - those kinds of questions. Things on which we have always, generally, scored well. Nevertheless, when I started as CHRO here in 2021, I wanted to create more focus on staff development and the importance of inclusion in the company. In the past year, we saw our inclusivity index increase by 1 percentage point and our development index increase by 3 percentage points. With 300,000 respondents, that's significant, on an already high score. I am very pleased with this result and obviously hope we can continue this trend.’

Inclusive leadership also means that leaders accept and take feedback seriously. Ideally, even seek feedback. Does that happen?
There is always room for improvement, but we are far from doing badly. We have annual performance reviews and constant interaction with customers, with shareholders and with other stakeholders. However, there could be more feedforward. In other words: discussing with people in advance how they can best do things and giving them advice. Feedback can easily elicit defensive reactions; it is quickly seen as criticism of what you did not do so well in the past. With feedforward, the focus is on how someone can have a stronger impact. It is less confrontational.
Feedforward also fits very well into our learning culture, which focuses on growth and development. The best way to get feedforward is to engage in much more regular dialogue with the people you work with. We replace the one, annual performance review from your supervisor with frequent consultation with people you work with. Asking them for advice: your immediate colleagues, but also - in a managerial position - the people you supervise. It leads to better cooperation of people, creating closer teams. Which in turn makes your company perform better. A solo sailor covers far less distance than a sailing team, I always say.’

All of this is only possible if people feel safe. What about that psychological safety within the company?
I personally am passionate about this subject. I believe that feeling psychologically safe is fundamental to well-being, inclusion and good performance. We started focusing on psychological safety last year. I raised the topic at a recent meeting of the 150 top leaders in Philadelphia. The term psychological safety was familiar to about half of them. The wonderful thing is that the others were very curious. They wanted to know what books to read, what resources to look at and research, and most importantly, how to put it into practice - a good sign.
While discussing the topic, the leaders talked to each other about the extent to which they could really be themselves at work, also putting forward issues people usually keep to themselves. This proved particularly powerful: many people appeared to recognize themselves in the stories, and even when they did not, the personal stories evoked appreciation. For example, we talked about our children and how they sometimes struggle at school and how, as a parent, you quickly think you are failing. That is not something you easily admit. But when you do, it evokes sympathy. By showing your vulnerability, people quickly feel connected to you. And in a work environment, they are more likely to accept your leadership, enjoy working with you and be more committed.
This all sounds simpler than it is. People just like to be pleasant and friendly, avoid conflict and are not always so quick to reveal themselves. That is why it is so important that they feel safe: then they are more likely to open up. But even then, it is difficult. It is most effective if the most senior leader in the company often admits his or her mistakes and shows vulnerability. For example, by acknowledging that he or she does not know how to manage a problem and asking for help. This invites others to work together to solve a problem, and to know that they too can show vulnerability and help each other.’

Yet, it is true that people tend to derail and exhibit toxic behavior quite often. Especially under pressure ...
‘We talked about that at the time. My position is clear: there is no excuse for toxic behavior. You must name it and deal with it. Only, toxic behavior is not always visible. It often starts with micro-aggression and then proliferates. To counteract that, every team needs people who think about what the relationships in the team are like. These people make sure that everyone who wants to say something during a meeting is heard and taken seriously. These are people who want to help others, try to counter micro-aggression and give everyone a voice.’

You yourself have a background as a psychologist. To what extent does that come in handy in the Boardroom? Does that background help you achieve better decision-making?
‘Definitely. As a psychologist, you are able to identify groupthink. That is very important, because then you can act against it. This creates room for a broad diversity of perspectives, visions and opinions. That leads to better decision-making. As a psychologist, I am trained to listen carefully to understand what someone is going through. I believe this helps me help others grow and make teams stronger.’

We began the conversation with the purpose of Ahold Delhaize. To what extent does your role within the group correspond to your own purpose?
‘I have a dual purpose in life. First of all, I hope to leave the world - also because I have two children - better than I found it. So I can totally identify with Ahold Delhaize's pursuit of lower carbon emissions. I myself try to live by this: I encourage others to be more conscious of the earth. At home, as a family, we have also taken steps: we revised our diet by eating less meat and we have one car. Before, there were two.
Second, every person has something great within them. My personal goal is to bring that to the surface. I hope I can help people to fulfill their potential or even increase that potential. Whether in my personal relationships with friends or family members or at work, I hope to help people develop. That fits wonderfully with the culture of learning and growth within Ahold Delhaize.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 02 2023.


This article was last changed on 07-02-2023