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Toughest Call Ep. 109 – Doing the impossible - TRANSCRIPT

Lori Nikkel  00:08

And we knew that we had to scale instead of three years in minutes, and scaling wasn't just not two people event scaling the whole business.


Chaz Thorne  00:17

Welcome back, or Welcome to toughest call a podcast for organizational leaders, where we hear stories from your leadership colleagues about career defining decisions. I'm your host, Chaz Thorne. In this episode, I'm talking with Lori Nikkel about her decision to hasten the pace of international expansion to meet the growing demand for food during the pandemic. Lori is the CEO of Second Harvest, a charity that recovers fresh unsold food to protect the environment and provide immediate hunger relief. How many times in your career Have you been told something you wanted to attempt was impossible. Though this may turn out to be true. It's also a position often taken by the overly risk averse to stifle innovation and maintain the status quo. Lori talks about how she leaned on the power have talented and passionate collaborators both within her organization and without to dive into this massive initiative. in the minds of her and her partners, failure was simply not an option, as it would mean 1000s of food insecure Canadians would go hungry.


Lori Nikkel  01:33

Second Harvest we are Canada's largest food rescue organization, which essentially means we collect surplus food, perishable food from right across the supply chain. With the important part of it not ending up in landfill, we really see ourselves as an environmental organization, because there's so much food gray into landfill that is creating a climate crisis. It's really contributing to the climate crisis. And as a result of collecting all this food, it needs a home. And so we support charities, nonprofits with this awesome perishable, healthy, great food, most of which has never ever hit retail. So this is before you would even go grocery shopping. This is way further up the supply chain. We really work on the no waste part of that. And we do that through research, training and education. We do waste audits, and a whole lot of advocacy, and education and public awareness on food loss and waste. We move food a lot of ways we have a fleet warehouse in Ontario, we work with third party logistics across the country. That could be trains, boats, planes getting as far north as you can go in Canada, and we have innovated to a technology that is the Second Harvest Food Rescue app, which is really the eHarmony of food. It's direct connector of local food businesses directly with a local charity or nonprofit. Because really, our goal is to get as much food to where it needs to go. We don't have to be involved in all of it. We want to network the right people into the right places. So that's Second Harvest in a nutshell.


Chaz Thorne  03:10

You're working away on a plan to go bigger. And then COVID happened. And you were faced with all right, do we do this? Do we do this now do we do this later? Tell us a bit about this tough call that you had to make.


Lori Nikkel  03:32

So this tough call was we were working on a national rollout. My background is scaling organizations nationally. And, and although this was a great Toronto organization, there was so much need across the country. So it almost felt a little bit like we've been pre planning for COVID to happen, because one of the things we had done was the innovation of the rescue app. But we'd also mapped out every charity and nonprofit across the country that uses food. And we learned that there's over 60,000 of them. And, you know, my background is food security, Child Nutrition. And I know the places that I went to get food and the people that I know that went to get food, they weren't going to food banks, they were going to other places. So I just wanted to really understand where are those other places so that we can connect them with the Second Harvest rescue app. And then boom COVID happened. And so we had done some great work in Ontario, we had just launched in BC, maybe for about eight months. So things were rolling had this three year great plan, we had this down and had COVID. And we knew that we had to scale instead of three years in minutes. And scaling wasn't just not to get through to people. It meant scaling the whole business scaling that technology to ensure that it wouldn't crash with the number of organizations and industry partners, that we're going to be using it all at once. And so that was step one was Going to our developers and say, Okay, guys, we have, you know, a weekend, is this going to crash? And they were? Ah, yes, we'll make it, we'll make it happen. But it was not a simple thing, right? Like, this was a very scary moment for them. But of course, they've made it happen. And they have since won awards with Microsoft, because they've been so incredible with this with this app, it meant right away going, Okay, we're one organization, we're just Second Harvest, we know how to do some things. But we don't do anything without collaboration. And so creating immediately, the Food Rescue, Canadian Alliance was critical to making sure that we could map out now we know where all the cherries are, where's all the food? Where are the spikes in food going to happen. And that meant coordinating this group immediately, which was industry, nonprofits and charities of regional or national nature, and digitus working group, and the federal government so that we can all work together because we're in the beginning of COVID. If you can recall, like, first it was like, Okay, how do we make sure our employees are safe? What are the right things to do? Let's do that. Now, how do we fix the problem, because we saw closures, we knew there was going to be huge spikes in food, from the food service and restaurant industry, because they'd all ordered it. But there was no word for it to go. And so right away, we're like, okay, fisheries on East Coast had all this extra salmon and seafood and lobster and a lot of foods that you typically find there eat in restaurants, there's a lot of eggs. So by just forming this working group, this council, we were able to quickly identify working with agriculture and the producers of Okay, where are the big shifts of food gonna be? And then how do we work with third party logistics, and processors and manufacturers to either a repackage this, because many charities can't take the size of whatever that commodity might be. And all the while other things are happening inside of our food system where like a curtains, were at a premium, there was no 12, like a dozen packs of egg cartons, so are like, okay, so everybody's getting 30 or 100 eggs. So even these kind of little things that you don't even think are going to be an issue become an issue. No, we don't have manufacturing in Canada, so that we have limited manufacturing in Canada. So we saw that we you know, once the vaccines started coming in, we saw a limited use of cooler space, because the vaccine need cooler space. So there's all these other things that were happening. But the beauty was by working together, we were able to come up with a really comprehensive plan to support as many charities and nonprofits as we could.


Chaz Thorne  07:52

Do you feel that COVID helped this expansion happen? Or caused more problems than it? Then it solved for you?


Lori Nikkel  08:06

Oh, I think it forced the expeditious pneus of our extension to happen. And certainly, there were some obstacles in the way but we are you know, worth sharing, then that makes us dynamic right away. We're really used to pivoting and we're used to work in a lot and long hours with little or no money or resources. So it was challenging, for sure. But what was our choice? We had to do it, because the the choice of not doing it meant that people didn't have and that's not a choice, right. So even though it's tough this call, it's not really it didn't feel like it. It just was like know that. That's the right thing to do. We're always going to do the right thing.


Chaz Thorne  08:48

As the leader of the organization, what, what was going through your mind when you were evaluating? Okay, go no go on this on this initiative to expand


Lori Nikkel  09:02

all kinds of things, as you can imagine, first staff, our existing staff, and then understanding what is the staffing resources that we need across Canada? What are the strategies that we need to ensure that it wasn't just about us having a system in place, it was about making sure that every Canadian knew we had a system in place so that they could access it? Because you know, we were a second harvest. And because we worked with government of Canada, we were on the list for food security organizations that receive federal funding. And so we had to allocate that across the country. We had to make sure everybody knew, go to this website. There is money here. Go to this app. There is money here. We have right philanthropic partners, the Sprott Foundation, right it right in the beginning said okay, here's $10 million. Let's work with major grocers. So we work with loblaws and northwest company to allocate all these grocery gift cards, because not only were we able to use the Sprott foundation funding, but loblaws and northwest company also leveraged their funding, so it was even more we could send out. But people had to know, they had to know that if they went to the Second Harvest Food Rescue app, they get access money, they get access gift cards, they could access food. So we also partner, one of our board members. got us, you know, partnership with the Globe and Mail with an organization a PR organization called navigator. Like, let's just push the message out. Because just those are some of the things people don't think about. It's great that you have a solution. People need to know you have the solution.


Chaz Thorne  10:41

Was there any point where you were in the midst of having this rollout? Where you went, Oh, this is too much?


Lori Nikkel  10:53

No, honestly, you were just in the middle. You know, when you're in it, you're in it, I think after, after, when you can do it. Better analysis, you can say, Wow, that was a lot. We couldn't have not done it, we wouldn't have, we couldn't have not done it the way we did it. And at no point was it. It's a lot for sure. But it's never too much. It's just that's just the way we do business is we'll make it happen.


Chaz Thorne  11:23

I hope you're enjoying this episode of toughest call at one page My team and I get organizations aligned in just two days with strategic plans that fit on a single page. And since strategy is all about making decisions, we created a suite of free decision making tools for organizational leaders like you. So to get some assistance with your next tough call access these complimentary resources at toughest Was there any internal resistance that you had to deal with around making such a significant change at a time? That was there was such significant change just happening in across every aspect of organizational culture and society?


Lori Nikkel  12:18

Absolutely, there was, I shouldn't say resistance. There wasn't resistance. That's not fair. There was not resistance, everybody was on board. I think what happened so and we have to be very careful about it is people become exhausted. And when you're you're, you know, pedal to the metal for how many months, many of us who are working 6080 hours days, and we just you kind of get lost in it. What's the next thing we have to do? What's the next thing you have to do is you're always just looking at the next thing. And again, I'm involved with that we've discussed it, we have different plans in place now. But in the moment, it's just you got to get it done. And so as we're building out, fortunately, I do have a background scaling organizations, I am throwing resources and staff at every province and I have connections and I'm like, okay, we need this, we need this, we need this. And I'm not going to force you to do all this work. Like it's not up to, you know, there's certain group of people that just will run all the time, they're always going and always going like I had to as leader think I can't allow that to happen either. burnout, it's not good for your mental health, we have to all be focusing on mental health as well as being a great charity and supporting people. So what does that look like? Right? Like even just Quebec, for example? You know, we're not, we're not a bilingual organization. So we have to consider Okay, so now that's translating on everything. So fortunately, I had a staff member that worked for me a couple of other organizations of like, what do you do? come work for me here, literally, like, in one day later, she's here. So we have staff in Quebec. And it kind of worked like that in different parts of the country. It was, it was existing relationships that were like, come over, take a contract. Let's see what we can do. And it was mostly about let's get the name out there, but not the names, make sure that people know that there's money food cards, we have to make sure that they know because what happens in Canada. And I thought when I did the mapping, or why we did the mapping was people focus food security in a couple of places. And so so many charities are in such great work and nonprofits that nobody knows about, because they're independent, right? Like they're just a small group of people doing great work. Nobody knows about them. And so that was really the goal. That Second Harvest was leave no Canadian behind. We've no Canadian behind. Where are those places that people are not accessing things that they need? Or just don't even know make sure that they know, make sure that they know. And so that I think under that kind of umbrella? It was it was a passion project for all of us.


Chaz Thorne  14:52

Was there any point where you felt like the speed of the implementation was too much you Yes. Course.


Lori Nikkel  15:06

Time, no whole time. It was it was too much like it was it was but it was also, there was no other alternative. Like it just it wasn't there was this, it's that simple. What else could you do? You had to had to get it done? Like, what area? Do you say? Well, you know, we'll do the West Coast and we'll deal with the East Coast later No, like that was originally our rollout was really focused on a different kind of, we'll do these, these provinces first, and we'll go north, and we'll do this, which makes sense. It was a nice little roll up. But when you have a whole lot of money, and a whole lot of gift cards and a whole lot of food. Who do you say? Yeah, we're not gonna run out there to? You can't. So you don't you just make it work?


Chaz Thorne  15:53

Was there ever a moment where you came up against an obstacle in the implementation, that you weren't quite sure whether or not you were going to be able to get through it? around it or over it?


Lori Nikkel  16:10

No, say that there was I honestly there really was it doesn't mean that there weren't barriers. And there were challenges. We have I mean, I, the second half of staff just kind of blow my mind. They're just so amazing. And they pivot on a dime. And, you know, we're very, we're very close. But we're also there's a lot of autonomy here, like you have great ideas. Let's use it right, like we're not a micromanaging organization, in any way at all. And so you give certain processes certain people and you just kind of watching like, Oh my gosh, I would never have thought of that. Right? Which is exactly why you hire staff that are better than you more skilled than us smarter than you, and are different skill than you. Because together, what we did was the impossible. And we did it. And that's something that we are all like just super proud of ourselves for, and also incredibly exhausted, right. But when you look back, you're like, literally it was actually another leadership member who said we did the impossible. And then we thought about it like, Yeah, we did, we did the impossible. And we we did it without even thinking about it. Like you just, it's just what needed to happen.


Chaz Thorne  17:25

So you're on the other side of this initial pivot and implementation of a massive national wide growth strategy? Where do things stand right now with Second Harvest? And what comes? What comes next?


Lori Nikkel  17:44

Well, right now we take a look at it, and take a look at all of it again, do an analysis of the business. And see, where are the gaps? Where are we at a staff, I mean, one of the things I implemented early on was, you know, bonuses for all the staff. A couple of bonuses for all the staff on COVID, the anniversary, everybody gets a day off, implementing mandatory to vacation on top of their regular vacation, and I mean two weeks in a row, so people can really rest. Because that first week, it's good the second week, your mind, you know, you get back to who you were. And so part of that is just decompressing as an organization and and analyzing look, we're a business planning right now, what do we need to do? How do we build out a better foundation across Canada to make sure that we're, you know, we're not just running and fixing things in the moment, like, we want to be very thoughtful. So that's kind of a wrap, right? business planning 2.0 right now. But the Second Harvest look like 2020 do.


Chaz Thorne  18:54

As a leader, what do you feel was the biggest learning that you took from this experience?


Lori Nikkel  19:03

I think, for me, though, is that the word impossible? Is should exist, right? like nothing's impossible. If you have a group of really strong collaborators. And I'm not just talking about Second Harvest. I mean, we worked with industry, government, indigenous communities, if you continue to collaborate, collaborate, collaborate, there's nothing, nothing we can't accomplish as Canadians. And this really was a testament to that. This wasn't one organization doing this one organization. This was 1000s of organizations doing this 1000s of businesses were supported, and they are supporting in their own community, millions of people. And so nothing is done in a silo. And there's no such thing as competition or charity. What am I competing with? Right like we have to think locally, globally, collaborate. If we do this together, there's not a problem. We cancel


Chaz Thorne  20:08

lordly talks a lot in this episode, especially towards the end, about doing the impossible. And notice, though, that those she gave the collaborators that she was working with both internally and externally, a really difficult task, she also provided them with the support and the roadmap to actually achieve. As an organizational leader, though it does beg the question, how do you stretch your organization without breaking it? When are you giving people something impossible, you have most likely heard of this idea of the be hag or big, hairy, audacious goal. And though that can be great, very often, when they're used in planning. They're impossible. You can't actually, they're not possible to achieve them. And we see something very similar as strategic planners, we see something very similar in mission and vision statements, when they're, they're not at all going to be achievable. A guy named Richard rumbled, wrote this really excellent book, good strategy, bad strategy. And one of the core things he covers in the book is this idea of you know, how much is too much when it comes to creating goals. And he found after years of research and direct work in companies that you need a target that you can reasonably expect to hit. And the concept of the be hag for example. Oftentimes, it's actually used as a stand in for poor management, or a lack of leadership. If you don't give people the roadmap of how to get there, and be really upfront about the challenges that you're going to face along the way, and how you're going to resolve those challenges with a plan, you are likely to massively agitate your organization. The other thing is, is that very often, these goals are decided by higher ups, and they don't at all connect to the tactical workings of an organization, which causes a lot of agitation and a lot of frustration, when it comes to planning. So, Rummel talks about that in his book, that you, you also need to address the challenges that need to be overcome he, he gives the example of you've probably heard the term moonshot. And he gives the example of when JFK was talking about in the 60s, sending people to the moon having having a man actually walk on the moon. And there's a famous speech where he talks about it. He doesn't only talk though, about the the vision of doing that about the goal of doing that. He knew and everyone else knew at the time that they did not have the technology in the 1960s to actually achieve that yet. So then he went on to lay out how they would overcome the challenges that they were facing. So again, the idea of, if you're trying to sort of do the impossible. You need to support people and back them up with a realistic plan of how you're actually going to get there. And again, this book by rumbled, good strategy bad strategy is an excellent way to explore again, this concept of how to stretch your team or your organization or your project without breaking it. If you'd like to learn more about worrying and Second Harvest, you can check out their website at second And if you'd like some assistance with your own tough calls, we've compiled a collection of free tools just for you. Go to toughest to check them out. If you're not yet a subscriber to toughest call, please add us wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thanks for listening. I hope this conversation helps you when faced with your next tough call.

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