Eric Christianson of Nutrient Survival On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Trust your instincts. Remember that you didn’t get to where you are by chance. You’ve earned your role as a leader because of who you are, and how you handle adversity. Do it again.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Christianson.
Eric Christianson, CEO of Nutrient Survival is an accomplished senior executive leader with 25+ year track record building strong businesses, creating purpose-driven brands, and leading winning teams. Consistently stellar results driving sustainable revenue, profit and share growth, from Fortune 500 blue chips to private equity turnaround start-ups, including Procter & Gamble, Campbell Soup, Perdue Farms, Westwind Investors and U.S. Army.
Skilled in senior executive leadership, cross-functional team leadership, marketing, advertising, media, consumer promotion, event marketing, retail, foodservice, industrial, brand management, brand equity, portfolio management, agency management, new product development, product innovation, product renovation, quality improvements, package design, social media, consumer relations, digital ecosystem, on-line video, direct-to-consumer DTC, e-commerce, food and beverage marketing, strategic planning, annual operating planning, consumer research, insights, research and development, licensing, measurement.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in small town in the Pacific Northwest called Sequim, Washington. Today it’s known for its lavender and elk herd, but when I lived there it was just a farming and milling town. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but this place was the best outdoors playground a boy could ask for. I was always out in the woods exploring, building forts, tracking animals. That love for adventure stayed with me as I joined the military with an appointment to West Point, and later in service leading soldiers in Panama and stateside for the first part of my career. Later, I found myself in brand management at Fortune 100 food companies — Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Perdue Farms — working on some great businesses like Jif peanut butter, Folgers coffee, Campbell’s Soup, Chunky, Prego, Pace, and Perdue chicken. So when you look at what I’m doing today, it’s truly the culmination of these lifelong experiences coming together in my ultimate dream job. Creating a food company from the ground up that provides the best nutrient-dense food anywhere, and serves a customer who cares deeply about self-reliance, responsibility, and protecting those they love.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, as any entrepreneur I will tell you, starting a new business is one mistake after another. Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” That’s been the truth for me too. A funny story is when we thought putting our delicious cookies in a big tin can was a good idea. We wanted people to eat them every day, but we made it the hardest thing in the world to do by sealing them in a package that took an industrial sized can opener to get into. One day a customer asked me if we could make it easier by just putting them in a bag. Of course, right?! So we did that instead and have been selling a lot more since. The lesson is: Listen to your customers. They want to help you succeed.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
So true. I’ll go way back to my first Company Commander, Captain Mike Baker. I was a fresh new butter bar (Second Lieutenant) still wet behind the ears, and he was this seasoned warrior of an Infantry Company, with combat experience with the Rangers. I wasn’t even infantry, but he saw something in me and made me his second in command Executive Officer. That’s something that just doesn’t happen. Then he sent me to Ranger school where I ended up earning going straight through and earned the best officer award in my class. If it were up to me, I would have stayed in my lane, but he didn’t give me a choice. He pushed me into the deep end, and I’m grateful he did. As I look back on my life, those are the people I appreciate the most now. The ones that pushed me where I didn’t want to go.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Purpose drives people. That’s why purpose-driven businesses succeed. People get behind ideas, values, missions that they buy into. So yes, I tell folks that we’re really not a food company at all. We’re actually a Freedom company that happens to sell food. The Freedom we offer is helping all people break away from the grip of Big Food and Big Pharma. The processed foods we eat today are generally devoid of nutrition, and full of other things that are making us sick as a nation, and dependent on medicine to fix us. We think there’s a better, easier way, and it starts with putting essential nutrients back into our bodies to enable bringing our best selves from the inside out.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
It’s pretty easy to lead when everything is going well. Under stress, it’s a different story, but those are the times that real leaders distinguish themselves. With our business being new and disruptive, we are making it up as we go. Of course, we have a good idea of where we want to go, but how we get there, the road to take, the bumps and potholes we will face, that’s all part of the journey. It’s naïve to think it will be smooth sailing, and if you just show up things will go your way. The real world doesn’t work that way. Our first week in business, we sold 36 units of product. 36. But we sold something. So we kept going. The next week we sold more. And then more after that. No one gave it to us. We worked hard for it. Nothing worth anything ever comes easy.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Giving up is not option. For me, this is very personal because I have an entire company depending on my direction for their very livelihoods. If I fail, they are out of a job. So I refuse to fail. That is the mindset I wake up with, and go to sleep with. As a startup, you are continually scratching and scraping to grow, to scale. It’s hard and some days you really wonder when things might break. But I know everyone on the team is watching me, how I handle situations, if I’m stressed or worried. So I don’t show that because people need to focus on what they’re here to do, what they can control, not on the turbulence or uncertainty they can’t.
Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
I’m a big fan of biographies. One that I’d recommend for the topic at hand is “Shackleton’s Way” by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Caparell. It chronicles Sir Ernest Shackleton’s near death Antarctic explorations with his crew of the Endurance. The challenges they faced during their ice trapped experience are too many to detail. But a consistent theme of Shackleton’s was his approach to crisis. As the authors put it, “when crisis strikes, immediately address your staff. Take charge of the situation, offer a plan of action, ask for support, and show absolute confidence in a positive outcome.”
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Quite simply, to lead. It doesn’t necessarily mean charging the hill. On the contrary, it may mean sitting still. Hopefully, when a challenging time does come, you’ve built up enough trust before then that you’ve earned the respect of your people, your team. It’s then that you as a leader must think clearly, assess the situation, create direction, and inspire those around you to take action. Setting the example is a big thing for me. Don’t be the guy sitting behind the desk issuing orders and expecting others to jump for you, if you haven’t shown them what commitment looks like.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
For me it starts with putting things into two buckets. What you can control, and what you can’t. I say this all the time, “control the controllables.” Give people the support they need to do that. Let them know that in most situations, it’s not life or death. Do what is right given the information you have and everything will be all right.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I’ve learned that bad news does not get better with time. If you exhausted possibilities to change the outcome of situation, I believe it’s best to be direct and honest with people. One time we had a situation with a product where we missed an important ingredient that changed the taste profile considerably. We’d already sold a lot and sent it off to customers before we discovered it. Instead of letting it go and hoping customers didn’t notice, we proactively notified them and admitted our mistake, along with the things we were doing to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. It was a little mistake in the grand scheme of things, but by taking ownership and accountability, we accomplished two things. We built trust of our customers, and also showed our team that we’re a company that does the right thing. If you can’t do that with the little things, you’ll never be able to do it with the big ones.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Honestly, you do the best you can. No one can predict or have the time to exhaust every possibility with a comprehensive plan. You have to prioritize what is most likely and focus on that with plans to address it. When I was in the Army, we planned and rehearsed for hours, sometimes days, for our missions. And then as soon as we started, things would change and the plan was out the window. It’s then that you fall back on your training to make the right decisions and continue the mission. The same principles apply in business.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
You’ll probably get a lot of different answers for this one. I guess for me, it’s always been about staying focused on the mission. What does success look like? What is the intent of how you get there? What can you do to make a difference toward getting there and achieving success? Get going and get it done. As Will Rogers said, “even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you’re not moving.”
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
This is a tough question, but I’ll give you a couple ideas. First, when you have an issue, take ownership. Don’t spin things. People are smarter than that. Next, listen to your customers. They are always right and want to help you. Don’t dismiss their feedback as complaining or irrational. They know what they’re talking about. Finally, don’t be afraid to take a shot. You’ll miss 100% of those you don’t take. So what’s the worst that could happen? You miss. Ok. Regroup and take another one.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Stay calm. It’s likely that people around you will be frazzled. In times like this, people need to see that you’re unfazed.
- Step up and lead. This is your time. It’s what you’re paid the big bucks for.
- Trust your instincts. Remember that you didn’t get to where you are by chance. You’ve earned your role as a leader because of who you are, and how you handle adversity. Do it again.
- Take action. Rarely will the situation fix itself. You need to apply energy to change outcomes.
- Persevere. Getting knocked down is part of the job. When a boxer steps into the ring, he knows he will get hit in the face. But that doesn’t stop him. The true test is what you do after you get knocked down. Will you get up, or won’t you? Real leaders get up until they can’t do it again.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The first that comes to mind from me is scripture. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and all thine soul, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths.” Proverbs 3: 5–6. For me, this gives me the peace to be the best I can be, knowing that ultimately I’m not in charge — of the universe, of anything really. I do the best I can and know that my time, my purpose, my impact comes from my God.
How can our readers further follow your work?
People can check out what we’re doing at NutrientSurvival.com. Learn about us on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. Of course, folks can reach out to me personally too at email@example.com. I’d love to hear from them.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Eric Christianson of Nutrient Survival On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.