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  • August 10, 2021

John Deere: Inclusive leadership feeds the world

We look at how John Deere made DE&I a business imperative and inspired it’s leaders to employ a workforce that reflects the global diversity of its customers.

The following story is an excerpt from the book, The five disciplines of inclusive leaders’ by Andrés Tapia and Alina Polonskaia. Here we look at how John Deere made DE&I a business imperative and inspired it’s leaders to employ a workforce that reflects the global diversity of its customers. To learn more about the profile of an inclusive leader and why they are so important in the journey to building a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization, click here.

John Deere may have created the first-ever steel plow. But it is not a farming company—at least, not anymore.

The United Nations projects that the world’s population will reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050, and John Deere’s chief economist, J.B. Penn has estimated that global agricultural output will have to increase by as much as 70% over 2015 levels to feed them.

To meet this need, John Deere has transformed itself into a technology company, producing GPS-guided, cloud-enabled tractors, plows, and harvesters that are accurate to within 2.5 centimeters.

But it is not just artificial intelligence the company is relying on to help meet its mission to “feed the world.” It has also sought to optimize the contributions of all its employees globally—and inclusive leadership has played a key role in driving this effort.

Transformation in the agricultural heartland

Over the past decade, John Deere has been relentless in creating awareness around diversity and inclusion. All 68,000 employees, in offices and on factory floors around the world, have gone through foundational D&I training. The company has also put in place various best practices, such as having a global diversity council and regional diversity councils. Ten years ago, they celebrated having the first-ever African American woman general manager of a factory.

In Latin America, the region’s head of HR, Wellington Silverio, launched a comprehensive D&I program in 2016, which has now touched more than 13,000 employees in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. Silverio is himself part of John Deere’s D&I story, representing an emerging wave of Afro-Brazilian executives (Afro- Brazilians make up nearly half the population in Brazil but are almost invisible in corporate management). For him, it’s not just about rising to the fullness of his potential; it’s also about leveraging his seat at the table to ensure his story is not the exception.

In partnership with Vladimir Alves, the region’s first-ever D&I leader, Silverio has successfully engaged and enrolled the company’s Latin American business leaders to sponsor and lead the cultural transformation effort. They have made the case not only from a mission-driven imperative of equal opportunity but also form their business-driven imperative to feed the world. For a company like John Deere, having a leadership team that promotes—and a workforce that reflects—the global diversity of its consumers is simply smart business.

In Latin America, where agribusiness has until recently been very traditional from a human inclusion perspective, this has meant the company engaging in a concerted effort, not just to raise awareness of the importance of D&I but also to provide structural inclusion support and, crucially, build employee skills. In the company’s Horizontina factory in Brazil, for example, one of the main challenges leaders and managers express is how to conduct sales presentations for gender-diverse audiences, as many of them have never had to make deals with women before.

Inclusive leadership has been one of the driving forces behind the transformation, particularly in terms of enabling leaders and managers to adjust to the new styles of the more diverse talent and consumers they are seeking. Alves explains: “The key is for a leader to identify a person’s unique characteristics and establish a connection with them on the basis of those characteristics. Understanding someone’s point of view not only helps you better understand what they need and how to go about doing something with them; it can also help you be more influential in their thinking.”

The positive impact of inclusive leadership is now being seen across the entire organization. When it comes to innovation, for example, leaders report that the majority of ideas now come from the bottom up. They are generating a greater volume of ideas to address operational, cultural, and customer enhancements than management could ever have conceived. However, this poses an additional challenge—how to effectively manage the conflict that inevitably rises when people with very different perspectives discuss their different ideas. The approach Alves and his colleagues have taken is not to minimize the differences. Instead, as he explains: “We have been encouraging everyone to embrace that we can all think differently, and that some of the conflict that comes with that is okay.”

Another challenge is how to get managers at all levels on board. Silverio explains: “Sometimes middle management doesn’t accept or understand the changes we are proposing at the speed needed. So we end up with the both the grassroots and the senior leaders very engaged but the middle not much at all. This is where we need to invest more and try to win them over in ways that speak to their daily concerns of meeting production metrics.”

Evidence of the 5 Disciplines of Inclusive Leaders at John Deere

Through fieldwork and analysis of over 3 million leadership assessments, Korn Ferry has identified the five disciplines and five traits that define an inclusive leader. John Deere showed development in all five:

Builds interpersonal trust – the company’s Latin American leaders have leaned in hard to the valuing of differences, a competency that is particularly critical in a region of the world where machismo has created so many barriers for women and LGBTQ+ individuals, and where there are other problematic societal legacies toward those of lower economic class, those with darker skin, and those with disabilities. Declaring the value of differences and celebrating them has gone a long way in helping these leaders to instill trust.

Optimizes talent – through their ongoing efforts, leaders have been able to drive engagement, develop talent, and encourage collaboration among factory and office employees.

Integrates diverse perspectives – leaders have needed to become more effective at managing the inevitable conflict that starts to surface when people from different groups that have not mixed much in society are brought together.

Applies adaptive mindset – leaders within John Deere Latin America are at the beginning stages of developing this inclusive leader discipline, as the competencies associated with it—situational adaptability, global perspective, and cultivating innovation—all require an in-depth experience with greater diversity.

Achieves transformation – becoming more diverse and inclusive not only strengthens the organization financially but also makes it more attractive to new generations of talent who might not have considered a career in agribusiness.

To learn about these disciplines and traits in detail, you can click here or download our whitepaper.

“When I think about what I am doing now, and how it is important to me and my purpose in life, I’m so content to be a part of all of this. I want to change the world…and see people happy and engaged—this is my life’s purpose.” Vladimir Alves, D&I Leader, John Deere Latin America


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