‘There was an obliviousness. It’s taken a lot of challenging questions to raise those blindspots.’

How holding up a mirror to its business helped Best for the World™ honouree Riverford transform its culture.

It’d be natural to think that a business with an explicitly positive purpose – and well-meaning management – will be automatically creating an inclusive culture. Riverford Organic Farmers, certified B Corp and a Best For The World winner in the Employee category, are proof that isn’t necessarily the case. Asking the difficult questions has led to real, positive change. 

Riverford Organic Farmers has, rather aptly, grown organically and from the ground up. Founded in 1987, the business started with founder Guy Singh-Watson delivering organic veg boxes to 30 homes in his home county of Devon. That number has grown to around 66,000 customers a week, all over the UK. Riverford manages every part of the process: from growing the food on their farms, to working with suppliers, to packing and distributing their organic veg boxes directly to doorsteps. 

In 2018, the business made good on a long-term ambition of Guy’s and became employee-owned, with 74% of the business now owned by around 930 ‘co-owners’ via a trust model. “Guy always believed that staff owning the business would put it in the best hands,” says Charlotte Tickle, Director of Finance, People and Change. But if it was one thing legally making such a change to the business’ ownership structure, it was an altogether different challenge to ensure the transition embedded a positive culture.

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The Riverford team picking redcurrants

Taking stock

“We talked to people about their hopes for employee ownership – what they wanted to see; what they were hoping to get out of it,” says Charlotte. “It became clear that although we had strong support for our purpose, there were areas we needed to work on. There was a risk people could become disenfranchised with what employee ownership means.” So began a period of feedback gathering: enlisting external help to run in-depth surveys and focus groups to understand where the business could improve across the board. Communication, training and management were all areas that were highlighted. “We looked under the bonnet and found we had more work to do than we thought to make sure the culture was inclusive,” Charlotte adds.

 

"We looked under the bonnet and found we had more work to do than we thought to make sure the culture was inclusive..."

Changing from the top

To make changes, it was about looking to the top – and senior management and leadership. An external consultant was hired to undertake a deep programme with senior management (including board members): a two year, immersive review featuring things like 360 reviews, feedback from peers and one-to-one coaching. “It was about making sure they understood their role as manager isn’t just to deliver operational output, but to make teams feel good about themselves,” says Charlotte. The results have been very positive. “I’m really glad we did it. People say it feels different.”

Tackling diversity in agriculture

In a traditionally male-heavy sector, working on diversity and inclusion has also been a big priority. Once again, Riverford began their approach with a period of self-reflection and a company-wide audit including anonymous surveys, one-on-one conversations with co-owners, and focus groups on topics that came out strongly in those surveys. “It was very tempting to think we knew all the answers. But we stood back and listened for 6 months. There were things that really surprised us. For example, people didn’t feel access to progression was very fair,” says Charlotte.

In particular, hiring and promoting women was a clear area that demanded improvement. Senior management undertook sessions on diversity and inclusion, privilege and unconscious bias. “There was an obliviousness. The thought that Riverfood is a really good place, of course the best person would get the job. It’s taken a lot of challenging questions to raise those blindspots.” Though Charlotte is quick to point out there’s plenty of work to be done, she says that managers now actively encourage people to apply for roles they previously wouldn’t have. There are more women in the senior leadership team and the company has recruited a female chair. “One of the things women said to us is that you have to see women in these positions – you can’t just do a training programme.” 

Recruitment is just one part of their efforts in this area though. The company has looked across the business to areas where diversity of thought can be encouraged. That resulted in changes to certain policies and procedures, the way meetings are run, how interviews are conducted, job descriptions and even the imagery used on their website. ‘Everything needs to support each other,’ adds Charlotte. ‘If you only do one of those things, nothing really changes.’

"One of the things women said to us is that you have to see women in these positions you cant just do a training programme."

Making regular engagement a priority

While making those changes has made a difference, so too has finding ways to keep close to the thoughts and feelings of co-owners. One really effective way that Riverford does this is through their internal weekly newsletter – a mixture of high-level business updates and  personal stories from co-owners. “You might have the chief exec talking about his experiences of a training programme, and then a story from a co-owner doing positive things,” says Charlotte. Riverford are naturally very transparent with what’s happening in the business, particularly when it comes to the current financial challenges. 

The company has also set up a co-owner council who are able to bring the perspectives of people in their constituencies to the senior management team. The council is made up of 25 formally elected councillors who essentially hold management to account. “As a leadership team, we’re legally entitled to act in the best interests of our co-owners, suppliers and founder’s wishes because of the way the business is set-up,” says Charlotte. Having such a direct line of feedback also helps shape Riverfords’ communications and respond quickly to queries or concerns. 

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The Riverford team picking curly kale

Where next?

By really committing time and resources to analysing their blind spots, Riverford have managed to make serious strides in improving the way they treat their co-owners.  But Charlotte repeatedly states that there’s plenty of work that they still need to do. The next challenge on their radar is learning and development – to make sure that co-owners in the business see where they can end up. ‘How do we lay out those career paths? That’s a big focus for us,’ she adds. ‘We’re nowhere near done.’

Riverford’s B Corp Learnings

1. See it as a yardstick 

Charlotte says that one of the main motivations for Riverford to become a B Corp was that they wanted to properly measure what they were doing. “We didn’t want to mark our own homework. We treated it almost like a review.” Having an independent certification process has validated the work that the company is doing. 

2. It can help with recruitment 

One knock-on effect of B Corp certification has been with recruitment, and attracting people to the business. “We’ve had a lot of people want to join us because we’re a purpose-led business,” says Charlotte. “They look at the B Corp logo and it takes a lot of the work out for them.” That effect has been beneficial to attracting conscious consumers too. “It’s becoming more known for customers who want to make the right choice,” she adds. 

3. You need to put the work in

Charlotte is pretty clear on the fact that if you’re going to undertake B Corp certification, you need to put in the effort. “You need to get someone to own it, and work through those questions. There’s a lot of gathering of information – take the time to get the evidence together because it really does impact your score. And it does take a lot of time.” 

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