Geoff Freeman became president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association in 2018. SmartBrief recently interviewed him about his new role, his experience and what he looks to accomplish at GMA.
You were already the respected CEO of an influential trade association. As a leader, what was your thought process in leaving that position and choosing to leap into an entirely new organization and industry at GMA, complete with its own set of significant issues? What inspires you to get out of your professional comfort zone and tackle a new challenge in a new industry?
For any leader — or any professional, for that matter — the opportunity to tackle a new challenge is particularly energizing. I find learning a new industry — an entirely new set of members and new issues — to be energizing. In this case, I get to do all those things AND develop a new strategic direction for this organization to make it more effective for our members. It’s like the JFK speech: “We don’t choose to go to the moon because it is easy, but because it is hard.” The hard, challenging stuff is always the most rewarding. And I’m excited by the challenge to remake GMA and to strengthen the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry.
In a new role with a new organization, there are a variety of ways to approach leadership. Describe your thought process and your priorities in articulating and implementing a path forward.
It all begins with listening. I don’t know the CPG industry, but I’m tasked with leading it. Our members know the business, but their job is not necessarily to look out for the industry. If my team and I ask the right questions and listen closely enough, we’re able to connect the dots from disparate interests and paint a path forward. In every association that I’ve been a part of, that path forward has been about growth. I’m not here to defend the status quo. I’m here to help the industry grow, and our discussions over the first five months have revealed some remarkable opportunities in that regard.
You said in a recent statement that “in recent years, GMA’s effectiveness has been hampered by trying to be all things to all people.” What does an effective trade association look like today? How does that inform your agenda and focus at GMA?
It all begins with focus. Like our members, we must make tough decisions about how to allocate limited resources. Those decisions are taking place right now. The bias we’ll bring to those decisions is a pursuit of opportunities to play offense.
I firmly believe a modern, effective trade association must strive to be on the offense. By that I mean that everything an association does needs to proactively advance the interests of its industry. I emphasize the word “proactive” because a modern trade association has to actively shape the conversation, create new knowledge, new content and aggressively communicate messages aligned with an overall industry narrative. That’s not to say that an association doesn’t defend its members on key issues, but ideally that tactical defense takes place in the broader, positive strategic context we’ve helped create with our proactive, offensive ethos. We must adopt a campaign mindset to shaping perceptions around our industry and the issues that affect it — shaping and defining the terms of the conversation on our terms before others do it on theirs.
You are new to the CPG industry. What have you learned about the industry in this initial period that will shape the changes and initiatives you envision as you lead GMA?
I’m new to CPG, but I’m an association veteran. And industries have more in common than you might suspect. Pursuit of growth, a transparent governance process, inclusivity and industry unification are all critical processes.
The most unique thing about this industry is its relationship with the consumer. That’s a game changer. People have real, personal relationships with our members’ brands — from the toothpaste they use to the midnight snack they pull out of the pantry — and every day they make a conscious decision to purchase them in an incredibly competitive marketplace. Our members are exquisitely attuned to what consumers want and are the best in the world at innovating to meet evolving consumer demands. GMA needs to be equally as plugged in — we need to understand what consumers want, the fragility of brands and the importance of advocating for policies that drive affordability, access and consumer confidence.
What’s the best advice you’ve received that has helped you as a leader?
Fifteen years or so ago, a member in another trade association told me, “Your arrogance has taken you as far as it can.” After I got over the critique, I listened. The point was that an individual performer — no matter how talented they might be (or think they might be) — can only accomplish so much. Leadership is about teams. Leadership is about collaboration. Leadership is about creating an environment where the sum of the parts achieves something far greater than any one individual might think possible. We’re in the process of building a tremendous team at GMA. A team that will raise the bar on the industry’s aspirations and a team that will redefine how this great organization is perceived. I’ve never been more excited in my professional career.