All Articles Leadership Q&A: Wendy Davidson of The Kellogg Company on building a growth culture


Q&A: Wendy Davidson of The Kellogg Company on building a growth culture

Wendy Davidson, president of The Kellogg Company's US Specialty Channels division, discusses the challenges of innovation and how she fosters a growth culture at the company.

7 min read


Kellogg's; Building a growth culture

The Kellogg Company

This post is sponsored by The Kellogg Company.


Creating an environment that encourages employees to innovate and take risks can be a challenge, especially for large companies that may not have the agility and fresh perspective of smaller operations.

As president of The Kellogg Company’s US Specialty Channels division, Wendy Davidson inspires her team to think outside the box and do away with the self-imposed limitations that can stifle growth and creativity. In this interview, Davidson discusses how the Chicagoland-based Specialty Channels division functions like a startup within The Kellogg Company and how she is fostering a growth culture.

As President of US Specialty Channels at Kellogg North America, how do you drive growth and innovation at the company?

Our business is responsible for sales of Kellogg foods and brands consumed in the away from home channels including foodservice, convenience and vending. As growth channels for Kellogg North America, our strategy is to put our brands within arms-reach of the consumer anywhere they happen to be, which for us means anything outside of traditional grocery.

We drive growth by partnering with key customers in key segments to place our brands in unique and different places, whether on restaurant menus, in non-traditional retail locations or expanding our portfolio of products in places like hotel micro markets, vending machines, schools, airports or other new grab and go outlets. Through strong partnerships with our customers we have the ability to test new products, packaging, merchandising and commercial activation to provide growth for both Kellogg and our customers. This gives us a unique opportunity to obtain early consumer insight and market reaction, as well as partner with our top customers to optimize an idea for broader market launch.  

What are the challenges of innovating at an iconic company like Kellogg that has been around for so long?

The challenges are true for any large company with well-established brands. Some of the growth potential may be in small niche opportunities that simply would not rise to the level needed within the larger part of the business because it would be a distraction from the core business.

Because we work within high-growth channels with a smaller footprint and faster speed to market, we have the ability to test and learn new business models, products, packaging, formats, new display opportunities and branded partnerships.  We can do this not only because of the channels of business we are in but also in the way we are organized. In many ways, we can function like a startup inside the Kellogg Company with an opportunity to leverage the power of global brands with the soul of a start-up.

How do you encourage employees to have the agility of a smaller or newer company?

I’m a big believer that people lead from every position in the company and often limitations in any role are in no small part self-imposed. It is much easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission, and rather than hesitate on a decision and seek an abundance of data, we encourage people to take risks and to display intellectual curiosity — about customers, the marketplace, where the consumer is shopping, and most importantly, about where emerging potential disruptors might impact our business and that of our customers.

Some of the most innovative solutions come from companies and ideas that are outside of your core. And often they’re not from traditional competitors or traditional channels. But, they are shaping consumer expectations in areas like convenience, quality, freshness, flavor and ingredient transparency. So, we encourage our team to be curious, take risks and lean into new ideas to test, learn and adjust along the way.

Today’s market puts increasing importance on being an early adopter of trends. How do you know when to take a risk on an idea that is not yet proven?

I think the biggest challenge companies have, and in some cases leaders put on themselves, is an expectation that you need research for an idea to be proven before you take the risk. I would rather the team take multiple risks — if only one of those proves out, it pays for the other ideas that didn’t materialize. The financial results of the successes should yield enough to ensure a sustainable business, but there are rich lessons learned from the other tests that will help shape future concepts, processes and ideas.

The benefit isn’t always revenue and profits. Sometimes the benefit is in the ways of working. It’s developing that cultural mindset and challenging existing processes and systems.  I believe there’s as much to be gained in trying new things and how it shapes the culture to build the organizational muscle and experience to take on bigger bets. Our HR director on our Specialty leadership team often talks about culture as an outcome of people’s beliefs, and beliefs are shaped by experiences. It is our job as leaders to give people the experiences to ensure they believe they can drive the results we desire.

How has the foodservice industry and its role changed since you started working in the industry?

Foodservice continues to be at the forefront of food trends given the nature of flavor and food experimentation by chefs and foodservice operators. Two-thirds of consumers first experience new food and flavor in restaurants, and we see a natural evolution from independent restaurants to broad market appeal as concepts are adopted and expanded across food formats. This experimentation and evolution hasn’t changed, but what has changed is the acceleration in the speed of adoption for food trends from early introduction to broad exposure across the marketplace.

According to Datassentials, the time it takes for a concept to reach market ubiquity from inception used to take 10-12 years. Now we see that happening in half the time.  The evolution of food culture, travel, diversity and the rise of social media have all contributed to increased awareness and interest in what’s new and different emerging in food.

What is the most important thing those in the foodservice industry can do to prepare for the future?

The foodservice industry is naturally positioned to both see the future but also to shape it. Through the exploration on menus, foodservice operators and chefs have the ability to influence consumer experimentation as consumer trends emerge from idea to expansion. For foodservice professionals, the key is to be curious and to gain experience across broad aspects of the food industry. Consumers are now demanding foods wherever and whenever, creating a blur between channels and categories.

Consumers no longer think “I buy my groceries once a week to supply for the rest of the week, and I only eat at restaurants on special occasions.” Restaurants are now a 24/7 part of peoples’ lives. Convenience stores are now expanding into fresh markets and prepared foods, and even vending machines are evolving with customization and fresh options easily available.

From my perspective, the most important thing the foodservice industry can do is to be mindful about how consumers are interacting with food and lean into that. For people in the industry, be curious. Gain experience across a variety of formats and parts of the industry because each of them are interdependent and present opportunities to collaborate with new and emerging partners to shape the future of food.

 Wendy Davidson is the president of US Specialty Channels, the division within the Kellogg Company that is responsible for driving growth of Kellogg foods and brands consumed in the away from home channels including:  foodservice, convenience and vending. She is a member of the company’s Global Leadership Team, the Global Snacks and Global Breakfast Operating Councils, the Women of Kellogg (WOK) network and serves as Executive Sponsor for the Global Talent Management Advisory Team. Davidson is also the Chair of the Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF).