By Len Monheit
Within the dietary supplement and even in the broader natural products community, certain personalities have always stood out by virtue of their vision and efforts to build and sustain an industry, above and beyond personal material or financial motivation. These individuals have served as founding fathers and mothers, inspirations for those fortunate enough to have known and learned from them, and they have established a blueprint for the ‘industry of their time’, a map to success that formed the basis for shared values and ideals, encompassed by many of their peers. These were the inventors, the entrepreneurs who took the risks and built today’s herbal and supplements sector, and in many cases formed leading natural products companies, many of which have now been acquired by larger entities. In their time, these personalities were the models as well as the barometers by which industry achievements and contributions were measured.
In my relatively short time in this industry, I have been extremely fortunate in knowing and exchanging ideas and perspectives with many of these visionaries; you’ll see a few of them featured in Suzanne Shelton’s Executive Interview Series. I have heard first hand some of the experiences and anecdotes, watched with rapt interest as the challenges, opportunities, beliefs and character of an evolving industry some 25 to 30 years ago were narrated.
In this, I am one of the relatively few, and I cannot do justice to these stories – that’s the work of another day and another format.
As I sit here in 2007, and compare notes with peers on industry’s current ‘state of leadership’, I cannot help but feel that significant opportunity has been missed. This is an opportunity not only in effective transition and preparation for the future, but also in communication of values and principles that would have served to better connect current industry with its roots, and even perhaps arm it with the ‘tools of historical perspective’ so that growth opportunities could be optimized.
I’m not the first one to express this concept in the last few years. It’s been debated at round-tables, and has fueled discussion about formal training programs and the generation of a written industry legacy document.
Industry, as a whole, some would say, is suffering from a generational value gap. The values that have driven this sector for the past 30 years, inspired by not a few individuals whose life work involved their investment into this industry, for better or worse, are not shared by those leading companies in the current day. Part of this is the result of the formal torch of leadership not being passed on by our founding parents. Part of this stems merely from espousing a different set of values. And part of this is the result of no connection being drawn to track or indicate the evolution of these values, between leaders past and present.
An active mentoring program dealing specifically with this subject would have helped, and the value of such a program would still be significant, even if were to be launched tomorrow. For this industry needs leaders, those individuals to fight the battle for healthcare dollars, to develop companies that will invest in science supporting innovative products, and to take on new charges and responsibilities in the greater community.
This very issue was made obvious (and credit is due) at the Socially Responsible Business Award (http://www.sociallyresponsibleawards.org/) presentation, a few weeks ago at Expo. I personally did not attend this event although colleagues did, and the buzz and electricity this event generated reverberated even at this past week’s CRN annual conference. For those of you not familiar, the Socially Responsible Business Awards “honor the highest achievement in corporate and individual behavior as it relates to exemplary business citizenship in the rapidly growing natural, organic and sustainable products marketplace.” These awards have recognized companies such as Manitoba Harvest, Sambazon, Dr. Bronner’s, Seventh Generation, Tom’s of Maine and Guayaki and the visionaries and highly principled leaders behind them, and in this list of companies can possibly be found a significant piece of industry future, certainly as expressed by the motivation of these companies to operate and support sustainability as a core value supporting their business activities. Sustainability and social responsibility are currently main drivers and characteristics of many industry ‘up and comers’, with a message that resonates with both consumers and the financial community.
Is it from this pool of companies that the next group of industry leaders will be found and forged? Or is it this (or another) vision and set of principles that must be formally identified in order to establish industry values for the motivated to latch onto and from this, leaders will emerge? Or is there a formal process that is needed, an identification, selection and cultivation mechanism that not only grooms individuals for the torch they must carry, but also provides them the legacy and background that will help to arm them for their task?
Just as industry needs its new generation of leaders in Congress and the Senate, its new slate of high profile (and ideally highly funded) researchers in so many scientific disciplines, and its set of ‘open-minded’ international regulators who realize the role of natural health products and supplements in integrative healthcare systems, so too it needs its business leaders stepping from boardroom to podium, from coffee shop to school, from service desk to symposium.
Who are they, how are they identified, what do they do, who do they become, what do they change – questions to ponder, the answers in turn give us a glimpse of our industry identity for the future and the legacy we in turn will pass on to other generations.