S7:E1 Leading to Elevate with Doug Brunt

May 02, 2023



Show Notes 

The 7th Field Points series is focused on leadership. Throughout the series, our host Morgan Seger will be joined by co-host Laurel Mann and the Sr. Leadership team from Ceres Solutions to discuss the 2023 Strategic Initiatives. In the first episode of the series Doug Brunt comes on the show to talk about the “Elevate” initiative. 

Who is Doug Brunt? 

Doug Brunt is the Chief Operating Officer at Ceres Solutions. A Madison County native, Doug has spent his entire career in the cooperative system. After graduating from Purdue, Doug started at Madison County Co-op and worked his way to CEO. From there Doug spent 20 years at Land O’Lakes leading the organization at a high level. This allowed Doug opportunities to work alongside successful cooperatives across the country. In 2018, Doug joined the team at Ceres Solutions.  

“This allowed me to kind of take it all the way through… it's a great team and certainly the leadership Jeff, Troike and myself have been very close allies and friends and partners for a long time,” shared Doug. “The opportunity to work with him and the team that we're able to assemble here has been certainly a great, great opportunity.” 

Doug, who goes by @CoachBrunt on Twitter, has had years of valuable leadership experience and shares his leadership philosophy saying, “When I think about leadership, I think about needing to have a compelling view of the future and by compelling view, I mean you got to be able to share it but you got to be enthusiastic or be able to articulate it and it's got to be so compelling that you want people to get up and run there with you.” 


What is Elevate? 

“A strategic initiative is the things you're going to try to change,” shared Doug. “Once it becomes part of our DNA, then that's what it is.” 

Elevate is one of the four strategic initiatives Ceres Solutions is executing against in 2023. This imperative is all about elevating both the employee experience and customer experience. To Doug, when it comes to considering your competition, he said he focuses on the team’s ability to stay ahead of the most progressive customers. With that in mind, the team gets to work elevating the Ceres Experience.  


How is “Elevate” in Action? 

Employees have seen this initiative in action in a few ways. The first is the creation of centralized onboarding. This helps create unified messaging and execution from all new employees. Another way the employee experience is being elevated is through the creation of Centered On You Academy. This is a 2 year program for emerging leaders within the Ceres Solutions team.  

“That's one that it's really rewarding to me,” Doug said about the Centered On You Academy. “It’s another way that Ceres is demonstrating that the future is just as or even more important than the now. I think that's another theme that we'll continue to market as part of our culture that ties into the long term piece.” 

This unified approach should have a trickle down effect on also elevating the customer’s experience. Another way that customers may have noticed a shift in their experience at Ceres is through technology. Late in 2022 the Ceres Solutions team rolled out Ceres Access, a customer portal that allows customers to transact digitally.  


Doug Brunt (00:01): 

A strategic initiative is the things you're going to try to change. Once it becomes part of our DNA, then that's what it is. 

Morgan Seger (00:12): 

Every day we rely on food, fuel, and fiber, but how much do you know about these industries we depend on? In this podcast, we dive deep into the production and processes of these everyday essentials. This is Field Points, an original podcast production from Ceres Solutions. Welcome to Field Points. I'm your host, Morgan Seger. This is the first episode of our seventh series on the Field Points podcast and I am excited to bring to you the leadership team from Ceres Solutions. Throughout this series, we're going to be talking about the four strategic initiatives that guide Ceres through their decision making and help them stay focused on common goals. In today's episode, I will be joined by Doug Brunt, the chief operating officer at Ceres Solutions, and he will be breaking down what the Elevate Strategic Initiative is, what it means for Ceres Solutions employees and customers, and how he's seen it in action. Throughout this series, I will also be joined by my co-host Laurel Mann. Laurel was a guest on the show back in series four when we talked about building a brand and as a part of the Ceres Solutions employee team, she brings a lot of really valuable insight to these conversations. So let's dive right in. Here is our guest today, Doug Brunt. 

Doug Brunt (01:27): 

Thank you. My name is Doug Brunt and again, I'm the chief operating officer at Ceres. Part of my background, I grew up in Madison County, Indiana. I've got the wife and two kids, went to Purdue, worked kind of in the co-op system my whole life. Started Madison County co-op and worked through, ended up being the CEO there, CEO at Ag One. Then spent 20 years with Land O'Lakes and then came back to my dream job about five years ago at Ceres and get to help them. I had tended to help some of our larger customers throughout the whole country at a pretty high level. This allowed me to kind of take it all the way through and the fact that get to do it without getting on an airplane and it's a great team and certainly the leadership there, Jeff, Troy, and myself have been very close allies and friends and partners and customer, all that kind of relationship for a long time and so the opportunity to work with him and the team that we're able to assemble there has been certainly a great, great opportunity. 

Morgan Seger (02:30): 

Before we dive into the strategic initiatives, while we had Doug in the studio, I wanted to ask him some questions around his leadership style. So he shares what his leadership philosophy is and how he became that type of leader, 

Doug Brunt (02:43): 

But I think there are some key things that you've pick up and that kind of are your beacons as you lead people through things. To me, I think about leadership, I think about needing to have a compelling view of the future and by compelling view, I mean you got to be able to share it but you got to be enthusiastic or be able to articulate it and it's got to be so compelling that you want people to get up and run there with you. And it's also part about not sharing the future in such a way that nobody's afraid of what's going to happen. We may not know exactly what's going to happen, but you got to kind of create an atmosphere with your team that you, you're not afraid of anything that might happen and that confidence that you give 'em and that that's very rewarding and that's what we try to do from that standpoint. 


I'd say another one that's been very big for me is kind of thinking about that we don't, your comp competition being staying ahead of your most progressive customer instead of focusing all through the last 35 years instead of focusing on what somebody's actually doing in your own space necessarily thinking about it from the customer and staying ahead of your most progressive customers has been kind of that drive that's kept us sharp I think in whichever organization. And that's say those two things, that compelling view of the future and then that focusing on staying ahead of the progressive customer. It's probably the two that a lot of other things tie into. 

Laurel Mann (04:10): 

And Doug, I'd love to add to that because when you came to series in 2018, I think it was in the fall and you made one promise and you said the only promise would be that there would be the constant sea of change and change was there was going to be more change and it was going to come faster and you did not disappoint because when you look back at the last five years, I think one of the great things about the initiatives is that they have given people, you know, boil it down simply to just a couple of words that the whole team is rallied behind. The whole team knows where we're going, they know our direction and then they learn their role in fulfilling each one of those initiatives and I felt that clarity was just really powerful because a Ceres is a strong company and it always has been, but I felt like really rallying our employee group, especially through the troubled times that we may have seen as a country and just a pandemic. There was a lot of things that have happened that really helped us to stay united around those imperatives. So I was grateful to have those. 

Morgan Seger (05:10): 

Laurel mentioned how these imperatives help the employees at Ceres solutions stay focused on what is important for that year no matter what comes at them next. Doug walks us through how and why he takes this approach and how he prioritizes zooming out from the day-to-day tasks to really focus on the future and how this organization can have the biggest impact. 

Doug Brunt (05:34): 

You have to consciously do that, right? It's real easy to get sucked in to the day-to-day. I try to always focus, think about my account, especially in the role that I'm in. I focus half of my calendar on futuristic things versus what I'm going to say The fire of today is lighting the fire for tomorrow in those two kind of things and balancing that out doesn't always work. I mean there are things that come up and don't, you're never as good as you want to be in from those things, but just trying to make sure that you keep that time and you got to have focus. I mean that you just have to focus on 

Laurel Mann (06:11): 

It. When I think about your presence at Ceres elevating the employee experience and the customer experience, there has been an awful lot of opportunity to improve on good things that were being done and then introduce a lot of new things that were experiences that were brand new to the Ceres team and to our customers that have made us a stronger company. 

Doug Brunt (06:28): 

To me it boils down again a little bit like what Laurel said, it's improving the customer experience and the employee experience. When you think about it from an employee standpoint, it's again about providing focus to them and to get through all the clutter and the noise and make it more what I'm going to say efficient and allow them to have work-life balance at the same time. And boy, that's one that we could probably talk two days on in terms of how it's different for everyone and that's what we're trying to teach the organization and that we've got to find that. I like to say when I talk about work-life balance, it's not work work and it's not life. Life. 


How do we find that and understanding that there's times when it's more work and that there's times where we've got to be able to share back and give it more life. And so how we do that is exciting things, but it's all about that from an employee stand, from a customer standpoint, again, it's making it easier to do business with. One thing I found when I got the Ceres is we had great what I call centers of excellence in how we take care of customers, but it wasn't the similarity or the broadness that we needed in terms of multiple touchpoints. I know that I've used the example of the shoestring that you've brought up before where we only had one touchpoint for a customer instead of multiple ones, and as our customers get more complex that we're going to need to have a better relate. So we've got to have a consistency when there's more than one person touching them, then it's more the Ceres. This Ceres way starts to become more important than just what I'm going to say, pockets of excellence that just great people had figured out how to do over time. All right, so improving those two things I think are what it means to me 

Laurel Mann (08:21): 

As I think about your role at Ceres, A lot of it is focused on strategic thinking, but a lot of it I know is just people based. It's coaching people, it's talking to people. No, you've coached in a lot of different capacities, but when you're coaching people at Ceres, what do you find helps you be successful or what draws them towards those behaviors you want to see them do? 

Doug Brunt (08:41): 

Yeah, I think again, I have some experience at Coach. I always say that I'm just an out of work teacher and an out of work coach and I just found somebody that rep would hire me that I could use those two skills and that's because that's what I do, right, is we teach people each day how to get through things and we coach 'em up. You know, think about what you enjoy in those things and in terms of there are times when coaching you coach people up and there are times when you humble them in terms of that and play both roles in those things. You have to do that. I think that you become a better teacher or a better coach when you can be out in front of it when it's not an emotional time. Same thing with a customer. I teach when I've teach sales leadership or sales management or sale, any of those things, you can't work somebody through a problem if you haven't built up any equity. 


If the first time you go have the tough conversation about a subject is when somebody did wrong, that's not going to work. You have to be able to challenge, you have to be able to do those things in what I'm going to say, non-emotional times, right? To gain those equity a times commitment thing and it's very purposeful to be good at it and I'm just very fortunate that Jeff and the leadership team, the board have allowed me that kind of time. And again, it's part of that complimentary piece between Jeff and I, what somebody likes and what somebody maybe doesn't like. No, not part of your skillset. Not that the skillsets aren't the same, it's one the more you enjoy 

Laurel Mann (10:15): 

And the people who are listening to this podcast are leaders in their own way. They're leaders of their business, they're leaders of their family. A lot of 'em are leaders in community and I know that you have brought something to our attention, to my attention, particularly just the value of keeping things simple and being genuine. And like you've said, it's not always happy news you bring to somebody. Sometimes it's a challenge to improve or to do different, but I think that your consistent communication and the keeping it simple has helped, has really helped. We have almost 800 employees and they have rallied around these four words and a fairly simple purpose that we have as a company to serve and I really appreciate that. I think other people who are listening to this message can say, Hey, what can I take away from what Doug's sharing? Well, what are my strengths? What are going to be my initiatives and am I communicating those effectively and investing enough time in my employees or my people to 

Morgan Seger (11:09): 

Laurel's point? Having four strategic initiatives and having all 800 employees working towards the same goals can be a challenge. Next, Doug covers how these initiatives are communicated so everyone can be on the same page and focus towards the same goals. 

Doug Brunt (11:25): 

So I would say from my standpoint, I think the important part we've done is make it part of the process. Our strategic planning, we're just now getting involved in it right now, but we've made it part of the process and what we've focused on is saying what are the assumptions that we say are going to be our challenges or our threats? We spend an awful lot of time in preparation for this. I was thinking we probably have somewhere between 10 15% of the employee group involved from one state or another enrolling this thing up. So we do get some feedback back on that. What we do is really say we look for consistency first on what are those assumptions or what are those issues that our strategic plan is going to need to address? I think a lot of people want to go right to the initiatives in an organization and not think about what you're solving for. 


So we have our debate around what we're going to solve for and that's where we say, okay, the ones that now are consolidation, do we think that in our whole industry? Do we think those are going to change? We think that's going to slow down volatility, quit worrying about what it is, just know that it's going to be something and prepare an organization for that. Certainly we labor these issues around rural and all those different pieces. We know that transparency, we know our employees and our customers demand more. The culture we're in, it's the digital, it's podcasts, it's all these different things that they demand more transparency. So we take those four things and say, okay, when we start rolling this back, what are we going to do to prepare the organization to take those kind of things on? So I would say investing the time in that is what I think is kind of the secret sauce that we do that I see lots of people and it's a credit to the organization and to our leadership that gives us that kind of time, but I think it's made it better as we go and then as we roll to how to do that. 


I think the other thing that's important, and I know you said from how do you use the one word piece, but it's keeping it high enough that whether you are a vice president in the company or a part-timer right in the company or anywhere in between, there is something they can see in each one of those that relates to them. And if you get too specific in those things, people want to drive it tighter. It's not necessarily about tighter seeing their place in it and that's when the real power happens. 

Laurel Mann (14:20): 

I feel like what you've said, the time spent and intentionally spending analyzing your business is something that our listeners could benefit from intentionally devoting time. I know for you it was often on an airplane in your past career, but now it's windshield time or whenever you can focus intentionally thinking about those threats or those opportunities that your business will have and then just adopting that mindset that we're going to grow this organization, we're going to grow our people, we're going to develop our people, and that's just going to be the mindset. It's the constant change that you promised in the beginning and helping our people be successful through this new disruptive, constantly disruptive normal and our customers and our business partners are facing the same thing. I really have found that when we focus, like we've said, communicating consistently top all the way through the ranks of our employee group because sometimes the most important people communicating are the ones who are touching the customer by delivering the fuel or they're out in the customer's field. Giving recommendations every single link in the chain is important in this process of elevating the experience. 

Doug Brunt (15:21): 

I know that one of the things that three or four years ago happened when I was trying to explain the deal around the customer and staying ahead of the customer and all part of that drive is what I said is, and what's really awesome is the customer is getting harder to please. And so what that helps us drive, if we stay focused and the customer has to get better too, they have to get, whether it's more efficient in livestock or whether it becomes better at yields or better at farming or better in their trucking business, they have to get better too. So the fact that they're challenging us, boy, that's awesome and that helps drive us so we don't have to light the fire, we just have to stay focused on the right thing and it'll take us there. And I think that's part of the longer term game. I mean that's the other piece. If somebody said, how would I describe our culture here at Ceres, our opportunity to view things from a longer term view, our capital is patient, those kinds of things, we're very fortunate to be able to do that. That is a big, big deal. 

Morgan Seger (16:34): 

Elevating the experience that you get at Ceres Solutions also requires constant self-improvement across the board, not excluding the leadership team next Doug shares who coaches the coaches and where he has gotten some of his best leadership inspiration. I 

Doug Brunt (16:50): 

Am big on that. You have to just continually want to learn. So whether that is finding the right people to read, I've had great, just absolutely great mentors in my life. I've been able to be around actually because of my career at land. I got the call on the 40 top cooperatives across the country and I, without name, name, but those were the people who taught me, right? And so when you're trying to do business with those and you're thinking, and I was very fortunate, a lot of those were partnership kind of relationships, so you learned those pieces. I was very fortunate to have some people in my, my career the my first general manager was a person that I thought a lot of. I actually had a basketball coach and what's really, I was a student manager before I played, and so I was a student manager for two years and then I played actually on the team my junior and senior year, but I learned more as a student manager. I prep for a meeting is still the way I helped prep for practices. I still use the same three by five index card that is, and nothing's more than 15 minutes long. So little things like that you bet you've got, you just can learn all every chance you enjoy the game more than you enjoy the result, right? Because it's not about ending it, it's not about getting to somewhere. It's about how much can you learn when you go, how much can you improve while you're going. 

Morgan Seger (18:17): 

Now Doug is going to walk us through how he has seen the Elevate strategic initiative in action. 

Doug Brunt (18:23): 

Yeah, so I would say first of all, when we did a tremendous effort by our HR group and a lot of people when we moved to our centralized onboarding two years ago, set up a lot of these other things, got back to we had these centers of excellence, but yet we also, they were all different. So the opportunity that in the first three months for most employees we're bringing them to share what this Ceres expectations, what they should expect from us, what we expect from them, those kinds of things. Huge undertaking for a company this size and the way we've done it. We've used technology to be able to do that in multiple places. Jeff, Troy, our ceo, commits to that and I know it's one of the things each month that he enjoys and will not miss. He just will not from that standpoint. 


So that was the first one that I think really set the stage and it was kind of practice for some of the big one that we're doing this time is our centered on U Academy, which is taking future leaders to the company and working them through in a combination with Purdue over a two year period. Boy, that's one that it's really rewarding to me to see that development and see that go. It's another way that Ceres is demonstrating that the future is just as or even more important than the now. And I think that's another theme that we'll continue to market as part of our culture ties into the long term piece. Hopefully that that's what people would say whether you're a customer or an employee that they would say that about us is what we'd hope. We talk a lot about trying to create an organization that is global talent that wants to stay local and when you get a chance to see that, and that's a big piece of what we're trying to accomplish, I think that gets back to clear. 


I read one time when was the best job you ever had and I can't remember, I need to be able to say who it was but I can't remember that. But it says when you had a very clear role and so I spend a lot of time with the different leaders making and especially if they have an issue with an employee, what did you really tell them was the three most important things and I'm famous for my three things. If you have more than three things, you have no things right? That's what I'm, because they can't all be important and they can't all be important and you can't hold them accountable and how much thought do you get? I think the other thing I'm pretty critical on is when an employee just comes in and said, these are going to be my three things without any feedback. 


If you as a supervisor, you ought to have your three things too and what's powerful is when there's a high percentage of overlap in the two and then you get to focus on where they aren't and debate on that third one. If you're going to argue as an employee's going to argue back with me and say, no, here's why and have that debate there, but too many times in the performance review, and I'm going to say a process, not a time, because I think that feedback session and that over the years, and it gets back to that continual piece, how feedback, how you prepare for those things is so important to make it more futuristic instead of, again, dealing with issues when there's only emotions, right? 

Laurel Mann (21:47): 

Or it's very tactical or it's very specific tactical. When you're talking about the big game, you're not talking about one play. 

Morgan Seger (21:53): 

In addition to elevating the employee's experience, the employees can work together to elevate the customer's experience. If 

Doug Brunt (22:01): 

I'm a salesperson and I'm going to need to utilize more resources, that's really what you're saying is how do I bring the full effect of Ceres to this customer and how do I do that? First of all, you're going to have to plan with the account because you're going to coordinate, right? There's a different skillset. That's one of the biggest things is usually that's not their first nature. So that helping people just understand and how to do that is just thinking out ahead farther and planning and thinking about it from a needs of the customer and not a sale. You can do it with a customer, you can do it with an employee. The same way is thinking about it as what are their needs, what are they struggling with, what are those things before they bring him to you with an issue is can you be more proactive with that so you can use more resources? Where I try to get at it 

Morgan Seger (22:51): 

With different tactics employed, Doug walks us through how they determine if they were successful in their approach to elevate the customer and employee experience throughout the year. 

Doug Brunt (23:02): 

I'm very proud at Ceres, even though we've tried to move through quite a bit of changes, we've got such a diverse group in terms of set experiences, skills towards technology, all of those different pieces. So one of them might say, we've not changed enough and the next one may say It seems like we've changed everything. Right? And understanding that piece. How I think about success is, and it's one of the most proudest things I am about Ceres is we have been able to go on this change journey of positioning ourselves and still having results. Lots of people can change things and lots of people can have results. Very few organizations can do it at the same time, and again, some days we're better at it than others. We're not what we need to be. I think that's really how I measure it. We talked about some big initiatives. 


We track how many people each month who goes through our onboarding. We are able to look at that, okay, year over year now what percent of our new hires are getting through at what time? I mean we start tracking those kinds of metrics to help ourselves do that. So we know if we're getting the initiative piece and then the results are always the back on the backside and that comes later. I know that the group gets tired of me saying when they ask me questions about some of the things we work on when this was right, somewhere between five and 10 years. And so you've got to be able, and that's one of the hardest things that's not really came up yet. You've got to be willing to play in the gray to be good at this anymore because if you're purely black and white in terms of how you need to look at everything, there is just very few things that are like that anymore. 


It's about the journey continuing on and the game never ends. So once you get your head around that, that you're not going to run out of time. We have four initiatives that are all competing with resources, time and things. Even though we've, we seems like we've got that in this nice tidy little thing there. You're competing with resources and time all along. Our access portal that we've done has been one of the big pieces of our elevating the customer experience and we think it'll be really big in the future. We were six months later than we thought, right in that cause we wanted to really make sure that we did it right and boy, that was hard. I mean that was a struggle for some of us on the team to to do that piece, but we also wanted it to be right. There's that kind of trade offs all the time that you're always going to be doing. 


So as an example, the other thing, you can't get bored with your strategy, right? That's another key that I use a lot of times is because when it's a grind, you got to just stay with it and can't get bored with a strategy of success, and that's one that I see organizations fall into that track. What's interesting is as we go through those assumptions and we start thinking about what the 24 strategic plan looks like, right? Somebody's got to convince me that if we're not going to do those four that we're doing now, what's the other one and why? Because we're not having more than four, right? Right. It's already one more that I don't like. So I was 

Morgan Seger (26:18): 

Going to bring that up and I was like 

Laurel Mann (26:19): 

Going to that hard, see how 

Doug Brunt (26:21): 

That disc tells, see that disc tells you that I'm flexible. Yeah, this is true. See, that's not come out yet. That tells you that I'm flexible. Right? I love that. Yeah. So individually you can have three corporate league, you can have four, but we're going to debate that. So I was thinking back and looking at what we did in 2019 and what we came with. It's changed a little every year, but there are similarities that are still woven into that, 

Laurel Mann (26:48): 

And the things that these initiatives start don't go away. They are now part of our fabric. 

Doug Brunt (26:54): 

That is a great point, Laurel, because what all this is a strategic initiative is the things you're going to try to change. Once it becomes part of the DNA of what we do, then it falls off. That's why you can only focus on so many things, but there are certain things. Once it becomes part of our dna, then that's what it is. 

Laurel Mann (27:13): 

When Doug came to Ceres, there was an email that was sent out announcing joining our team, and it did say Doug motivates teams at all levels to achieve just a bit more than they thought possible of themselves. I believe that has proven true as a member of the employee group, but I also like that sentence because to me that challenges the people listening to this podcast. What can my team do? What are we capable of? If we unify around from simple purposes and some simple initiatives that we know are going to matter to our business because we've done a little analysis and we've done a little planning and thinking around it, the more strategic thinking you do, the stronger you're going to be as a business. I think, Doug, again, you've offered some advice to our listeners, but I just really want to encourage people they can extract more and achieve more together if they take the time. 

Doug Brunt (27:59): 

I always say if the environment around us and our customer base and our employee group would stop changing, so we don't take, there's any no chance of no that happening in a long time, so then that's our driver. 

Morgan Seger (28:13): 

I'm excited to see how this Elevate Initiative continues to play out and change the employee and customer experiences for the better. I want to take a minute to say thank you. We are so grateful that you choose to spend this time listening to this podcast and we hope you are finding value in each episode. I also want to say thank you so much to Doug for sitting down with us and sharing what his leadership philosophy is and how Elevate is going to be a very instrumental part of the Ceres solutions process moving forward. In our next episode, my co-host Laurel and I will be joined by Scott Osborne, the Chief Financial Officer with Ceres Solutions, and he is going to be breaking down the GROW Initiative, what that means for Ceres Solutions employees and customers, and what you can expect as action steps out of that initiative. 



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