Heidi Hackemer on Finding Quiet in the Chaos

The business words you say about Mixing Board member Heidi Hackemer are that she is an entrepreneur, brilliant brand strategist and strategic leader who has helped some of the most important organizations better connect with their purpose and make an impact. The human words are that she’s a force of nature, a generous mentor and helps make people around her better.

She has served as a trusted advisor to some of the world’s top brands, including Oatly where she is the now the Executive Director of the Oatly Climate/Culture Lab. She also worked as an advisor to the Obama White House, served as VP of Engagement for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded the sought-after brand strategy agency Wolf & Wilhelmine and co-founded the Creative Alliance, an organization that matches social movements with creators to make a positive change in the country. A decade ago Heidi was introduced to members of the Lakota tribe and has since focused her personal activism on Indigenous issues in the United States through supporting non-profits and grassroots movements. She has also driven her Harley Davidson across the country several times.

Here are excerpts from this Mixing Board Studio Session between Heidi and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. They talk about brands as avatars for leadership, the importance of backing up corporate purpose and idealism with action, how to collaborate with culture and communities to create more holistic solutions, and navigating your career based on who you are and what you really want.

SG: What are you doing now, Heidi?

HH: As of this week, I am starting a new role at Oatly. We’re starting a new division, it’s called the Climate/Culture Lab. It’s all about creating an innovation satellite for Oatly, we call it a future scouting entity. We will be scouting what the future of our business could be, executing pilot projects and hopefully bringing the learnings and the practices of those pilot projects back into the core business so that we can execute that at scale.

SG: Why does a company need to do something like this? Why do you need a separate entity to figure this stuff out?

HH: Oatly wants to be a company that really defines what a company is for the 20th century and beyond. What does it mean to be a company that leads in this era? It’s very different from the companies that were built in the last era. To lead in this era, you need two components. You need a component that is all about building a visionary rock solid of business, in our case, that drives the conversion from dairy at scale. Which in and of itself is visionary because it’s a different way of consumption and it’s really going up against the climate crisis in a proper way. That has to happen and be strong for you to be a leadership company.

But companies also need areas where they can embrace agility and risk, and take big bets. You don’t want to distract the main visionary business because they have a really important job to do. We’ve gotta get that done really well. But you need a space for there to be a little bit of risk, a little bit of crazy. Because we know that that’s also how you change the world and lead.

SG: The climate part I get. But the culture part that’s added on to the name of the lab, I assume that’s about having your ear to the ground and being able to understand what’s going on outside of Oatly, so you can connect back into it?

HH: Yes, and. It’s a little bit more than that, too. Even if Oatly itself became a company where everything that we do in our process and operations is a hundred percent “climate perfect,” we do everything in the most progressive amazing way, we’re still a small oat milk company in the grand scheme of things. Historically, what Oatly has always done really brilliantly, is influence beyond our size. We have inspired change and created bigger conversations in a way that is bigger than our size. A big part of the reason that we put the word culture in the lab was, one, we wanted to make sure that we were continuing to provoke different conversations and ways of being, which is a role that we take very seriously.

Secondarily, the word culture works in two ways. Other labs that I’ve interacted with in the past, which have been more tech focused, were really about technical innovation. Oftentimes, they haven’t taken into account the cultural and social implications. How are we making sure that the innovation is holistic? Not just solving a technical problem, but also collaborating with communities? Collaborating with the world at large so that our solutions are more just, drive more equity, drive different paradigms of the way that corporations relate to outside entities. Culture is in there because we want to be able to influence, but we also need to collaborate with communities and collaborate with culture so that it’s not just about winning the technical arms race.

As we all know, when the tech industry just focuses on the technical arms race and doesn’t pay attention to the social implications or how this can affect the world in ways greater than the functional innovation — you see democracy breaking. So we have to innovate in a way that takes more than just winning, on a technical standpoint or on a climate standpoint, into account.

SG: What do you think about brands as avatars for leadership? Should brands be creating cult-like, religious-like fervor?

HH: My hope is that a company can stand for that thoughtful evolution and can stand for being a part of change that is actually durable and thoughtful. My cynicism is that in our soundbite culture, in our black and white outrage culture — people don’t have the patience to have the conversations about that.

SG: Because they have an agenda? Or there’s some reductive thing they want to pull out to fit their agenda or fit their world view?

HH: We see it all the time. You see it across the board, how reductive thinking has gotten. You take a one phrase out of context and all of a sudden everyone loses their minds and doesn’t see the bigger picture. That’s what I worry about with change, and the ability for companies to evolve like that. Something that we’ve had to get comfortable with at Oatly is that our job is to provoke for a different way. Oatly has strong opinions about how we think change is going to happen, and you have to get comfortable with the fact that people are going to be criticizing us.

And sometimes that criticism is warranted. I’m not saying companies are perfect, they’re not. My God, they’re not. I understand why people hurl criticism at companies. But what I also understand is that change is really hard. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes nuanced conversation. It takes healthy debate.

SG: On a parallel track you also have this rising emergence of vulnerability and the Brené Brown-ification of leadership style. It’s not a small thing that these conversations are happening about vulnerability at the top. People who have become big CEOs or big time leaders saying, “I’m not good at this. I’m flawed at this.” In a broadcast culture, that was almost impossible to do and impossible to express. Because you only had three messages you could get out there — you had this one moment, you had 30 seconds. Now you have this more porous media structure where there’s almost no part of your day that’s not recorded or analyzed. You always have the ability to communicate. With all that extra oxygen and ability to express, how should companies and leaders be filling that extra space? Or should they even try?

HH: Only if it’s authentic. You can’t force the vulnerability. You can’t force a leader to have that public persona either. You can’t force a brand to have it, because it rings false. How many times has Mark Zuckerberg apologized for Facebook’s actions and done zero about it? It has to be really authentic and it has to be backed up with action. If it really is authentic and backed up with action, then there’s a role for it. But also some companies, just like some leaders, that’s not how they roll. And I don’t think you can force it on them.

SG: There’s been this movement in the last decade — it used to be that your job is just where you work. Now your job is your purpose. You are meant to find meaning in your job. That led to every company on the planet saying, “Here’s our mission statement. Here’s what we stand for.” Now there’s been the backlash to that.

I’m curious what you think about why people are going to go work at certain places in the future. As this evolves and as we look to companies for more, whether they’re flawed or perfect, how are people going to decide?

HH: A lot of my friends have really transitioned in their lives to saying, it’s just a job. It’s a job I enjoy doing, so I’m going to show up, and I’m going to do a really great job for eight to ten hours a day. But at the end of the day, it’s just a job. We’ve gotten a little bit cynical of all these highfalutin purpose statements and what they mean. When you find the companies that are actually really living up to it, really trying, and really being honest and transparent about the journey — people will flock to those companies. But it’s all about action. We were washed over with the language of purpose for the last 10 years and wanted to believe that these companies were this larger thing. And wanted to feel like we were buying into something higher by working there. But at the end of the day, if the companies aren’t willing to show action, financial sacrifice, financial investment in what they’re preaching, then it just becomes it’s a job.

Purpose is really hard. I realized that when I had my own company — you have all these choices in front of you as a CEO, of what you can do and what you can’t do. It hit me one day, “I can literally do whatever I want.” I can choose to take a lower margin on this project so that we hire the right person for it. Or I can choose to invest some of our profit into this type of program that I know is going to benefit the employees. Or I don’t have to. But there’s nobody else to blame. Granted it was a much simpler company, it wasn’t public, which causes a lot of issues. Going over the monthly finances or the weekly finances I could say, “Oh yeah. I can do that, but our profitability will be lower.”

SG: There’s career advice and then there’s personal purpose advice, and sometimes they’re not the same thing. You have your friends who say, “I’m just going to work eight hours a day and then I’m gonna do the stuff I really care about on weekends.” You could choose to be doing a lot of things right now and you chose to work at Oatly, doing the very specific thing you’re doing. How do you advise someone who’s idealistic, who wants to change the world and wants to change it immediately? How do you choose a lane and how do you keep from burning out?

HH: I know what I value in my own life. I value freedom, the people around me, love, connection. There’s things that I know I value. And the specific cause that I realized over time was my personal cause, is working with indigenous communities in the U.S., and doing what I can to support those leaders. I’m also very cognizant of articulating the relationship I have with my gut instinct. I take a lot of time to meditate and do that kind of work. Because the professional landscape right now is chaos, there’s no ladder that you can just hook into. So we, as professionals, have to become navigators. We can’t just hook into a foothold and go up a ladder. There are no ladders, the ladders are gone. The only way that you can truly navigate, is if you understand who you are and what you really want.

And to do that, you have to sit in silence. Which is totally contrary to our phones. It’s crazy to me that all these structures are breaking down at the same time the devices are rising. The very thing that you need, which is silence, time to ponder, boredom, to be able to navigate this professional chaos. We are now in the distraction world, where we’re getting distracted all time. We’re in this really weird position as human beings right now. We have to take the time to understand what we’re about, but we’re distracted to all hell on that. I don’t succeed at this every day, but I really try to remember, you have to maintain that relationship within yourself so you know how to navigate moving forward.

This is the advice I give to everybody, you’ve got to create a practice, whatever your practice is, of listening to yourself. Because the world is no longer going to lay out paths for you. It’s just not. I’ve always had a really gut driven approach to my career. I’ve always run at things that feel aligned with the kind of work I want to be doing. And it’s probably a risk. If you look at my LinkedIn and there’s a lot of movement there. I’m moving around in different industries and I’m doing different things. But I’ve always known that there are things that I’m good at and I want to leave a mark and try to make things a little bit better than it was when I was before I got there. One time I did a podcast and I said, “In my career,” and the podcast guy interrupted me and said, “Do you really think that you’ve had a career? Because when I look at your path, I don’t see a career.” Well, I’ve had a life, right? Whenever I’ve been presented with an opportunity, like Oatly — a lot of my friends were surprised. They said, “You’re wild. You don’t work for other people full time. You don’t do this. This isn’t what you do.”

SG: You’re a freaking wolf.

HH: I’m a wolf. But, in my gut, I knew this was going to be a good place to go do some work that you feel really good about. And you’re going to be surrounded by other wolves. So I joined Oatly. But it wasn’t calculated. I literally just sat out by a pond and thought about it for a while. For people that want to make impact, and I wouldn’t put myself on a pedestal as somebody that’s making impact, but for someone that is interested in that your career, it actually starts with silence at home. I really, really firmly believe that that’s where it starts. And then the pathways forward start to open up to you. You’ll start to see them.

SG: What’s your advice to people just starting in their careers who want to make an immediate impact?

HH: My twenties were spent grinding. I laugh at my nieces that are 22 years old and are like, “I need to find a job that really aligns with my values and my purpose.”

When I was 22 years old, I was literally sleeping on the floor of an ad agency to make ads for diet products for women. My twenties were not about my purpose at all. My twenties were all about learning the skills, finding the good teachers, and just building the skill base. Which gave me tremendous freedom when I turned 31 and I dropped out and I started doing my own thing. I had built such a strong foundation base of skills.

The thing that I always push my nieces and nephews on is like, okay so you’re in a job that sucks, but you don’t have the financial freedom to leave. Use it as a science project. Look and see, why don’t you like this? What do you think that manager is doing bad? What do you think that company is doing poorly? Because someday you’re going to be able to influence it and you’re going to learn from these lessons.

SG: This ties to this unbearable immediacy of now — which is what you’re talking about in terms of the noise on your phone. There is this perception that everything can be solved in a 60 second TikTok. If you could just summarize all these different things in 60 seconds and wrap it up neatly and then do some cool editing. Why can’t I be doing this right now, right here, and change everything in this moment. But obviously you can’t. Humans can’t do anything at that pace.

HH: This is something I’ve really learned by working with an indigenous nonprofit. I’m with them every week and their sense of time has been so illuminating to me. The organization I’m working with is making a 150 year plan for the organization. Their sense of intergenerational work, but also within their own lives, they will say things to me like, “That grief is going to take time”, or, “That learning is going to take time.” I so appreciate being able to be privy to their culture and pace because it has integrity. And they don’t solve things on TikTok timelines because the real problems aren’t on TikTok timelines. They’re just not.

SG: How do you then bring that spirit into an organization, where people are like, “Well that’s great, but we need to rock shit out?

HH: I’ve started doing this thing with my team recently, where I sit back and say, “What are our goals for the next two weeks?” So within the next two weeks, what are we focused on? What’s the most important thing? What are we going to delay because we’re focused on the most important things? I find on my team, and in myself sometimes, we have these moments where it feels like everything is of equal importance and it has to happen right now. It’s about creating framework for chaos.

In the next two weeks, these are our three priorities and we’re going to be crazy about these three priorities. And we’re going to do everything we need to do, but we’re going to give ourselves permission to not be as responsive on these other things because they aren’t the priority. We have to focus. And focus is such a difficult thing right now. In the context of business but also personally. I’ve had to be really intentional about setting focus lanes for teams and for myself.

SG: You and I worked together on a sprint at The White House in 2015 [to bring outside perspective on enhancing digital communications]. What did you take away from an experience of just getting thrown into the West Wing for two weeks and trying to very quickly coalesce perspective, come up with a strategy, and then come up with ideas and tactics in a very short period of time?

HH: It struck me in the meetings that we had, and the meetings we had with President Obama, it’s almost like the decisions about what they were going to do were made months earlier or years earlier when they made the appointment of the person. The important thing was that they vetted the right people to be in the room and then they trusted those people to do what they do. That’s one of biggest lessons I learned being there. The pace of things moved so quickly and there’s so much complexity, there’s no way that the president can truly grapple with the full complexity of any situation. Every situation that he has to deal with in a day has intense complexity, but he hired the people a long time ago that were trusted to understand that complexity. And that’s what I felt about us on that team. Whenever I was afraid to be like, “Oh my God, am I going to sound like an idiot?” It was like, no, you’re brought in as the expert here so your job now is to have an opinion.

Your job is not to convince people that you’re good at what you do. You are good at what you do or else you wouldn’t be here. So now just need to have the opinions and you just need to do you at the highest possible caliber that you’ve ever done you. There’s no time to second guess yourself. There’s no time to be like, “Oh, am I good at brand strategy?” Yeah, you’re fucking good at brand strategy, that’s why you’re here. You’re good at it. Now go do it, go do you. And do you in the most powerful way. Every morning of that experience, I would be like, “Okay, Heidi. Drink your water, because that’s when you’re at your best. Take your airborne chewable in the morning, so you show up peak Heidi.” And when I was trying to figure out the parts of the deliverable that fell in my court, for me, it’s always about movement and walking. So I put on my Beethoven and I walked up and down the mall one night, after work.

What I learned from that experience was, get the right people around you, and trust them. Let them guide you. And that’s exactly what President Obama did. He wasn’t sitting there questioning them. He knew you wouldn’t be in this room if you weren’t the expert. That was a huge learning for me. Get the right people in the room with you. The first time that has been fully realized for me since that experience, was at Oatly. I was able to build a team where I truly have the right people around me. My job is just to coach, encourage and help unblock them versus question whether they know what they’re doing or not. That’s when it gets really fun.

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Previous Mixing Board Studio Sessions are here.

For more on Mixing Board and how the community can support organizations, see this recent post.

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