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Risa Cretella: “Help to make problems simple”

Help to make problems simple — Problems are omnipresent. Even the most talented leader can’t eradicate all the problems of a company or prevent new ones from emerging. As a leader, it’s not your job to make all of the problems go away and, moreover, putting yourself in the position of Chief Problem Solver does nothing to […]

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Help to make problems simple — Problems are omnipresent. Even the most talented leader can’t eradicate all the problems of a company or prevent new ones from emerging. As a leader, it’s not your job to make all of the problems go away and, moreover, putting yourself in the position of Chief Problem Solver does nothing to build organizational capabilities and employee engagement. The best thing you can do as a leader is to help make problems easier to solve by simplifying the complex.


As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Risa Cretella.

Risa joined Sovos Brands, a food company with a mission to acquire and build a portfolio of one-of-a-kind brands, in 2018. She is the Executive Vice President, Group General Manager of the Dinner & Sauces segment, which includes the beloved Rao’s Homemade brand. Rao’s, a line of pasta sauces, soups, frozen entrées and pasta, is one of the fastest-growing center store brands above 100M dollars in sales as measured by IRI Pacesetters.

Prior to joining Sovos Brands, Risa spent five years at Pinnacle Foods as Senior VP of Marketing for Frozen Leadership Brands and VP of Marketing for Birds Eye Frozen Vegetables.

She was also a founding member of Pinnacle’s “WISE” (Women Inspiring Success & Empowerment), a development & mentoring program for women in sales and marketing. Her other experience includes 11 years with The J.M Smucker company, working on a range of marketing, managing and directorial roles.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After graduating from college, my (now) husband and I settled in Northeast Ohio near his hometown. That region was and remains economically challenged, and so job opportunities were scarce. I took my very sparse resume — with credentials limited to my BBA in Marketing and summer jobs working at the mall — to The J.M. Smucker Company located in the rural town of Orrville, Ohio. At the time, Smucker’s was a small jam & jelly company and the marketing department consisted of just a handful of people, so there were no entry-level marketing opportunities. The head of HR gave me a typing test and I was placed as an administrative assistant making 8 dollars per hour. I spent 11 years at Smucker’s, working my way up through various marketing & sales positions, growing with the company. I have been in the CPG food industry ever since.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

No matter what the future has in store for me, I believe that this experience of leading a team and business virtually in a COVID environment will prove to be one of the most interesting, challenging, and rewarding chapters in my career. It’s been incredible to realize the power and importance of building human connections, and how those bonds can be built through screens and microphones.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m excited every day to be a part of the Rao’s business. Rao’s is a line ofpasta sauces, soups, frozen entrées and pastas. Over the past 2 years, we have extended the Rao’s brand into new categories including pasta and soup. Right now, we are launching a new line of Rao’s frozen entrees in grocery stores nationally. During this time when restaurant options are limited and consumers are becoming fatigued of cooking at home, Rao’s is providing restaurant-quality food with clean ingredients in a convenient format. Taking the time and stress out of cooking makes eating more enjoyable.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I believe that people are most likely to be fulfilled and actively engaged at work when they feel that they are a part of something greater. Companies that have clear vision and purpose — with leaders that actively seek to link individual employee activities and behaviors to that vision — will have happier employees. At Sovos, our mission of “delicious food for joyful living” is fundamentally very relatable because mealtime and food moments are something that we all experience. As leaders, it’s up to us to bring our Sovos mission to life for all employees — whether they work in the sauce kitchen at our frozen entrees production facility, or process purchase orders from our retail customers.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Company productivity and profitability are an outcome of having employees that are engaged and fulfilled. As a leader, if you make it your first priority to create an environment that fosters employee engagement, then goodness will flow from there. For me, it always begins with making human connections — taking the time to learn what matters to people. Simply making a point to remember the name of someone’s pet, child, or life partner can be very meaningful.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Listen to more than just the words — Active listening is not just about processing the content of what another person is saying to you. You can gain so much insight if you pay attention to facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. People say a lot with their pauses.
  • I once stopped at a colleague’s office door to offer a quick & casual “how’s it going?” She responded, “I’m good”, but I knew instantly that she was not okay. As it turns out, she was planning on tendering her resignation later that day due to a toxic work environment she’d been suffering through under her boss. I intervened and — long story short — she stayed at the company for many more years and her boss was exited in a matter of weeks.

2. Don’t strive or pretend to be perfect — Being a great leader is not about being the smartest person in the room, never making mistakes, or having all of the answers. In fact, building trust with your employees requires you to be vulnerable about your own shortcomings. Leaders who posture perfection create an environment of intimidation — one where employees are more likely to hide mistakes and cover up problems.

  • I always try make a point to ask questions of my employees in team forums that put them in the position to be an expert and reveal a gap in my knowledge. A simple example of this is asking the meaning of an acronym or other technical term; while it may not be necessary for you to know the meaning to understand the content, asking the question serves another, higher purpose.

3. Help to make problems simple — Problems are omnipresent. Even the most talented leader can’t eradicate all the problems of a company or prevent new ones from emerging. As a leader, it’s not your job to make all of the problems go away and, moreover, putting yourself in the position of Chief Problem Solver does nothing to build organizational capabilities and employee engagement. The best thing you can do as a leader is to help make problems easier to solve by simplifying the complex.

  • Prior to joining Sovos, I was at Pinnacle Foods; I once had a special assignment leading us through a significant supply chain challenge. During that time, I was fortunate to have frequent, direct interaction with our CEO (Mark Clouse — now CEO of Campbell’s). Once when I was in his office seeking counsel on a problem, he took out a piece of paper and drew a matrix breaking down different choices and outcomes. I’m quite confident that he knew the right choice, but he didn’t make it for me. I still have that piece of paper.

4. Surround yourself with people who are different from you — I am so pleased that our industry is finally making progress in confronting and seeking to remedy lack of racial and gender diversity. While that is of the utmost importance, another type of diversity also brings great value to an organization — diversity of thought. When building a team, it’s critically important to share a common set of values, but it’s equally critical for leaders to surround themselves with people who have different backgrounds, experiences, and approaches.

  • My head of finance on the Rao’s business is my right-hand-person. She and I are very different, from the fact that she was born in Egypt (I grew up in rural Illinois) to the fact that she tends to be risk averse (whereas I have higher tolerance for risk). We keep each other in balance and bring out the best in each other.

5. Make space for laughter — There is legitimate science to support the notion that laughter contributes to good health — laughing causes the brain to release endorphins, lowering stress. Sharing a laugh also creates human connections between people. Creating space for laughter in a meeting or team gathering isn’t a waste of time and, in fact, will contribute to driving engagement. Also, being a “funny person” isn’t a pre-requisite to creating an environment that invites humor.

  • The finance leader that I referenced . . . She is the funniest person on the whole team and one of the funniest people I know in life. That’s another way that we are different but complement each other. I don’t inherently consider myself a funny person, but I’m really good at laughing!

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Two things:

  1. Driving change will require organizations to make an unwavering commitment to making employees the #1 priority. Foremost, this includes ensuring the physical safety of all employees — which has never been more important than in this COVID environment. But this also includes overall employee wellness, encompassing happiness & fulfillment, which is derived from organizations and leaders who are committed to driving engagement and creating a shared vision & purpose.
  2. Secondly, a commitment to diversity & inclusion is absolutely necessary to change work culture — ensuring that at all levels of leadership, employee composition mirrors that of the communities in which companies reside and of our society at large.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Above all else, I strive to be balanced and to provide balance. I try to add energy to a room when the tempo is slow. Conversely, I seek to be calm if the energy is teetering toward chaotic. I’m generally a high energy person, and I love celebrating wins and successes with passion. I also strive to tackle issues and challenges with intensity, but in a manner where emotions are controlled and productive.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m very grateful to Todd Lachman (President and CEO of Sovos Brands) for giving me the opportunity to join the executive leadership team and lead the Rao’s and Michael Angelo’s businesses. I recognize that he “leaned in” with me to an extent — in that he could have found many great candidates with much more experience. Hiring me is one example of his commitment to driving diversity across his organization and especially on his executive leadership team. Todd always takes the time to provide thoughtful feedback and holds me accountable to a very high standard, which has accelerated my development as a leader.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

18 months ago, my husband, 7-year-old son and I added to our family by welcoming a 17-year-old young lady named Laura into our home. Her mother was a friend of mine who passed away suddenly & tragically from pancreatic cancer. Laura was raised in a loving home but also faced tremendously difficult challenges including poverty, hunger, homelessness, and racism. Unfortunately, her extended family was not in a position to provide for her financially. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have the resources to take a second child into our home. She graduated from high school this summer and recently began her freshman year of college!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Early in my career, when I would lose my perspective on a work-related issue, my dad would say to me “it’s just jelly in a jar.” Although I’ve long since left Smucker’s and have worked in many food categories including coffee, frozen vegetables, and now pasta sauce, he still references “jelly in a jar” when nudging me to keep things in perspective.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We live in a country with such an abundance of resources and luxuries yet there still are so many people who suffer through food need. The thought of anyone — especially a child — going to bed hungry absolutely breaks my heart. The impact of COVID has worsened food need in many communities. We can do more as a society and a CPG industry to address this, from donating to food pantries to sponsoring community gardens to conducting outreach in schools. Adopting Laura — who in her past has suffered through food need– has made this problem even more personal to me.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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