No one who’s ever met Mondelez International’s Cynthia Waggoner would accuse her of being at a loss for words … unless you ask her to talk about herself. Now vice-president, North American Integrated Supply Chain, Biscuits, and based at the company’s East Hanover, NJ, office — and Baking & Snack’s 2013 Operations Executive of the Year — Ms. Waggoner freely admits she built her success upon the shoulders of others.

“People ask me, ‘What did you do to get where you are?’ I’ll tell you, it’s the people who have worked for me and worked with me and who have been my managers,” Ms. Waggoner said in an exclusive interview. “I’m where I am today because people believed in me. People put me where I am.”

In the baking industry, an environment built on ­collaboration, Ms. Waggoner brings success to her team, her company and its powerhouse brands through leadership, respect and her own radical brand of joy … and what she puts in, she gets back in kind.

A leader defined

Honesty. Integrity. Loyalty. These are not only the qualities that define Ms. Waggoner as a leader for her people and her organization, but they also are the standards to which she holds those around her.

A captain and paratrooper in the US Army in the 24th Infantry Division headed by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Ms. Waggoner learned leadership from the best. “It’s really about living by a code of conduct,” Ms. Waggoner explained, “having a set of principles and ethics and morals that you don’t compromise for anything.”

Although it’s easy to define a leader as someone who can bring a group of people into one common objective, for Ms. Waggoner, it’s more about what it takes to get people there. It’s about the journey. “For me, leadership is about setting the right mission objectives, having a clear roadmap to get there and making sure your people have the resources they need to deliver and execute,” she explained. And then once they have those things, “Get out of their way,” she instructed. “Empower people, let them go, and reward them for their delivery.”

But, of course, even the best mission can fail. And what happens next can define a leader as good or great. “Some of my best learnings have been from failures,” Ms. Waggoner noted. Her code of conduct dictates that, should a mission fail, the leader takes responsibility. “If we fail on a mission, that’s my fault, and it’s my job to realign my organization,” she said. “But if we succeed, it’s because of the people who delivered, not me.” And her code of conduct is unwavering, be she on the bakery plant floor or in the corporate office. It’s a code that not only is supported by Mondelez International but that also fits right into its corporate culture.

The power of one

Within the walls of the Mondelez International North American headquarters, a physical transformation has taken place. The office space that once had been formal and traditional has done away with walls that separate and delineate employees. In the foyer, brightly colored walls and a mural showcase the company’s consumer brands, while welcoming visitors and reminding employees that the company today is all about joy, which is clearly the new Mondelez International dream.

The corporate culture just happens to be an accurate reflection of Ms. Waggoner’s management style. “I sit in an open floor plan, and my bosses have the same plan I do. They’re open, and our employees can walk by and talk to us at any time,” Ms. Waggoner said. “It’s broken down barriers,” she added. “We’re open. We’re inclusive. We want people to bring their whole selves to work. This plan — these colors — they’re facilitating people talking to one another. This is such a virtual world that sometimes we forget the art of relationship building.”

This change that Mondelez Internat-ional is going through, this shift toward openness, is one of culture, but it’s also one of structure as the company moves into an integrated supply chain (see “Quest for the Best” page 29). Through the integrated supply chain structure, Mondelez International creates the power of one. Ms. Waggoner explained, “We have one common set of objectives, one common set of goals … we’re all measured on the same end result,” she noted.

Restructuring the company from the inside out involves myriad changes, and the “power of one” concept carries through the home office, the manufacturing facilities, the equipment and, ultimately, the products. But without bringing the people along on the journey, change will be for naught.

Leading a company to success from end-to-end — ensuring the Mondelez International brands are winning at the shelf — is a task perfectly suited to Ms. Waggoner. “The difference between a company being good and a company being great lies in maximizing its best potential, effectiveness and efficiency, and that’s in the people,” she noted. “The most important asset we have is our people.”

Leadership through servitude

Servant-leadership is a phrase some people reserve for campfires and religious experiences. But for Ms. Waggoner, ­servant-leadership is the fire that lights the very core of her being. It’s the basis for everything she does, in the office, on the plant floor and even in her personal life.

“Taking responsibility for a mission or an objective is one thing, but having responsibility for people and their livelihoods and their careers, that’s something that I don’t take lightly,” Ms. Waggoner said. It’s something she learned from her military career, where her leadership meant actual lives were in her hands. Today, while lives might not necessarily be at stake, plants, jobs and people are. “I take that — and the care and consideration of my employees and their livelihoods — as seriously as I do driving great business results for my organization.”

Achieving both objectives can only happen through servitude, according to Ms. Waggoner. That means getting her feet wet and hands dirty on the front lines … the production lines, that is. When she visits a plant, Ms. Waggoner rolls up her sleeves and experiences it first-hand. That means roof, basement, wall-to-wall, grounds — including utilities, maintenance, production, baking and mixing. There isn’t a corner of a facility that doesn’t get her eyes. “There is no ‘Cindy tour route,’ ” she cautioned. “When I go into a facility, you know where you stand with me … and I know what is and what isn’t.” 

This style might put most plant managers on pins and needles. After all, how many times do employees see a vice-president on the plant floor at 5 a.m. or suited up and cleaning equipment on the weekend? That’s exactly what Ms. Waggoner did to help prepare for the kickoff of a North American facility. “I was just like an hourly employee, cleaning for almost 12 hours on an Oreo cookie tray loader,” she recalled.

While her presence in the plant might be nerve-wracking (she admits that if the tables had been turned when she was the plant manager at Atlanta or elsewhere, it might not be her best-case scenario), Ms. Waggoner’s intent is to help her understand the needs of the plant and the employees. “How can I be the best leader I can be if I haven’t seen everything I’m responsible for, and I don’t understand the good, the bad and the ugly?” she asked. “I need to understand a plant’s strengths and weaknesses, so I can see what they need or don’t need. It helps me determine where capital funding goes for things like infrastructure or facility improvements.”

Plant visits also help her take the pulse of her people. “It’s not unusual to find her in a bakery on the midnight shift or on a weekend to meet the staff and learn what issues and challenges they are dealing with. She constantly wants to know the people, processes and equipment better,” said Al Koch, director of engineering, Global Biscuit, Mondelez International, and Baking & Snack’s 2011 Operations Executive of the Year.

“I get a sense of morale, but I also get a sense of skills and capabilities. I can see the up-and-coming talent, the ‘bench strength,’ ” Ms. Waggoner observed. When it comes to her people, she has another clear objective when getting down and dirty on the plant floor. “You never want to ask your employees to do something that you can’t — or wouldn’t — do yourself. It’s good for us to occasionally put ourselves in our employees’ shoes to understand what they go through on a daily basis.”

Mr. Koch noted that Ms. Waggoner’s dedication is an inspiration to her staff and the organization as a whole.

Bringing the joy

Without a doubt, Ms. Waggoner is no-nonsense. She is results-driven and known for driving a hard bargain. Tough cookie she is, though, it’s important to remember that even the toughest cookies are made with some pretty sweet stuff.

Leadership aside, Ms. Waggoner lives a life that puts her needs second, both professionally and personally. Each decision she makes every day comes with two qualifiers: “What’s right for the products we make, and what’s right for my people? Period. It’s not about my career or my position. It’s about making the right decisions for the right reasons,” she insisted.

Ms. Waggoner will stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, even if it means being the loudest, or only, voice in the room to do so. “You can drive an organization as hard as you want, but at the end of the day, you have to have care, compassion and understanding for people.” It’s how she perpetuates Mondelez International’s support of people bringing their whole selves to work, just as she does.

During her photo shoot with Baking & Snack, what Ms. Waggoner brings to Mondelez International each day was evident by what she got from those passing by: cheers, whistles, even a few lighthearted cat-calls. Although the care and respect she gives to others comes right back, that’s not what keeps her walking through the door each day. “Every day, I ask myself, ‘Am I making a difference? Have I done right by my people and organization?’ And as long as I’m doing that, and driving continuous ­improvement, I come back. Every day.”