Features

Jeff Tolsma – GELITA USA

Developing adaptive, communicative leadership

Jeff Tolsma | Vice President, Human Resources, Quality and Regulatory Affairs | GELITA USA

Jeff Tolsma | Vice President, Human Resources, Quality and Regulatory Affairs | GELITA USA

In the summer of 2022, Terry Rybolt, a member of the Forbes Business Council, wrote about the phenomenon dubbed as the Great Resignation, a two-year period during which a record number of people left their jobs. The Pew Research Center found the top three reasons they walked out in 2021 and 2022 were feeling employers underpaid them, disrespected them or didn’t allow sufficient—if any—opportunities for advancement.

Now, in 2023, companies around the globe are prioritizing talent management—recruitment, retention and development—like never before, according to Jeff Tolsma, who has over 35 years of experience in the field of human resources.

Since June 2001, he’s served as the vice president of human resources as well as quality and regulatory affairs for GELITA USA. Recently, he launched a professional development program—and accelerated those efforts in 2020 after COVID-19 struck.

This program calls for managers to partner and work with colleagues in their area. Identifying colleagues’ personal and professional needs and goals, the managers then create individualized development plans. These plans chart out a future path at the company, from guiding a person who wants to make a lateral move to a different department or one who’s aiming at a promotion to someone who simply wants to remain where they are.

“It’s also about setting realistic expectations,” Tolsma explains.

If someone wants to become the chief executive officer, their manager can provide the proper training and exposure through company meetings and global conferences—or explain why a technical career may be a more realistic and attainable goal.

“These plans are tailored to each employee’s needs and match their skills,” Tolsma says. “They help us grow our talent, expand our employees’ knowledge base and sustainably retain them through tangible efforts showing we care.”

Adaptive leadership amplifies voices  

Tolsma wants all voices heard—and believes leadership development is at the crux of recruiting and retaining the best, most skilled talent for GELITA.

The company produces collagen proteins, which it sells to companies around the world for use in various edible, pharmaceutical and other diverse market applications. As such, its workforce is a wide spectrum, composed of engineers, researchers and scientists as well as marketing and customer service specialists. Tolsma aims to help leadership become more flexible, adapting to the needs of their people, whether they’re testing products or answering client questions about invoices.

To provide a leadership framework, GELITA developed and launched a competency model, which Tolsma led the implementation of within the GELITA USA organization. This model allows team members and managers to clearly define and clarify the responsibilities associated with each role. Everyone can thus understand and meet company and leadership expectations. Managers also use this model as a guide for reviewing employees and how their work is aligning with GELITA’s values of trust, care, passion, commitment, empathy and courage.

“This requires a different level of leadership and focus; it’s less about you as a manager and more about your people and how to lead them towards success,” he says.

Tolsma encourages open lines of communication and ongoing dialogue—and not just between managers and their teams. Every department manager meets quarterly with their team to discuss all elements of the human resources life cycle and processes. This ensures people are engaged and plans are clear, so every department is meeting the short- and long-term needs of the organization.

“We analyze our gaps to see if we need to hire from the outside or develop internal talent—and determine if we’re properly identifying people’s interests and moving them through the pipeline and the company quickly enough,” Tolsma says.

He is proud of the long tenures of much of GELITA’s workforce—the average is over two decades. Retirement is the main challenge the company is facing, as over 30 percent of its employees will leave the workforce within the next five years.

“It’s more important than ever that we keep enhancing our efforts to become and remain the employer of choice,” Tolsma says.

Talent-retaining technology

Of course, managers don’t bear the full weight or responsibility of providing GELITA employees with an inclusive, supportive workplace. That’s up to Tolsma and something he’s been working on continuously since his first day with the company.

Apart from competency models and individual development plans, he also recently upgraded the human resource information system. Launched in 2019, the new system is mainly dedicated to payroll services and “introduces more efficiency on the employee path from hire to retire,” Tolsma says.

Now, employees don’t need to be in the office and can instead use their phones and other mobile devices for HR-related matters, such as requesting time off, checking their paystubs or viewing their benefits. They can also use it to look at their custom development plans and managerial reviews.

“It provides more flexibility and a more individualized employee experience—and is just one example of how we are continually evolving HR to meet employee needs” he says.

After 22 years with GELITA, Tolsma hasn’t run out of things to learn in terms of HR and people’s needs. That’s part of the reason he’s stayed for so long, especially as he remained at his other two positions for only around seven years each—the first with Grainger, where he started a year before graduating with his MBA in human resources from DeVry University, and then Terra Industries.

The other reason is that he’s fascinated by what GELITA does. According to him, most people don’t realize how many products contain GELITA’s collagen and gelatin, including film for manual cameras. He says it’s a testament to the company’s importance in the global market that it didn’t shutter a single factory even when the film industry collapsed decades ago.

“The realm of collagen and gelatin applications will always continue to grow and develop,” Tolsma says. “Something new is always on the horizon, whether it’s products or challenges, and I love being immersed in that at GELITA, because everything we do holds meaning and positively impacts people around the world.”

View this feature in the Vol. IV 2023 Edition here.

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