I’ve long agreed that people make the biggest difference in any company and none more so than those in top leadership positions – they are the ones who set the tone for the entire company. Looking back over 2011, it was a year abuzz with top leadership changes. Here are just a few.

Don Jackson, president and CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, resigned early in January to become president and CEO of JBS USA – majority owner of Pilgrim’s Pride. William Lovette was appointed president and CEO of Pilgrim’s. On Feb. 1, Joesley Batista officially became JBS SA’s board chairman and Wesley Batista was named president and CEO.

Industry legend Don Tyson, former chairman and CEO of Tyson Foods and a leading member of the company’s board of directors, died on Jan. 6 at the age of 80 after a brief illness.

Keith Shoemaker, president and CEO of Butterball LLC, resigned effective April 25. In September, Rod Brenneman, president and CEO of Seaboard Foods LLC, stepped down from his role to assume Shoemaker’s former position. Earlier that month, Seaboard Corporation, parent company of Seaboard Foods, announced it planned to acquire a 50 percent non-controlling interest in Butterball as part of a partnership with Maxwell Farms.

In June, Greg Page, chairman and CEO of Cargill Inc., announced leadership changes, which included Paul Conway being named vice chairman and David MacLennan being named president and COO.

That same month, Larry McWilliams, Keystone Foods COO, was promoted to president and CEO succeeding Jerry Dean, who retired after leading that company for 17 years. The company is now part of The Marfrig Group.

Warren Panico was elected by the Bar-S Foods board of directors in August to serve as president and COO. Previously serving as executive vice president, he reports to chairman and CEO Tim Day. At the time, the recent merger between Sigma Alimentos and Bar-S Foods was touted as forming the largest processed meat company by volume in North America.

In September, CJ Fraleigh, Sara Lee North America CEO, resigned. Sara Lee’s CEO, Marcel Smits assumed responsibilities for leading the North American business in the interim.

Leadership is key
I have been fortunate to have interviewed many of these leaders during my career. But the one interview I most remember was with Don Tyson. Although I only interviewed him once almost 30 years ago, it was clear to me during the several hours we had together he loved working with people, empowering people and providing leadership. As a result, Don was greatly admired and respected by his team members. They all rushed up to greet him as we walked through Tyson’s Springdale, Ark., corporate complex.

Unfortunately, I’ve visited some companies where employees have cowered while company executives and I passed by. During interviews at these companies, little praise was ever given by top execs to their workers.

Thankfully, during the past decade more top executives have openly praised their employees and acknowledged their companies couldn’t succeed without their employees.

If you’re a top executive and unsure if your employees feel appreciated, now’s the time to let them know. Making such a gesture will have a positive impact on their morale and your bottom line.