Global food company General Mills’ mission is to make customers’ lives healthier and easier by providing foods that contribute to a healthy heart and offering low-calorie or portion-controlled options to help people manage their weight. It aims to offer convenient meals that can be made in minutes and provide nourishment on the run.
CEO Kendall J. Powell has said he strives to nourish every person around the world through these strategies, and he doesn’t stop with consumers. To grow great brands means the company has to grow great people. To attract, retain and develop world-class talent, General Mills consistently allocates resources to create a sustainable learning and development organization, making it Chief Learning Officer magazine’s No. 1 ranked LearningElite company for 2012.
At General Mills, senior leadership support comes not only in the form of financial backing, but through active commitment. Starting with the CEO, leaders act as faculty for the General Mills Institute, the company’s learning organization, and for learning offerings in the company’s different functions. This support makes the program special, said Kathy Carlson, director of supply chain learning and development at General Mills.
“It is recognized that learning goes on beyond the classroom, so the investment is broader than the training budget,” Carlson said. “Our leaders are keenly aware of their pipeline of employees, and the learning and development leaders work to create the right opportunities and developmental offerings to effectively and efficiently develop our employees.”
The General Mills Institute has established schools for a range of learning initiatives that provide education to employees, suppliers, partners and customers. The schools include the North America Supplier School, Asia Supplier School, Broker School and AIB Training for External Supply Chain.
For example, in October the General Mills North America Supplier School held a learning event for raw material suppliers. The theme was “Protect-Educate-Partner,” and General Mills food safety subject-matter experts presented timely information on food safety topics. This knowledge-based, interactive course was developed to improve suppliers’ competencies regarding food safety, sanitation and quality management. The learning team utilized the General Mills campus and facilities to show how to gain differential advantage from its ingredient supply chain. The gathering had more than 350 attendees and has been established as an ongoing, globally branded event.
More than ever, General Mills’ brand protection starts with a safe food supplier base. Increasing food recalls, coupled with consumer demands for added food safety assurance, have resulted in increased regulatory changes and scrutiny. The company recognizes that its suppliers represent a powerful resource and essential element of its food safety strategy. Thus, the Supplier School serves as a learning tool to achieve these goals and ensure the company fulfills its mission to deliver products that consumers value and trust.
“I see our company value of innovation demonstrated by many of the L&D leaders in how they continue to have a hunger for better ideas and practices, a willingness to learn from each other and an orientation to experiment and adapt,” said Kevin Wilde, vice president of organizational effectiveness and chief learning officer at General Mills.
When asked what makes General Mills’ learning program elite, Wilde said, “At General Mills, learning and development is truly in the DNA. You see it in our leaders at all levels, you see it in the business strategies and initiatives, and you see it in the excitement of our L&D leaders as they contribute.”
Wilde said his learning team acts as communicators to the rest of the company. For example, the team hosts an internal website and email offering called “Champions Daily” that highlights different examples of cross-boundary teamwork and recognizes the champions for different teamwork initiatives. One story described how the yogurt team connected with Pillsbury groups to share practices and common areas of interest to improve business results.
The company’s climate survey also has evolved to become a strategic tool for senior leaders to indicate progress and identify opportunities for critical business and learning and development efforts. The CEO and senior team are involved in the design and implementation of the survey to measure employee opinions about critical business capabilities and employee engagement indicators to support the company’s people growth value.
The survey tracks a number of factors showing continuous improvement and greater impact in overall learning and growth throughout the company. Highlights from the most recent survey indicated:
• Favorable responses to the question “Discussed an individual development plan with my manager” improved to a record 83 percent in 2011.
• Responses to the question “Division management encourages experimentation to achieve breakthrough ideas” increased from a 67 percent favorable response in 2010 to 74 percent in 2011.
• 95 percent of employees are confident in General Mills’ ability to meet standard business objectives.
“We are going to keep doing work that matters the most to our business strategy and consumers worldwide,” Wilde said. “That means constantly challenging if a traditional L&D offering continues to add value or should be reconsidered for something that builds new capabilities to realize our global ambitions.”
Wilde’s team uses holistic margin management (HMM) and continuous improvement (CI) tactics to generate differentiated levels of productivity that protect margins and fund business investments. He said HMM/CI training has empowered the workforce to achieve and sustain industry-leading levels of productivity while protecting product quality and safety.
Through the HMM and CI initiatives developed for the company’s supply chain, leaders have reached beyond traditional organizational and authority lines to produce millions of dollars in savings, which have been reinvested in business growth initiatives. These efforts have been publicly recognized by Wall Street stock analysts as a unique and strong competitive advantage in the food industry.
“I support the supply chain group,” Carlson said. “This group includes engineering, sourcing, logistics, manufacturing, operations, continuous improvement and supply chain finance. The VPs from each of these functions have an annual planning process called master planning. This plan is optimally a three- to five-year strategy. The VP of supply chain HR participates in developing the master plan. Together, that group identifies the organizational need and helps me understand the knowledge and skills needed. I work to understand the current knowledge and skill gap along with what programs we need to put in place to get our employees the learning they need.”
To stay on top of trends, the learning team has created Connect, an internal social learning and collaboration platform. This online “global hallway” was formally launched in 2011 and hosts four strategic learning communities: training and learning, My Learning Training Administrators, manufacturing training and e-learning development.
Each site has fostered a robust community of practice for learning professionals to learn from each other and advance collaboration worldwide across the company’s various learning groups. These sites also have facilitated peer-to-peer learning in the L&D community with best practice sharing, conference “take away sharing,” wikis and blogs from learning leaders. This site is used throughout the L&D community.
The training and learning community has attracted more than 300 participants; the My Learning Training Administrators site was launched to support new e-learning and LMS capabilities; and the Manufacturing Training site serves training leaders with CI and HMM responsibilities. Plans for the coming year include building momentum and peer-to-peer sharing on these sites and adding more collaboration tools.
All learning leaders at General Mills attend external engagements to help them stay on top of the latest developments in the learning and business communities globally. Connect allows them to share what they have read, heard or seen that could be of value to the organization. “Typically we will put a group or assign an individual to [expand] ideas that sound like they have potential,” Carlson said. “Although training itself is decentralized, we do have a learning leader council that works on offerings and things like technology that have broader appeal. We have a separate quarterly meeting of all corporate-wide learning professionals to disseminate information. That group also raises ideas and shares best practices.”
While General Mills is the smallest company in the LearningElite top six, it does employ more than 35,000 individuals, and the aforementioned best practices are used to help create individual develop plans (IDPs) for every employee. CEO Powell has set the expectation that all salaried employees must have an active, useful IDP.
IDPs tailor development to individual strengths and opportunity areas through a combination of growth assignments, mentoring relationships and blended learning. Learning staff use the IDP process by partnering with managers to fill skill gaps, build strengths and grow careers based on interests.
In January and February each year, managers and employees discuss career goals, strengths and development needs, and then use this to identify action items for the year as well as any training needed.
In 2011, more than 80 percent of employees reported that IDP discussions with their manager enhanced their skills and knowledge. In the coming year, the company will augment the IDP effort with a new HR competency and career development module.
Through the company’s Educational Assistance program, 100 percent of the costs for job-related courses from accredited institutions are reimbursed for salaried L&D professionals. Further, the General Mills Institute contracts vendors to develop soft skills training, including communication and time management, for learning staff.
General Mills has made a successful business of feeding its employees’ development needs and ambitions, and this helps it feed consumers.
Ladan Nikravan is associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at lnikravan@CLOmedia.com.