An important meeting in January 2008 changed the trajectory of General Mills Inc. A small group of food scientists, engineers, and dieticians met in the company’s Minnesota headquarters. They weren’t discussing how to engineer and market a new product. They didn’t brainstorm how to improve an existing brand. They were talking about getting peanut butter to Africa.
The meetings led to the formation of an organization called Partners in Food Solutions (PFS), which orchestrates General Mills’ efforts to address starvation and malnourishment in Malawi and other parts of Africa. Ken Powell, chairman and CEO of General Mills, had previously attended a forum on hunger at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he realized the potential impact his company could make. He shared that desire with some of General Mills’ leaders and soon had hundreds of volunteers working on the PFS concept. It’s just one way one of the world’s leading food companies is staying relevant and innovative after more than 150 years in business, and by keeping ahead of the curve, it’s drawing and retaining top talent.
with Brad Taylor
Is there a technology, trend, or idea that’s driving your company forward?
For HR, it’s talent, organization, and culture. More broadly, it’s about breakthrough innovation in an established industry. You win by out-innovating the competition. We’re going for healthy and convenient food that reaches a global marketplace.
How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
You can view everything as an opportunity to innovate. Employees might fall into thinking that innovation only happens in R&D or marketing, but that’s a myth; we can innovate in legal and tax and supply chain and HR and all other areas.
Where do you hope this innovation will lead you in the next five years?
The food industry is so plateaued that innovation is the way to pockets of growth that can only be found by taking a new approach.
How has the notion of innovation changed in the past decade?
Companies are looking outside for innovation, and I have to credit Procter & Gamble for starting this. The world used to be obsessed with invention happening from within. Now, we are looking externally.
What defines an innovative company in the 21st century?
It has to be in the results. People view Apple as innovative because they put out some frame-breaking products. There are things that enable innovation, but the final test lies in actually delivering innovative results. Creativity is doing something unique or different; innovation is implementing something that makes the business better.
Brad Taylor, vice president of human resources for General Mills Canada Corp., says such originality is what drew him to the business during his time as a student at Brigham Young University. “I remember being struck by their great brands and the fresh way they were doing brand management,” he says. “Their strong culture and unique approach came through way more than any other company that had presented, and that has stayed true throughout the years.”
However, though Taylor was interested in the company, he had to do some arm twisting to actually land a job there. He wasn’t one of the students selected by General Mills for an on-campus interview, even though he had attended the company’s presentations and info session. Luckily, the interviewer had intentionally left a few slots open for students who made last-minute impressions. Taylor talked his way into an interview and was the only student to receive a job offer. He has been with General Mills ever since.
For Taylor, PFS is validation that General Mills is still leading the way. “Programs like our corporate social-responsibility initiative help us attract and retain employees,” he says. “Our employees know that they are a part of something bigger than just our company.”
General Mills created PFS as a nonprofit designed to bring expertise and technology to Africa to protect food safety, improve food quality and shelf life, improve nutrition, develop financial strategies, improve sourcing, and share information. The organization has built a peanut butter factory in Malawi and currently has 77 other such projects in numerous African countries. Each one will be a local business that will hire local workers and buy materials from community farmers. General Mills often brings food scientists from Africa to Minnesota for training, and it plans to eventually turn all the new African facilities over to the African companies. “We’re not there to make a profit,” Taylor says. “We’re there because, as a large and successful food company, we see our opportunity to use what we do to help address hunger and starvation in underdeveloped parts of the world.”
In the hypercompetitive market of Toronto, PFS and other initiatives help differentiate General Mills Canada. “Every corporate headquarters is here in Toronto, and those in the talent pool know they can move to another company by simply walking two doors down,” Taylor says. “That means we have to be seen as a great place to work.” General Mills’ US and Canadian offices are both highly ranked workplaces, which Taylor says reflects the company’s focus on employee development and personal-growth opportunities.
Taylor himself is working to build a culture of innovation within his own division, too, by taking a creative leadership approach. He offers flexible hours and compressed workweeks to give his employees time and space to come up with creative ideas and solutions. “We even tell the stories of so-called failures so [that] people realize they have the permission to take calculated risks,” he says. “An organization that lives in fear of failure will never innovate.”
Taylor also works to maintain connections with the outside world. As baby boomers retire en masse—a critical hit to General Mills’ collective business knowledge—he’s starting to reach for ideas beyond the company’s four walls. General Mills has joined with Procter & Gamble, Lilly, and Boeing on YourEncore, a network that employs retirees who want to offer their expertise on a part-time basis. YourEncore memorably solved a problem regarding fruit gel sticking to a facility’s drying trays. After employees laboured over the issue, a retired 3M engineer solved it in a matter of days. “We’re starting to realize the real value in looking for innovation from the outside because we can bring in creative people to collaborate with our talented experts and then come up with whole new solutions,” Taylor says.
All these efforts help Taylor find and keep great employees, and that helps General Mills conceive and create great products and services. Lately, he’s been making his own annual recruiting trips back to the campus of his alma mater—and he always leaves a few interview spots open for any last-minute additions.