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Leaders Teaching Leaders Develops a Culture of Coaching and Business Skills at General Mills

With a legacy of growing leaders from within, General Mills has laid a strong foundation of leadership development based on linking development to business needs, involving line leaders, and creating an integrated framework with core systems across the company for high impact and value.

When a succession planning process highlighted business strategy as a development need and a Holistic Margin Management initiative pointed to the need for stronger general management skills, General Mills chief learning officer Kevin Wilde set out to create a program to address these critical gaps.

“Our objectives were two-fold,” said Wilde. “We wanted to develop improved multifunctional business skills in our director population and coaching skills in our vice presidents.”

General Mills had found that managers did not have sufficient understanding of all the levers they could use to impact margins and hold their costs down. At the same time, both directors and vice presidents were accustomed to a directive culture that contributed to inefficiencies and lost productivity.

“We wanted to establish a culture of dialogue among vice presidents and directors,” Wilde said. “We believed that more conversations and questioning would directly impact cost and yield new, innovative solutions.”

As Wilde had successfully partnered with TRI® on a premier leadership program at another Fortune 500 company, he chose them once again for General Mills.

“It was a natural for us to call on TRI® as we planned a new program,” he said.

® responded quickly with a business simulation based on a medical products company but explicitly designed to reinforce more than 30 different General Mills leadership behaviors in the areas of integrity, leading innovation, delivering outstanding results and energizing and developing people.

In addition to customizing the simulation, TRI developed short vignettes on specific leadership challengers General Mills was interested in. For example, one tested participants’ environmental sensitivity and crisis management skills.

“This approach took people out of their comfort zones and forced them to think strategically,” Wilde said. “We were able to introduce specialized scenarios based on General Mills’ business issues with a minimum of cost and effort.”

TRI doesn’t customize to a business or industry but rather to a business situation or problem, putting things in place based on the competencies to be developed. One competency that most interested Wilde was coaching skills. He wanted to deeply involve officers with directors and provide multiple opportunities for them to practice and perfect giving and receiving feedback. To that end, TRI created a two-tiered “program within a program” that provided a common learning experience for both groups.

The result, “Building Great Leaders,” is a three-day simulation program that focuses on the development of holistic business acumen for directors and officers. Participants confront challenges that replicate normal business problems—from questionable strategic intent to negative cash flow, from missed commitments to lack of cross-functional awareness.

For each program, 36 managers came to General Mills’ headquarters in Minneapolis and were divided into six multifunctional teams to compete against one another in running a business. Eight to 10 officers served as coaches and owners of the teams’ businesses.

Prior to the simulation, officer owners participated in coaching sessions on leading through questioning and were briefed on the simulation scenario. During the simulation, they welcomed their management teams, set up the simulation, scheduled time for coaching on business and organizational issues, and participated in two operational reviews across an 18-month business cycle.

TRI facilitators worked to open a new communication dynamic between directors and officers. They encouraged them to be open and candid in their feedback and to ask and use questions throughout.

At the end of the simulation, teams were ranked on three criteria—how much value they created for the original owner of the business, how well the business was positioned for the future, and how much additional value they generated for the employee pension plan.

“Building Great Leaders” enabled General Mills to increase the skills and competencies of its top management ranks. The live, interactive role play coupled with coaching sessions for officers provided a unique, realistic learning environment.

“Both our directors and vice presidents found the experience to be dynamic and rewarding,” Wilde reported. “Several vice presidents have volunteered to participate in second and third programs, and alumni directors, those newly promoted to vice president, also have volunteered to participate in the next round.”

Being forced to think outside their areas of expertise and to walk in another colleague’s shoes, directors demonstrated new skills in knitting together multiple functions into high-performance teams.

In a Fortune magazine article that named General Mills a top 10 company for leaders, former CEO Steve Sanger said that the business understanding fostered by the TRI® simulation experience had resulted in huge benefits. “The results are often surprising,” he observed. “An R&D scientist will often come up with a really smart marketing idea.”

And directors and vice presidents now have a shared learning experience to reflect on with a common understanding of business and communications practices to carry forward. Directors moving up in the company now take a coaching mentality with them.

“TRI® program enabled us to enhance our directors’ and vice presidents’ skills and professional competencies,” Wilde said. “The program truly has been a champion for General Mills.”


Leaders Teaching Leaders Develops a Culture of Coaching and Business Skills at General Mills

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