General Mills CEO Talks 3 Leadership Characteristics, E-Commerce and the New Normal

Alarice Rajagopal
Senior Editor
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Jeff Harmening (left) and CBA president Geoff Freeman

In the first of a six-month virtual education series, the Consumer Brands Association kicked off its CPG Speaks webinar series with Jeff Harmening, chairman and CEO of General Mills.

While the series aims to "bring the totality of the industry together to navigate challenges facing companies — today and in the future," Harmening noted that it’s not a easy feat as he’s carrying out the legacy of a 155-year old consumer goods company.

A 25-year veteran of General Mills, Harmening has been CEO since 2017; however, he pointed out that the consumer goods brand has had quite a long history as the 44th oldest organization on the New York Stock Exchange. That said, the company has been through quite a lot already: The Great Depression, World Wars, and racism. With that, it's important to note that even through all of that, General Mills is still here, “because it gives us hope,” he said.

And while Harmening has seen the company go through quite a lot in his tenure, he's never been through a pandemic. Commenting on his career: “It’s kind of like when your kids are young. The days are long, and the years are short. And it has never been truer in last four months.”

So how does Harmening get ready to be a leader every day? The “most important thing I’ve done is assemble a great leadership team,” he explained. He added that one must set the right tone, pick the right people and give them room to do what they need to.

According to Harmening, there are three characteristics of a good leader:

  1. “The most important characteristic of leadership is authenticity. It is the currency of trust – you only follow people who you trust no matter what their ideology.”
  2. “The second is clarity.” It is particularly important now because so many people want certainty.
  3. “The third is teamwork. Bring a group of people together that can accomplish what none of them can accomplish on their own.”

He added, “Business is a team sport, and you’re only as good as the team can work together.”

As the COVID-19 health pandemic began to unfold, General Mills was able to gain a head start so to speak as it operates globally and largely in China where it originated. Harmening explained that as the coronavirus spread to the US, the company had already started to take all the necessary precautions (although they didn’t have a single case of COVID-19 to report yet). This included working from home almost immediately, using masks, and incorporating social distancing.

First, General Mills “took care of our people, then community, and in the course of doing that, ended up taking care of our shareholders,” he affirmed. They focused on the company purpose to not only make food the world loves, but also the food the world needs.

General Mills also learned how to move faster than ever before operating in what Harmening called the "new normal." While the company traditional had a lot of internal meetings, one thing they realized in working remotely is that they now have fewer internal meetings and more time to focus "on ourselves – how to work with our suppliers better, our retailer customers better, etc. The game is played on the outside, not the inside,” he said.

multi-grain Cheerios by General Mills

Along with the health crisis, Harmening is proud of how the industry has pulled together. While it was noted that the industry is oftentimes taken for granted, there’s not doubt that it is essential now. “Ninety-eight percent of our employees are showing up to work during this pandemic … They know we’re doing something important and taking care of them along the way,” he said.

While changing priorities are helping General Mills to navigate through the pandemic, the company has not lost sight of some of its foundational priorities. “Our goal is to come out of the pandemic stronger than we went in,” he added, saying that innovation is a way to get there, while issues like sustainability aren’t going away. “We have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We haven’t taken our eye off the ball on any of those things.”

In fact, in its latest quarterly earnings report, the CG giant reported that it was up 20%. While some of that is sustainable as at home consumption has grown (and will stick around for some time) after pandemic has run its course, “we’re still faced with economy that’ll be challenged, so more people will continue to work from home.”

One noteworthy trend according to Harmening is that people have rediscovered the joy of baking. “People go back to the brands that they know and trust,” and while he said he can’t say for sure how much the demand will stick, “we’re sure some will.”

“We’re going back to a new normal. The future is going to look like a new normal.”

The conversation then shifted to diversity and General Mills’ stance on the death of George Floyd and systemic racism in general as he explained how “it was tough to watch the city you love torn apart by this. It’s not a new problem. It’s not a Minneapolis problem. It has existed here for 400 years. It has just come to light.”

While General Mills has a diverse board, leadership team and inclusive workforce, it has “opened my eyes to the challenges before us.” Harmening said there are systemic changes that have to be made, and consumer goods brands need to be partners in that solutions – not just General Mills, but all businesses. As such, there are five areas of focus for General Mills:

  1. If you’re dealing with something as complex as systematic racism, the answers are not immediate, but longer term. You need to have immediate relief, and a long-term plan (General Mills started with food pantries).
  2. Recovery (General Mills started with physical recovery of buildings that were burned).
  3. Community – engage with other businesses. “What we learn is not proprietary.”
  4. Partnering. Businesses can’t solve it alone.
  5. Lending our voice.  

“We’re in it for the long haul, but need to show some quick wins first,” Harmening said, but also noted that he is proud of the entire CPG industry, including being impressed by its values, better integration across supply chains, and better communication and relationships with retailer-partners.

As far as technology to invest in, Harmening said that e-commerce is definitely an area of focus, by continuing to invest in e-commerce capabilities, especially in the data and analytics. And “when it comes to brand marketing – we need to be in the business of solving consumer problems,” he closed.