Interview by Rita Zeidner
Open your pantry or your refrigerator and you'll probably see at least one product from General Mills, maker of brands such as Cheerios, Haagen-Dazs, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury and Green Giant. The Minneapolis manufacturer is equally as ubiquitous in HR circles, winning kudos as a great place to work. Michael Davis, General Mills' chief human resource officer, also gets around, sharing his expertise with groups such as the Employee Benefit Research Institute and contributing to The Chief HR Officer (SHRM/Jossey-Bass, 2011). We caught up with him earlier this summer, just as he'd returned from a business trip to China.
You say that HR leaders must define their organization's "employment value proposition"—what employees value in working there. Has communicating General Mills' value proposition been as important when unemployment is high?
A business like ours is countercyclical to the recession. People have gone back to cooking at home. Everything that's sold in the middle of the grocery store—our core products—is doing well. As a result, we didn't have the layoffs and salary freezes experienced at other companies. So yes, our value proposition has been important. We still have to recruit and retain workers.
What initiatives support retention?
When people have a bad experience with their manager, they can't think of anything else but leaving the company. So our biggest HR initiative is focused on building great managers within HR and throughout the organization who inspire people to achieve and develop to be their best. Becoming a good manager is not brain surgery; some of the things we've focused on are basic, such as coaching skills and making sure employees know that you are actually listening to them.
Your company recently updated its core values for the first time in 20 years. How did that come about?
We're not a sexy company, we make food. So when we recently updated our core values, we wanted to keep them simple and tie them to our overarching mission of "nourishing lives." We came up with five core values: Do the right thing, all the time; build our great brands; innovate in every aspect of our business; strive for consistently superior performance; and respect, develop and invest in our people.
How do you make 33,000 culturally diverse employees understand and embrace these core values?
I questioned if this was possible. I wondered how dissimilar or similar the various workforces are. But I've found there are fundamental things people look for in an employer—they want to be listened to, they want to grow in their careers, they want to add value to the company, and they want to be treated with dignity and respect. Whenever I talk to employees, I talk about how core values relate to what employees are looking for.
Education: 1977, Bachelor of Science degrees in industrial management and computer science, Purdue University; 1981, MBA, University of Chicago.
CurrentJob: 2008-present, senior vice president, global human resources, General Mills, Minneapolis.
Career: 2005-08, vice president, HR, U.S. Retail; 2004-05, vice president, compensation and benefits and corporate HR; 1996-2004, vice president, compensation and benefits, all at General Mills, Minneapolis. 1981-96, compensation consultant, Towers Perrin, in the Chicago, New York and Minneapolis offices.
Personal: Born in Chicago; age 55; married with two daughters.
Diversions: Running, walking, hiking, cooking, reading, travel.
Connections: www.generalmills.com; (763) 764-3173.
The interviewer is a former senior writer for HR Magazine.