A chief learning officer who stands out among his peers will know instinctively that learning and development — while singularly one of the most effective ways to effect change in an organization — are not enough. He will know that without foresight, learning technology can hinder as much as help, and learning programs, whether in a classroom or online, are not always the answer. At least, they are not the answer without a solid business-motivated strategy to back them up.
Kevin Wilde, vice president of organization effectiveness and chief learning officer at General Mills and Chief Learning Officer magazine’s 2007 CLO of the Year, understands these things very well. When the leading consumer-foods company experienced some of the ills common to large, recently merged organizations, Wilde knew that without change management, support from senior leadership and interdepartmental cooperation, learning and development activities would not be enough to bolster flagging performance.
“Essentially post-merger with Pillsbury, we were twice as large, and we really weren’t performing up the expectations that we had internally, and certainly not what Wall Street had. A lot of it had to do with consistency,” he explained. “We’d have one good year, one good quarter, and then we would slip back down. Starting about 18 months ago, our mission became clear — we needed to get back to winning.”
Wilde said he was actively involved in many strategic senior team meetings, helping to organize, facilitate and craft the discussions to figure out why, with its existing talent base, General Mills wasn’t meeting internal or external expectations for top-tier performance.
Considered a best-practices link in the organization because of his ability to engage senior leaders strategically and tactically, Wilde’s ability to open up cross-departmental knowledge transfer and business planning integration helped to create productivity efficiencies, identify common research and development projects, and explore cross-channel innovations. Together these offshoots of learning removed some of the roadblocks around priority setting and stronger execution that were preventing the organization from fulfilling its vision.
Wilde is also responsible for the employee climate survey, which he said is a great learning device, because it provides the valued voice of the employee. The organization has used some of that data to engage senior leaders and their teams in action planning and conversations.
“In one seminal meeting with the CEO and senior team, the climate survey discussion evolved into the lack of business team continuity. In a way, we were ‘overdeveloping’ people through quick assignment rotations that had unintended consequences to business team knowledge and performance,” Wilde said. “Having done some external benchmarking, I was part of an effort to redesign talent movement to increase business continuity and strengthen meaningful development by staying in roles longer and growing in new ways.”
The resulting continuity initiative integrated talent movement reviews and career messaging into the succession-planning process. It also emphasized continuity standards to help maintain the institutional knowledge lost when the pace of leader rotations was only 24 months. This knowledge loss impacted innovation, productivity and employee morale. Wilde also leveraged climate survey discussions into other performance areas, resulting in new training initiatives in the General Mills Leadership Institute.
“I remember when the merger happened in 2001, my boss broke the good news one day that I was being promoted to officer. He asked my preference on title and I said CLO. He asked, ‘Why CLO?’ I said, ‘Because nobody knows what it means here.’ With the CLO title, I have room to craft what I think the company needs and grow in the role over time. I’m very fortunate in the way the CLO role has evolved here at General Mills,” Wilde said. “I actually sit on a number of teams such as senior HR and the business development group. I facilitate the CEO strategy sessions, and a number of the business divisions have brought me in to do the same work. For example, in our U.S. retail operation, our largest set of divisions, I’ve been partnering with the chief operations officer and the HR leader of the group to guide strategic discussion and bring a learning dialogue as we build a new focus on winning.
“The company deeply values development, as we have a terrific training community here. As CLO, I’ve been able to pull an enterprisewide team together to better leverage our collective talents on the most critical learning gaps to top-tier performance. Because my role includes many aspects of the broader talent management agenda, I’ve been able to ‘connect the dots’ and bridge the great learning capabilities to the most pressing corporate needs.”
At General Mills, learning is a kind of filter through which multiple areas in the company blend and partner to bring about expected performance changes. Change management is another part of that filter, and a keen awareness of the power in the change acceleration process is a carryover that Wilde said he developed during his time at GE’s renowned Crotonville leadership center.
“If I look at any strategic or learning situation, the template I’ll apply is conceptualizing getting from point A to point B as a broader change management challenge,” Wilde said. “How does one skillfully and thoughtfully bring learning and development tools to shepherd that change through? For example, one of the things we’ve done in the institute is expand the notion of leaders teaching leaders. By serving as faculty, those senior leaders are changed themselves when they are faced with teaching a leadership agenda.
“In getting this award, two things have to be noted. One, a network of people pulled this off. I had a visible role at points, and at some points less visible, but the important thing is that it is a very team-based culture at General Mills. Credit needs to be shared. At points, learning was a catalyst, and at other points, we were the follow-up support to things going on. All told, the work has made a contribution to the company returning to top-tier performance and increased confidence moving forward. Our commitment scores have climbed over the years, and as part of that we’ve done analysis to say, what really drives commitment? We realize there are three metrics behind commitment: leadership, empowerment and development. All of the metrics in those three areas have gone up in the past three years. The scores around development have doubled in the past 10 years. We continue to work on it, and we think great talent with strategy produces results. Business is back. We’re doing well. We still have a lot of challenges and exciting things we’re going after, but I think everyone has a spring in their step that they didn’t have a few years ago.”