Original article by Glenn Llopis can be found on Forbes.
A big reason diversity programs fail to result in sustainable levels of inclusion that drive growth is because organizations are not committed to embrace differences as opportunities. Instead they continue to strip employees of their identities and make them assimilate to the needs of the organization. Those programs are most often developed to comply with corporate governance and self-regulation often under the heading Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR. Today, companies are learning that while these programs may be well meaning, they have been misguided in their approaches and outdated in their ideas. They cater to the status quo. They assume existing and potential employees must be defined by the business.
The same has been true for decades when it comes to driving change in another area usually governed by CSR: giving back.
Again, most corporate giving is well meaning. On the face of it, nothing is wrong if your organization is donating millions of dollars to noble causes. And companies know that this is an essential part of doing business today. According to a 2017 Cone Communications CSR Study, “Companies must now share not only what they stand for, but what they stand up for.” For example, 78% of Americans want companies to address important social justice issues and 87% will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about.
But there is another growing trend when it comes to giving back when it comes to inclusive leadership: letting the individuals define the business . . . of giving. This extends beyond brand-building in the marketplace to attracting top talent and letting individuals lead where they want to go in the workplace.
Companies like Salesforce and Subaru have learned that it is not enough to just define the causes to donate to or match employee donations. Before there were clear lines between personal and business lives. Today they are one in the same. As a result, more and more companies are learning they must not only offer but even mandate time for volunteer programs either as part of events organized by the company on weekdays (not weekends) or for those causes most important to individual employees. Whatever the “costs” in terms of time either of those approaches has for organizations, they know they will more than get a return on the investment from increased employee engagement and loyalty.
Still something wasn’t clear to me. On the one hand, some companies were allowing individuals to define giving to their own causes. But what about those corporate-wide causes? It’s all fine and good for organizations to devote time and money to worthy organizations like the American Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity, but do they reflect the causes the employees care about most? Defining where to give without listening to your people is still the business defining the individual even if the cause is noble: Here’s what we’re going to do; you follow.
Looking for insight on how an organization can evolve to allow individuals to define the business of giving overall and its benefits, I turned to Mary Jane Melendez, Executive Director of the General Mills Foundation, on how the company created an “employee-centered strategy” for giving back, focusing on global hunger and sustainable agriculture.
First, a little background. General Mills is a 150-year-old company with 38,000 employees worldwide. Since 1954, the company’s foundation has contributed over $2 billion to global charities. But while the company has worked to evolve to customer and employee-centered approaches to lead inclusion as a growth strategy, the way the foundation gave back had not similarly evolved to allow its employees’ influence over its direction. Melendez led the charge to do so.
“I think it’s the key element” she says. “We had never approached employees before to ask them how they wanted to engage; we had designed programs for them and invited them to engage. But we turned the tables and said, ‘What do you want? How do we deliver what you want? Let’s design something with you and for you. Not for you and without you.”
What was fascinating to me, however, is that creating a new strategy for the foundation was not Melendez’s original intent. She started at the top to understand from their perspective what the foundation was doing well and where it had opportunities to improve. She could have stopped there and designed an approach that would have substituted a different approach for the existing one. Because without strategy, change is merely substitution not evolution.
Instead, Melendez decided to see if what she heard at the top reflected those at the bottom, right down to a group of summer interns. Listening to her, it was clear three things defined the foundation’s approach to evolve the strategy of the foundation:
- Get informed employee perspectives before designing anything
- Have the courage to disrupt the status quo
- Intentionally engage employees in a way that drives value for the business
Get informed employee perspectives before designing anything
Melendez and her team took an organic, grassroots approach to design, putting all employees at the center of her strategy. Talking only to the senior most leaders up to the c-suite is not a recipe for understanding individual differences. And while talking directly to all employees – especially 38,000 of them – is not feasible, it is often not necessary as long as the people being spoken to represent the bottom-most of an organization and feel safe to express their opinions. Melendez accomplished this by engaging with more than a thousand employees over four months in two dozen countries and that new sense of connectivity pays dividends at work as well. They often went three and four levels deep within divisions and departments, gaining a powerful knowledge base for the new direction of the foundation.
“You have to have the employees’ voices at the table before you’re designing anything,” Melendez says. “What are their thoughts about what’s happening today? How do they feel about it? Are they proud of it? Do they think that we have opportunities to do better? Do they have ideas on how some things could be brought to life?”
Have the courage to disrupt the status quo
Despite the different perspectives she gained globally, Melendez refused to assimilate those differences to what the General Mills Foundation had been doing for more than sixty years. She found like-mindedness in the different perspectives and was prepared to forge a path forward through those differences, even if it meant changing the entire approach of the foundation and what was important to the top of the organization.
“There were a lot of things that were important to our senior executives that didn’t resonate with employees living and working in, say, Mumbai,” Melendez told me. “We had to make sure that we were thinking more holistically about what engagement looks like from a food company with a global perspective. What could we uniquely bring to the table by engaging this employee base? Beyond providing volunteer opportunities, we asked them how they wanted to get engaged. We thought about the skills and expertise that they can bring forward to help us tackle some of these really big issues that are important to them.”
Intentionally engage employees in a way that drives value for the business
Too often when the work is done, organizations forget to make a commitment to continue to have the employee voice at the table to create and implement the changes and maintain them over time. That’s the equivalent of throwing your people a bone and letting the status quo return as the company defines the approach and a huge value is lost.
“It can’t be one and done,” Melendez adds. “You can’t just have a conversation, say it was great and you gave me wonderful feedback, and then go and design your new workplace program without them. No, we must continue to have conversations and continue to get feedback from employees world keeps changing. Business keeps changing. Consumers want different things and our employees are going to want different things, too.”
An employee-centered strategy like General Mills’ foundation is not without challenges, not the least of which is the time it takes and the different ways required to get the information needed from all employees. But it was not chaos. What surprised Melendez most was the fact that she could find like-mindedness in the voices of General Mills’ employees. A company like General Mills may employ tens of thousands of individuals but that does not mean they don’t share values.
Melendez was pleased to discover this – and surprised by the responses: “When we started doing this, a concern I had was that we would be going down a lot of rabbit holes – were we really going be able to actually cull together a coherent strategy because each person is going to have a different area of passion. But that was not the case. Whether an employee had been here in Minneapolis for 30 years or was a new employee halfway across the world, the theme of their responses was that we are a global food company and our work should focus on hunger relief and food security. Our employee base is also passionate about protecting the planet and above all they hungered for our company to invite them deeper into our purpose and this had created enormous value.
What organizations can learn from the approach Melendez took at General Mills is the company did not just learn what its employees wanted, it discovered who they are. It understood more about how they see themselves and the roles they play and how the assets and skills that they bring can solve for problems and see opportunities for growth. It all comes down to seeing and serving people as individuals, then designing systems to make sure those individuals are included at every level of the organization and ensuring the right performance metrics are in place to get you there – and this assessment will measure the key indicators that can get you there.
Too often organizations don’t know their employees. They know what their job function is. They know their titles. They know who they report to. They know what they pay them. But they don’t know them as individuals. Melendez gave them permission to express their passion and share their perspectives based on their personal beliefs, values and experiences. In other words, General Mills created connections, discovered alignment and then built them into intimacy.
But again, follow through was key to honoring that intimacy.
“Our approach has our employees’ fingerprints all over it,” says Melendez. “We brought them along and had them be part of the strategy and execute the programming. What is so incredibly powerful is that they’re bringing a skill and expertise that no one else can bring forward in that area. They are now a part of the solution. They help move the need on issues in ways that are more powerful than writing a check. We’ve seen greater employee engagement globally. Getting calls from more engaged employees in Australia or Argentina or Mexico? That’s delightful.”
Yet it’s not that they’re more engaged; it’s that they’re more genuinely engaged. Melendez and the General Mills Foundation have created environments in which people feel that they can trust the organization more so that they can share at a level that matters to them.
“The seven of us in the foundation realized we have an army of 38,000 people who have brilliant ideas and are willing to help us think through some of these things that can be really challenging. There’s a spirit of wanting to provide feedback, wanting to be helpful, wanting to share insights, wanting to add value, and wanting to help. Through this, you start to create relationships and make connections that weren’t there before. Creating new points of connectivity at work pays dividends in the form of a more engaged employee base.
Maybe that’s the biggest lesson of all for organizations looking to be more inclusive in their leadership: Stop assuming that you have all the answers – be vulnerable enough to listen to your employees. That’s what legacy is. That’s how you build cultures of significance, not just success. Perhaps this explains why the General Mills Foundation has recently become part of the Human Resources department as the company moves to further understand the power of moving people to the center of its growth strategy.