Sep 17, 2012 • By

Commitment by the book

I recently attended a celebration of the launch of a new book titled, “Corporate Responsibility: The American Experience.”

The book chronicles the history of America’s unique brand of business citizenship and examines the role of business in society.

I was at the event at the Center for Ethical Business Cultures at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, and our Chairman and CEO, Ken Powell, was the keynote speaker.

Ken wrote the forward to the book. He was a natural pick, as a business leader with a strong track record in this space, both personally and professionally.

“I jumped at the chance (to write the foreword), not only because this topic is core to the General Mills culture, but also because I believe that we, as leaders, have a responsibility to set the bar for what corporate responsibility is and what it will become,” Ken said.

In addition to Ken’s remarks, the program included commentary from the four contributing editors to the book, all professors who shared an academic perspective on corporate responsibility. It was an interesting opportunity to consider General Mills practices in a broader, historical context.

As I listened to Ken talk about General Mills’ responsibility legacy, two observations stood out.

The first one is that responsibility is not only the backbone of our culture but a fundamental part of our business strategy. This approach to doing business ultimately creates sustainable value for our shareholders, consumers, customers and other key stakeholders.

In addition to being sound business strategy, it also serves as a point of differentiation for what we like to refer to as “Brand General Mills.” This matters because in today’s world, consumers especially want to understand the company behind the brands they buy. This company-brand linkage will only continue grow in importance in the future.

The second observation I had (reinforcing what I know to be true) is that Ken really is a leader who walks the talk.

In his speech, he addressed the keen sense of responsibility he feels as CEO to advance our commitment in this area. He also articulated a shared belief that as leaders, we are uniquely positioned to set the bar high in the area of responsibility and in so doing, help others to see what can be accomplished. We can bring our innovation, know-how and scale to create opportunity.

Referencing examples of our efforts in Africa and China, Ken illustrated the power of turning that commitment into action and ultimately, value for African food processors and Chinese corn farmers.

The China example involves a situation when General Mills was faced with a subpar corn supply for our Bugles snack production. So we developed exclusive relationships with farmers, and brought in an agronomist to teach them how to grow more and better corn.

Today, the corn supply is better and more reliable, and the business is more profitable. At the same time, the annual income of the corn farmers has increased four-fold, paving the way for a higher standard of living and a strengthened community.

“This is Holistic Value Creation,” said Ken, and it’s the kind of approach that is needed in today’s activist environment. The stakeholders of today “all expect more than just job creation and financial performance from companies,” he said. “And those expectations – in an age of social media and instant information on-demand – will only continue to rise.”

Ken’s comments about what we’ve done, what we’re doing and what we’re committed to made me think about how corporate responsibility as a value and a practice affects each of us as employees.

I think it is a key driver of resilience in our culture; one that contributes to our collective ability to withstand tough times while continuing to create value over the long term.

And in my book – pardon the pun – that is competitive advantage.