Kevin Wilde: Providing Food for Thought at General Mills

If you work with kiddie cereals and yogurt for a living, it pays to have a sense of humor and a sweet tooth. If you’re responsible for educating 27,000 employees worldwide, it also pays to have a flexible attitude and a committed plan for training and de

Name: Kevin D. Wilde

Title: Vice President, Chief Learning Officer

Company: General Mills Inc.


  • Going back to his GE days, Wilde was one of the early supporters and champions of Workout in his division. Workout is an organizational improvement effort for involving employees in problem solving to gain efficiency. It had a huge impact and prepared the company for the Six Sigma quality effort.
  • Also for the first time in that division, Wilde engineered a leadership development system that worked in all three regions of the world: the Americas, Europe and Asia. It included feedback, best-practice training and follow-up work for leaders.
  • Revamped General Mills Institute to focus on leadership development, transition points in a career and heavily leveraged internal leader teaching. Also produced a series of organizational effectiveness initiatives like integration tools and processes for the acquisition of the Pillsbury Company in 2001.
  • Early in the Pillsbury acquisition, Wilde provided organizational tools like a new performance management system that bridged and blended the best of both cultures.
  • At General Mills, Wilde has used employee climate surveys in a very significant way to maintain an ongoing dialogue with senior leaders on what’s important and providing the metrics behind it.

Learning Philosophy: In the long run, the best companies win with highly talented, highly committed employees. At General Mills, we recruit people with great potential and provide the tools and experiences to bring that potential to life. And we know that our employees commitment to perform is based on working for terrific leadership, meaningful development and empowering jobs where you can make a difference. Our CEO is counting on us to deliver this learning as an enabler for our business strategy.

If you work with kiddie cereals and yogurt for a living, it pays to have a sense of humor and a sweet tooth. If you’re responsible for educating 27,000 employees worldwide, it also pays to have a flexible attitude and a committed plan for training and development. As vice president and chief learning officer for General Mills Inc. for the past six years, Kevin D. Wilde certainly seems committed.

�It all started when I was 12 years old. I was watching a program on public television,� Wilde said. �It was one of these community college courses on air, and it was the first time I was introduced to the concept of leaders in a group. I was just awestruck and fascinated by the topic of leadership and group dynamics. I�ve been lucky enough to be in roles where I could contribute to that over the last 20 some years. I�ve been very lucky to find something that I really like and try to get good at it, and then find some people who are willing to let me do that.�

Prior to his work at General Mills, which offers such brands as Betty Crocker, Green Giant, Pillsbury and Yoplait, Wilde worked his way up the ranks at General Electric (GE). He began as a human resources generalist, was promoted to human resources manager, manager of global leadership development and program manager of global leadership development at Crotonville in New York, GE�s corporate executive development center. After 17 years at GE, Wilde moved back to the Midwest to be with his family and take up the challenge of learning at General Mills.

Since coming on board he has revamped the General Mills Institute, the company�s training and development center, to refocus learning efforts on leadership development, career transition points and heavily leveraged internal leader training. When General Mills� size doubled with the acquisition of Pillsbury in 2001, Wilde was there early on to provide organizational tools to help the two company cultures come together in a smooth, cohesive unit.

�We created a new performance management system that bridged both cultures, and our first emphasis was let�s make sure people understand their jobs and goals and how it all fits in,� Wilde said. �As a follow-up we have a distinct individual development planning (IDP) process here that is separate from the performance management system.�

Three months into the acquisition Wilde and his department pulsed the new sales force and found that people were excited about the deal and where it would lead the company. But a lot of the Pillsbury people didn�t know how to get things done in their new environment. To find the answers, Wilde distributed employee climate surveys. Once the results were processed, extensive training development work followed to clarify career aspirations and career paths.

Six months later, the employee population was resurveyed. Thanks to the winning combination of a new performance management system, an aggressive IDP process that separates the employee appraisal from the employee development discussion and the constant use of metrics via climate surveys to judge performance as well as employee satisfaction, scores went up dramatically and the company enjoyed a phenomenal retention rate.

�Even in a down economy the best people have an opportunity to leave, particularly in a merger,� Wilde said. �We held on to 98 percent of the core talent that we were worried about.�

Training at General Mills is a constant activity, with special emphasis on individual learning styles. There is a core institute with classes for new employees to mid-senior-level executives. By blending external faculty with senior leaders sharing their experiences in the classroom, Wilde has created a high level of two-way learning. Adult learning is paramount and is based on immediacy, on-the-job problem-solving, meaningful experiences and adults� preference for choosing what they want to develop and work on.

An advocate of what he calls �belly-to-belly� or close, in-person learning, Wilde hasn�t been as quick as some CLOs to jump on the e-learning bandwagon. Instead, he maintains that close contact between leaders and employees is where the real idea-generating magic occurs.

�It could be at all levels. It could be third shift on the factory floor on the machine making Cheerios and getting a group of employees together about the best practice of maintenance,� Wilde explained. �We�ve got some online learning tools and manuals and whatnot, but there�s something about getting people together. That�s how learning happens. I admire a lot of my high-tech peers who work in companies with oodles of engineers and people who like to sit in front of their computer screen at their own pace learning. I work in a company that�s all about people, and they want to get together.�

Wilde focuses on a core group of some 5,000 leaders at all levels worldwide in order to facilitate learning and training. He relies heavily on the IDP process to ensure that at least once a year every General Mills employee has a conversation with a manager and focuses on four questions: Where are you going? What are the strengths you might be able to leverage more on the job? What are some development areas, and finally, what would be a reasonable action plan with steps for improvement?

�In the last year we�ve launched a brand-new initiative post-merger on building great leaders at General Mills, and that�s something that from the CEO on down, we�ve got involvement. And, we�re doing it around the world so we�ve got training going on in Hong Kong, France and here in the States. That�s a big deal,� Wilde said.

Yes, Wilde is committed. He regularly takes products home to try out on his wife and takes advantage of General Mills� small size to run down the hall or to the lunchroom to talk to divisional presidents about packaging and other issues. He is a strong supporter of gathering the best team to do the best work. How does he do that? First, hire for great potential. Then, give employees the tools they need to work at optimum levels. To get a clear picture of the work at hand, Wilde goes back to internal employee surveys.

Wilde understands that it�s hard to turn around a failing business or facilitate a smooth merger with grumpy employees. With General Mills� acquisition of Pillsbury and the addition of 40 new countries and major markets, it was vitally important that the new employees believe in the senior leadership of the business, like their boss, develop a career growth path and feel empowered or think, �I�ve got a cool job. I can move the business.�

�We�re a premium food company. We�re about Wheaties and Progresso Soup and Yoplait yogurt and really cool stuff. If we want to be first-class with our customers, it�s driven by highly committed, highly talented employees,� Wilde said. �You have to understand what high commitment looks like. We know three things separate highly committed employees from those who are less so. The three things are leadership, development and empowerment, and those are the things I deliver with my department. We work to make sure that the linkage of business strategy/great results comes from highly committed, highly talented employees, and we do things that deliver commitment and build the talent.�

The results are impressive. Four out of five employees company-wide say that they�ve had a conversation with management and are being helped with their development, and that, Wilde said, correlates with commitment. It�s not enough that an employee do a job well. General Mills, said Wilde, is an academy company, a highly ranked and well-thought-of business.

�We have a reputation in the food industry as one of the premier places to learn how to do this. For example, if you want to become a great marketer, General Mills would be in the top two or three companies to go learn it from,� said Wilde. �This place is very systematic about, we don�t just hire anybody. We want great potential, and once you�re in here we�re going to really give you great experiences.�

He added, �Seventy percent of our employees volunteer. We donate 5 percent of our pre-tax profit through our foundation. You can be very proud of this place and part of that pride comes from investing in people. We have a metric that we generally like to have eight out of 10 promotions come from within. We still want that 20 percent for best practices, fresh thinking throughout.�

The future of learning at General Mills will focus on globalization, leadership development and staying abreast of consumer trends. As the firm moves from a multinational to a global food firm, Wilde said he must focus on how General Mills can extend what it knows and believes throughout the world, and simultaneously learn what�s great about other places that can help out the corporate office in Minneapolis.

�Jobs are bigger and tougher, more complex than ever before. CEO jobs have gotten tougher,� said Wilde. �How do I prepare the next generation of leaders knowing that their boss has got it easy compared to what it�s going to be like in five to 10 years?�

The third and final challenge will be staying on top of consumer trends. �We get very close to the people who use our products. People are interested in different things,� Wilde said. �What does the research tell us? What kind of rolls do people want when they cook for their families on Sunday? How do we take what we learn here in our meals division, for example, and move that learning around as we continue to get bigger? How do you take the best trends from around the world and get them to work? I think that�s part of the excitement.�

April 2004 Table of Contents