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General Mills: Walking the talk

MINNEAPOLIS -- When Anne Merrill walked into her new office at General
Mills headquarters two years ago, there was a present on her desk: a polo
shirt and a letter from Mike Paul, welcoming her to the company.

Paul, marketing manager and founding member of the company's American
Indian Council, makes it a point to act fast when he knows another Native
person has joined the food giant's ranks. He wants to make sure they feel
welcome. Merrill, who is Turtle Mountain Chippewa, did.

"I've worked several places in my 20-some years in the workforce, and of
all the places I've worked at, General Mills has got the best cultural
diversity programs," Merrill said. "They really get it."

It's easy for Native people to feel lost in corporate America, but not at
General Mills, Paul said. That's because the company aggressively recruits
and supports minorities, and creates a corporate culture that focuses on
results, not on cranking out cookie-cutter executives in starched shirts.

"The company walks the talk," Paul said.

General Mills is behind some of the world's best-known brands -- Betty
Crocker, Haagen-Dazs, Pillsbury, Green Giant, Old El Paso and Cheerios. It
employs 28,000 people and sells products all over the world. For the last
five years, it's consistently been recognized for its work in attracting
and keeping a diverse work force. It's been named one of the top 50
"companies for diversity" by Diversity Inc., among the best "companies for
women of color" by Working Mother magazine and one of the top 50
organizations in America for "multicultural business opportunities" by
DiversityBusiness.com. The list keeps growing.

The keystone of the company's diversity programs is the council system.
Traditionally underrepresented groups -- including American Indians,
Latinos, gay and lesbian people, and others -- are invited to join
networking groups that meet monthly to discuss concerns, work on community
projects and chat with an executive adviser who helps facilitate
communication to the company at large.

The American Indian Council's mission is to help develop, enrich and
recruit American Indian employees while sharing Native traditions and
values with the rest of the company. It has a budget and votes on how to
spend it, and looks for ways to get involved with and help the greater
Indian community in Minneapolis and across Minnesota. Council members also
get to know each other; there's as much diversity in the council as there
is in the company, including Ojibwe and Iroquois, Pueblo and Sinixt.

And even though American Indian employees comprise only a small part of
General Mills' 6,000 Minneapolis employees, they have made an enormous
difference in the wider community.

Since employees established an e-mentoring program between General Mills
employees and the students at Four Winds grade school, the school's
absenteeism rate dropped from 28 to 8 percent. Last spring, employees
collected thousands of books for Division of Indian Education work
education programs for young families. And they're working with the
company's public relations department to recruit American Indian college
students for internships, and are starting another mentoring program.

The council is just one way the company pays more than lip service to
diversity, said Paul, a member of the Sinixt band of the Colville Tribe in
Washington. In 2005, the company's foundation offered support to the
grief-stricken Red Lake band after the tragic school shooting there and
started a scholarship for young American Indian students.

Paul, who is now co-chair of the council, has worked for General Mills for
a decade. He took the job in part because of the company's corporate
culture and its approach to diversity.

"I thought that being in the corporate world, I'd be treated as a token,
that I'd be called in to put on the leather and be in the United Way
photos, but I honestly never felt that.

"It's all about whether you get results," he said. "If you do, you'll be
fine."

And there's a lot in the company that compliments Native teachings, Paul
said. There's an emphasis on team recognition instead of self-promotion.
There's no dress code or executive dining room. Decisions are made
deliberately and everyone has input -- even (and sometimes especially) the
junior members of the team.

General Mills understands that diversity is not just about race; it's about
incorporating different approaches and ideas. It recognizes that they
become stronger by learning how people do things differently, Paul said.

Another benefit? Turnover at General Mills is a fraction of the industry
standard. Paul said for him, at least, it's easy to be loyal to a company
who appreciates people for their differences, and that works to make a
positive impact in diverse communities.

"You feel proud to mention where you work."