Finding Common Ground

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Finding Common Ground

By Jennifer Acevedo - 03/01/2015

Photography by Vito Palmisano
In business, there is the concept of doing well by doing good. This notion can be applied to an organization's stewardship of the environment, or to its commitment to feed the hungry. The smartest organizations, however, turn this idea inward, recognizing that good business values and good core values are often one and the same.

In the case of Minneapolis-based General Mills, that means embracing the idea that not only is a diverse and inclusive workplace an important core value for the organization; in today's hyper-competitive marketplace, it's a business imperative.

"In this work, you make a lot of promises to people about what they can expect from their careers," explains Ken Charles, vice president of global inclusion and staffing at General Mills. "In Diversity & Inclusion, you make sure those promises are fulfilled–that you really have delivered an environment where people can be valued and respected every day."


A Pittsburgh, Pa., native, Charles began his career in the 1980s steel industry in sales and marketing. Through the INROADS program, an organization that develops and introduces underserved youth to the corporate world, he earned an internship and eventually employment at U.S. Steel. Steel was in his blood; his father had worked his way up from laborer to human resources there.

"I spent the first nine years of my career in sales and marketing in Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Atlanta. There are a lot of lessons there. Starting a career in sales is great because you learn the importance of the customer, the product and being responsive to people," he says.

At the tender age of 23, Charles worked a 10-state territory based in Overland Park, Kansas, and covering Missouri, Nebraska and Salt Lake City, "boldly going where no black man had been before," he says with a smile. Charles learned a valuable lesson from the declining steel mills of that time: Adapt to changing times and stay relevant to your consumers, or suffer that industry's same fate.

Charles also developed a simple business philosophy during this time that he carries with him today. "I quickly learned that you have to find common ground with people in order to do business with them and to build relationships with them. I started to develop that skill in meeting people where they were and appreciating that everyone had their own journey," he explains.

By this time, Charles' travels with U.S. Steel had led him to Atlanta, where he, his wife and two young children had made their home. Rather than return to Pittsburgh for the next step in his career with U.S. Steel, Charles decided to stay in Atlanta and return to not-for-profit INROADS, where he'd been involved as an undergrad, this time as operations manager. It was at INROADS that Charles was first involved in recruiting and developing talent.

Soon enough, Charles got the opportunity to work at this newfound career path on a larger scale and joined Golden Key National Honor Society. Where INROADS worked with about 300 students, Golden Key inducted 100,000 students every year, and 20 percent of them were students of color. General Mills was a sponsor of Golden Key, and Charles had the opportunity to call on the company a few times. Interestingly enough, he kept getting called back.

"They kept inviting me to interview, and I kept politely declining. I'm living in Atlanta, why would I come to Minneapolis? I literally took my interview with General Mills out of courtesy, which was a mistake because by the time I was calling my wife from the airport, I was sold. It was a unique interview day, and it was a very special day for me," Charles recalls.

"Our call to action as a recruiting team is to recruit competitively superior talent that represents all of the markets and consumers that we do business with. It's this notion that quality of talent and diversity are not mutually exclusive; that they actually are partners, one with another, and that you can deliver both."

–Ken Charles,

General Mills


Today, Charles has been with General Mills for 15 years–nine of which he spent in the recruiting organization. About two years ago, the organization created Global Inclusion and Staffing, which Charles now leads. In addition to a robust U.S. recruiting effort and a staffing component for its commercial employees, the "shop," as Charles calls it, also houses diversity and inclusion, culture and engagement, and a half-billion-dollar supplier diversity program.

"What's powerful about having all of those pieces under one roof is that you get some wonderful hand-off and interplay," Charles says. "Our call to action as a recruiting team is to recruit competitively superior talent that represents all of the markets and consumers that we do business with. It's this notion that quality of talent and diversity are not mutually exclusive; that they actually are partners, one with another, and that you can deliver both."

The umbrella human resources organization naturally encourages collaboration among its stakeholders, another critical business strategy at General Mills.


The result of developing and maintaining a pipeline of exceptional, diverse and inclusive talent, Charles says, is a competitive advantage in a marketplace that demands new ideas and innovation on a regular basis.

"Research will tell you that when you create an inclusive environment, not only are people of communities of difference more apt to give you innovation, but even your majority employees feel freer to share an idea that might just be the thing that builds a whole new category or takes you to another level of performance," he says.

In fact, the research tells us just that. In a December 2013 piece titled, "How Diversity Can Drive Innovation," Harvard Business Review shares research that indicates that diversity fosters innovation and drives market growth.

The research looks at the correlation of two types of diversity–inherent and acquired–and market outcomes. Inherent diversity refers to traits one is born with, while acquired diversity is borne of experiences. An organization with at least three inherent and three acquired diversity traits is referred to as two-dimensional (2-D).

"...We learned that companies with 2-D diversity out-innovate and out-perform others. Employees at these companies are 45 percent likelier to report that their firm's market share grew over the previous year and 70 percent likelier to report that the firm captured a new market," according to the study's authors.

Charles also points to a better ability to understand and engage consumers as the second key driver for organizations to leverage diversity and inclusion efforts. The reason, he says, is because those consumers, and the world around them, are changing. If your talent base doesn't accurately mirror society, you run the dangerous risk of finding yourself out of touch.

One need only look at U.S. Department of Labor numbers that predict by 2050 the U.S. population will grow to about 394 million people. Immigrants alone are expected to be responsible for increasing that number by 80 million, offering us a sense of the cultural changes the U.S. will see in the next 50 years.

"In the United States, if we look to the Hispanic consumer, we need to make sure that all of those millions of kids and all of those millions of moms and dads have a relationship with our products and our brands," says Charles. "In order to do that, we have to talk to them in a way that's relevant. We have to bring insights that are relevant to them. If we fail, somebody else will meet their need, and we'll lose share."

That global and cultural relevance pay dividends operationally as well for the multinational General Mills–for example, when Häagen-Dazs France needs to communicate with Häagen-Dazs Japan, or when a manager based in Minneapolis leads a team in Mumbai, India.

"Today we are a global company; 60 percent of our employees are outside of the United States.You've got to be able to manage and lead across difference and be effective at it.

–Ken Charles,

General Mills

"Today we are a global company; 60 percent of our employees are outside of the United States," says Charles. "You've got to be able to manage and lead across differences and be effective at it."


But the diversity and inclusion journey doesn't stop there. You see, General Mills, like many U.S. corporations, is staring down the latest demographic to turn the world of CPG, some say the world itself, end over end. And their relationship with millennials, whether it's in-store or in-house, will be different than any that came before it.

"You have to sell employees every day. You have to convince them that there's growth and engagement and excitement that's going to be differential here versus experiences that they can get elsewhere," he says. "It's the difference between loyalty being assumed, or having to earn it every day. If you rise to the occasion and earn it every day, you are going to have employees that are going to do wonderful, wonderful things for you."

So the question would appear to be, if we asked a sampling of the Top 50 CPG retailers whether diversity and inclusion was a key part of their overall business strategy, what would the answer be? Charles poses the question another way:

"But [what] if I ask their CEOs, is talent important to you? Is innovation important to you? Growth in emerging markets, is that important to you? The fruit of Diversity & Inclusion is of critical value to the c-suite and the business.

"I have the good fortune of being in an organization that understands it both from a business value and from a values perspective. I think you've got to win the head and the heart," says Charles. "If you are not able to clearly articulate and act against your business case, you're not trying hard enough."

Of the 74 percent of US CEOs who have a diversity strategy, 87 percent say it brings them stronger business performance.

Q: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements about your organizations talent activites? Base: 103 US CEOs, showing ‘agree' and ‘strongly agree' responses only.

Source: PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, 2015 US CEO Survey, January 2015