Opinion: Don't get distracted by the stuff you can't control, retired General Mills president says

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The following are excerpts from a conversation between businessman John Machuzick and Jeff Prouty at The Prouty Project. It’s part of an occasional opinion series on BringMeTheNews, in partnership with Prouty, featuring insights from business leaders.

John Machuzick recently retired as president of Brands on the Go, a division of General Mills. The Prouty Project heard rave reviews about Machuzick as a leader from many folks in the world of General Mills. Humble, entrepreneurial, and courageous were a few of the adjectives. During Machuzick's nine-year run as president, he took a turnaround situation in 2003 to win the Eagle – General Mills’ top divisional award – four years in a row.

Prouty: How did you get your start?

Machuzick: I played baseball for St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, with visions of playing in the big leagues someday. My hitting was not quite good enough to make it into the “bigs,” so I headed to General Mills, in a sales position, right out of college. That was the beginning of an exciting 35-year career.

At age 29, I was fortunate to become the youngest Regional Manager in the history of the company, when I took a promotion to head up the Southern California sales region. It was an underperforming region, but our team turned it around with a simple straightforward mantra: “Focus, talk to customers, and make things happen.” And along the way, I got my MBA at Pepperdine.

In the early 90s, I was invited to come to headquarters to lead consumer food sales strategic planning. As someone said to me, “Strategic planning? Strategic planning and sales aren’t usually used in the same sentence.” I immersed myself in the opportunity, taking five people offsite for five days to think strategically.

The outcome of the offsite: A new business unit, centralized customer solutions, which ramped up quickly. We hired 120 people in the first 90 days and revolutionized the General Mills service advantage with customers.

Prouty: You were known for building great cultures within the divisions, what was your biggest challenge and win through it all?

Machuzick: At the age of 45, I was asked to lead the $1.8 billion bakeries and food service division.

This division, with pieces of General Mills and Pillsbury matched together, was laced with challenge and opportunity. The Pillsbury segment was built on lots of acquisitions. The General Mills culture, built around teamwork, clashed initially head on with Pillsbury’s culture, which was built around autonomy. I said, “Game on.”

The culture scores in the division were poor – only 40 percent positive. The plants were running at low utilization. There was no unifying vision for the division, which encompassed 5,500 products, 40 different categories and 35 plants. One of the General Mills vice chairmen simply told me, “Fix it.”

My early thinking was we needed some new players on the leadership team, we needed a vision, and it was going to take some time, so be patient.

I took my new team offsite, shared my point of view, and said, “Let’s just sit and talk about it, with no agenda.” (A “wallow,” as Jack Welch used to call it.) People started admitting the challenges in the division. Ultimately, the team created its “Plan to win,” building on the concepts of stabilize, fix, win, thrive.

One evening, my wife, Cindi, and I were watching the movie "Seabiscuit." The story of a broken-down race horse, that no one believed in. I thought, “That’s our division.” So I rented a theatre in downtown Minneapolis, showed the entire team the movie, and closed the evening by saying, “Go home. Think about this movie. Just think about it.”

With the “Plan to win” in place, slowly but surely people started to believe. Over 3-6 months, people started to talk. I decided we needed to celebrate every win. Every week, over donuts and bagels, we would just share what was happening and talk about the wins.

Prouty: Change can be painful, how did you successfully work through it?

Machuzick: I was honest with people; I told them there were going to be painful changes along the way. A majority of the plants were closed, SKUs were reduced dramatically (more than half were gone), and the categories and segments we competed in were also winnowed significantly. We started focusing on profit rather than sales. One big – and visible move – was to sell off a $200 million piece of business, which freed up much time to do other more important (and more profitable) work. I said that I knew that we’d get it fixed, but I didn’t know exactly how. Ultimately, we turned over nearly 60 percent of the people in the division and were successful in creating a winning culture.

I also had the support of Ken Powell, now CEO of General Mills. He was my boss in the early going. Ken, as a leader, gave me ideas to consider, and gave me the freedom and support to make the tough choices I needed to make. With the support from above and a continually improving leadership team, the momentum continued. Win or lose, Ken was with me.

Prouty: How would you describe things today at Brands on the Go?

Machuzick: Brands on the Go has become a destination division, at General Mills, a place where people want to go. A place for college graduates to start their careers. Entrepreneurial. Freedom to do things. Fast moving. Creative. Risk-taking.

Prouty: In hindsight, would you do anything different?

Machuzick: I might have moved even faster. I knew how the movie would end if we didn’t make changes. I had a pit in my stomach many times along the way.

Prouty: What did you learn from your mom or dad that helped you become the leader you are today?

Machuzick: From Mom, I learned it's okay not to be the center of attention and be quiet and humble. From Dad, I learned to never give up. Ever. Be hungry to do things. Get the most out of your talent. I took their advice. I was the oldest child, and the first one in our extended family to go to college.

Prouty: What advice would you give to the next generation of leaders?

Machuzick:

• Be yourself.

• Always look to learn from everyone you can.

• Building relationships, familiarity and trust are extremely important.

• Do the right thing, you’ll know in your gut.

• Stay focused, work hard, do the best you can.

• Communicate frequently. Don’t “craft the message,” just tell the truth.

• Get beyond the facts. Appeal to the hearts of your people.

Jeff Prouty founded the Prouty Project in 1987 after seven years with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Minneapolis and New York City. He specializes in working with senior management teams and boards of directors on strategic planning and team issues.

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