A Closer Look: How General Mills' Leadership Embraces Mindfulness

Jul 14, 2014
10 Min Read

Leaders often rush from meeting to meeting, eating lunch on the run and writing emails until 2 a.m. Such behavior is not only unhealthy for them, but can lead to poorer leadership that hurts a company’s bottom line. Could an ancient practice be the solution?

Meditation – or mindfulness – is seen by some as the latest new-age fad where people sit around on the floor humming with incense burning nearby. It’s not often considered a top business practice at highly competitive companies.

But some of the nation’s largest employers are embracing mindfulness as a way to ease the stress of a workday for employees, improve leadership and hopefully lead to happier and more productive workplaces.

One of those employers is General Mills, one of the world’s largest food companies, which supports employees as they pursue mindfulness.

Sandy Behnken, corporate continuous improvement leader at General Mills, recently shared her experience with Anita Bruzzese in this closer look at mindfulness and leadership.

AB: How did you come to use mindfulness at work?

 SB:  I learned about mindfulness in September 2009 when considering development opportunities for the Women in IT networking group I was involved in at General Mills. At that time, several leaders at General Mills had received mindful leadership training. One leader in particular inspired me to learn more because I noticed how he always seemed to deeply listen when others spoke and then responded versus reacted to what was said. I wanted to be less reactive and to be a better listener.

With the support and sponsorship of leadership, I coordinated a group of 25 IT leaders to participate in a seven-week mindful leadership course. Within a couple of weeks of the course starting I could see how my mindfulness practice impacted my interactions at work. I became more aware of the many stimuli impacting me and was better able to decide how I was going to respond versus react to them.

AB: How long have you been using it?

 SB: I’ve been practicing mindfulness for the past 4 ½ years. To help strengthen my practice and support other practitioners at work, I lead a weekly drop-in practice session for General Mills employees. 

AB: Can you describe a work situation you felt like using mindfulness made a difference?

 SB: During a time in which I managed a large project for the company, having a strong mindfulness practice helped me when stress levels were high and we had more questions than answers. It helped me create the mental space I needed to bring clarity and focused attention to the work my team and I needed to accomplish. This mental space also allowed room for creativity to find answers to all those questions.

AB: How to you think mindfulness has made a difference in your leadership?

 SB: I believe the biggest difference it has made is in my ability to deeply listen to what is being said. Whether it’s working through business plans or addressing personnel challenges the act of really listening and being open to what is being said has been invaluable.

It’s so easy to come into a conversation with preconceived notions about how to proceed forward that we can miss important insights. It’s equally easy to want to solve all the challenges that are presented when the best thing may be to listen without thinking about how to respond. It’s not that we don’t respond but just for the moment it’s important to listen.

AB: Have you received mindfulness training? Do you think it’s necessary?

 SB: I received mindful leadership training at General Mills through an optional course offered by what is now the Institute for Mindful Leadership. I found it extremely beneficial because it gave me the opportunity to learn from experienced practitioners and to practice techniques such as mindful communication in a supportive environment.

Today, I am now a volunteer instructor for the Institute, which was founded by Janice Marturano former vice president, public responsibility and deputy general counsel at General Mills. To deepen my practice I have participated in additional courses offered by the Institute.

AB: How do your colleagues in the business arena react when they discover you use “mindfulness”?

 SB: The reactions are mixed. Some aren’t quite sure what to make of it but most are curious and comment about they could really use some mindfulness. For me, the best thing is when they “discover”’ my mindfulness by seeing it in practice. They notice that I’m open to what they are saying and really listening to them, as well as when I am actively choosing to thoughtfully respond.

AB: What do you think are some of the easiest ways to incorporate mindfulness into a workday? 

 SB:One of my favorite ways of incorporating mindfulness practice in my day is to mindfully walk from one meeting to the next. This doesn’t mean I’m walking at a zombie pace between meetings, but rather as I walk I focus my attention on the sensations of walking, feeling my feet on the floor and noticing when my mind has wondered off.

This does two things: it helps me cultivate the mind’s ability to aim and sustain attention and redirect it back to the object of attention; and it avoids that tendency to either re-live the meeting I just left or pre-live the next one. If I can arrive at each meeting without having pre-lived it I am more likely to be open to what is truly here in the present moment versus what I think should or hoped would be there.

Other ways to incorporate mindfulness into a work day are to bring awareness to the breath even if it’s just for a few moments before you respond to an email or as you are riding on an escalator. Sprinkling those pauses in throughout your busy day can give you that mental space you need. Coupling these activities with a formal mindfulness practice such as meditation or mindful yoga builds the minds ability to be fully present in the moment and to choose to respond versus react.

AB: Do you think that leaders or employees practicing mindfulness benefit a company? How so? 

 SB: As leaders and employees, we make decisions every day that impact not only the company we work for but our families and communities.

The quality of those decisions will be better if we are fully open, if we are present, if we give ourselves space to be creative, and if we build our capacity to choose to respond versus react. Everyone’s leadership styles differ, and for me, a mindfulness practice has helped me cultivate these abilities and more.

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