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An “Innovation Sabbatical” at General Mills

Rolled out in 2007 along with a personal sabbatical program, General Mills’ “Innovation Sabbatical” is only offered to members of the company’s “Innovation, Technology and Quality” organization, which is comprised of employees in roles related to research and development, nutrition, quality and engineering. After 7 years of service, these employees may apply for an Innovation Sabbatical that is fully paid for up to 12 months. Expenses related to the sabbatical are also paid.

The following are highlights from a recent discussion about General Mills’ Innovation Sabbatical between yourSABBATICAL’s Elizabeth Pagano and Sandy Haddad, Manager of Flexibility & Inclusion at General Mills and the new overseer of the company’s sabbatical offerings. Haddad was on the HR committee that developed the program.

Q: Tell me a little more about the eligibility requirements for your Innovation Sabbatical.

A: We’re looking for people who have proven their strong performance and have deep experience at General Mills. It’s a reward. We have a steering committee that reviews all of the proposals that come in and makes the decision of who is approved to take an innovation sabbatical, based on how the applicants’ requests meet the criteria of the program.  The steering committee includes the most senior, influential leaders in the group, including the senior vice president who heads the Innovation Technology and Quality organization. Before rolling out the Innovation Sabbatical, we had those folks out in front of employees talking about the program, how it relates to our innovation strategy, and why we’re excited about it.

Q: Briefly, what is the process for applying?

A: We have an online form that can be filled out and turned in to anyone on the committee.

Q: How many have applied since the program’s inception in 2007?

A: Roughly 15.

Q: Is there a cap?

A: No. We are targeting about two per year.

Q: How many people have been on an Innovation Sabbatical so far, and what kinds of things did they do?

A: Five employees have taken Innovation Sabbaticals. They fall into two categories: one category is very science based around product development, coming up with new, proprietary opportunities and solutions around nutrition; the second category is more about organizational capabilities which are not specific to one product but will have implications across the company’s portfolio of brands and businesses. For example, one person really focused on using social media and networking to expand our innovation capabilities. He brought back a very robust understanding of the social media landscape, the potential, and how to leverage it internally and externally. While on sabbatical, he worked in another organization – not a competitor – that was also interested in learning more about social media…so he had a playground of sorts and also spent time benchmarking across a broad array of organizations. Another employee partnered with a higher education institution for his sabbatical. And another person worked with a small organization that General Mills is already partnering with to expand our contacts with leading-edge innovators; with this particular organization’s network we went from having a network of a handful to a network of more than 100 innovators around the world who we can tap into.

Q: What kinds of business outcomes have you observed from this program?

A: Culturally, it has really reinforced the commitment we have to people, innovation, and experimentation. We didn’t  want people to get stuck thinking “Well, what if my idea doesn’t work?” People needed to know that we want them to go way outside the box and that failure is a possibility but we won’t look at it as failure. From an individual stand point, the impact has been huge. Personal learning, confidence, and development have been evident. And these individuals were also able to build their external network more, which feeds right into innovation. Also, they’ve had unique opportunities to interact more frequently with the senior leadership of the organization..

Q: How is this program perceived within General Mills?

A: Very well. Those who’ve done it come back refreshed, energized, and are bringing back great innovation to General Mills. The biggest challenge was convincing people that we really mean it and to go for it. We said “Don’t let your own mental barriers stop you from going for it.”

Q: How is work coverage handled? Is there a specific process or does it depend on unit/team?

A: Many employees at General Mills have rotational assignments, and Innovation Sabbaticals are targeted to occur at the end of a rotation, when a different employee would be taking over the position either way.

Q: What are some of the expectations of an employee who is accepted for an Innovation Sabbatical?

A: Part of the application process – but it’s also up to the person’s manager – is to ensure that before leaving, the employee is clear on what the objectives are and how they’ll be evaluated. We do tie the sabbatical in to the employee’s performance rating and layout the expectation that when they come back, they’ll present what they learned  to people throughout the organization – not just in one presentation or paper. For example, the person who worked on social media while on sabbatical is still working on tying it back to the organization. He’s considered an internal consultant on social media.

Q: How do you think your sabbatical program(s) contributes to GMI’s “best company” status?

A: It’s rather unique to go out on a paid sabbatical. And since we’ve increased the duration from 6 to 12 months, it’s a generous and exciting program that complements all we’re doing around flexibility, while also promoting innovation… and that’s a company that I want to work for. We  truly trust and empower employees to experiment and dig deep into topics about which they are passionate. This benefits them from a development and satisfaction standpoint, and it has a tremendous benefit on our business.

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About Elizabeth Pagano

Founding Partner, yourSABBATICAL.com.

Elizabeth consults with organizations on leadership/talent development. She is co-author of THE TRANSPARENCY EDGE: How Credibility Can Make or Break You in Business (McGraw-Hill), which has been translated into four languages and is now in paperback. A former business journalist, articles by and about her have appeared in a wide array of business publications, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, CNN International, Outside Magazine, Oprah.com, Journal of Accountancy, CBS News, Web CPA, Business to Business, Talent Management, Employee Benefit News, Manage Smarter, and Canada’s Globe and Mail. You can find her book on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Transparency-Edge-Elizabeth-Pagano/dp/0071458840/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1291230117&sr=8-1.

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After 9/11, Elizabeth sailed with her mother on their family's 43-foot Beneteau, "Revival". To read more about their adventure at sea, go to http://yoursabbatical.com/about/team/pagano-sailing-sabbatical/. Since their sailing sabbatical, Elizabeth and her mother have been working tirelessly to ensure that every career path includes a sabbatical or two.

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  1. [...] a tremendous difference in his creative thinking as well as adding to his bottom line, plus the “innovation sabbatical” offered at General Mills which is 12-months long,  it’s difficult to imagine becoming all that innovative in the short [...]



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