Ryan Berman talks to thought leaders from around the globe in business, sports and entertainment to uncover what it means to be courageous in today's world.
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EP124 Nicole Ayers - Business Unit Director at General Mills

Nicole Ayers – Business Unit Director at General Mills

Meticulously crafted plans. The essence of decisiveness. The inevitability of change. Nicole Ayers oversees a staggering billion-dollar enterprise comprised of household staples like Lucky Charms, Trix, Golden Grahams, and Coco Puffs. As a key force behind the cereal empire at General Mills, Nicole delves into the makeup and psychology of these beloved brands found in most pantries across America.

Episode Notes

On this episode of The Courageous Podcast, Nicole exposes her winning formula for surmounting challenges with her team that drive the business forward. Nicole also shares with Ryan what it’s like to be a black woman in the boardroom today, delving into a few ways she is looking to move the ball forward in the arena of diversity and inclusion at General Mills and beyond. Finally, Nicole shares with Ryan her unique path from working in money to pivoting into marketing and how that has shown up as a competitive advantage for her.

[00:00:00] Ryan: Okay. When it comes to business, you meet some people at a networking event. You know, that's normal. You in other business scenarios, you'll meet somebody. You're just like, wow, this person gets it at South by, or maybe it's a can, but very rarely do you actually meet someone in business. When you're surrounded by 40 or so other people that have chosen to partake in, how would you say, extracurricular weekend activities.

[00:00:34] Now look, I'm not here to judge. Fact is, these are my, some of them are my good friends. And it was New Year's Eve. Gosh, what's it, 15 years ago now? Is that what it was?

[00:00:47] Nicole: Um, no, like 12 years ago?

[00:00:49] Ryan: 12 years ago, and there was a few of us, two of us, that were really not partaking in the extra, extra curricular activities.

[00:00:59] And that was all good. I was cool. You were cool. And we met in the kitchen, and it was like, in San Diego, at a New Year's Eve party. And the best part about it was... At least I thought I'll, I'll speak for myself. I won't speak for you. It was like, this woman gets it. What an odd, like we were just chopping it up for like probably an hour.

[00:01:20] It did not come up. You did. It did not come up when I, when I did. And frankly, that probably would have ruined it if we both would have known in the first five minutes. Cause then I would have been like selling you on my agency. Right. Because we didn't know. We're like, yeah, that's cool. Do your thing over there.

[00:01:39] I like this woman. This, she's cool. And that's how Nicole Ayers, who now runs just a multi billion dollar business out of Minneapolis, am I getting that right? Or is it, it's just 1 billion. What have you been doing? Only a billion. I mean, I'm so excited to have you on. I honestly should have had, had you on sooner, but I think because of the Europe move and the move back and there was, was a pandemic, we just never figured out a way to, to do it until now.

[00:02:07] How's it going? You've been busy.

[00:02:10] Nicole: I've been busy. You know, the best part about that intro is that I remember the same details of the crazy extracurricular. There is some funky dance moves that we were real curious about and it's an awesome conversation. And I remember being like, man, this guy's awesome.

[00:02:29] And I think our friend Amy came up and like, was like, Oh, did you know at the end, we were like, Oh wow. That makes so much sense, but

[00:02:38] Ryan: I'm really grateful that I did not know your background until after because I would have blew it. And so I could, I wouldn't have been able to help it. So I'm glad I didn't know.

[00:02:48] It's like, Oh, it makes complete sense now why the two of us are over here while the rest are dancing and there's a circle dance going on. I'm making it sound worse than it is now. It's, I wasn't like that. Okay. But anyway, okay, let's get back on track here. So look, Yeah, you are, you are what I would call a double unicorn.

[00:03:10] Okay. There's double rainbows and you're a double unicorn unicorn. Number one, I haven't run into too many people that understand money finance. So let's start there. Like, did you study finance? Oh, Oh, you know what? Let's back up. I think you should give your official bio. What do you do? Where are you now?

[00:03:36] What are you running?

[00:03:38] Nicole: Who is this party girl? No. So, right. So I currently, I run part of our serial business at general mills. And so brands such as lucky charms, cinnamon toast, crunch tricks. Reese's Puffs, think of like your favorite childhood memories sitting around a kitchen table. And that is the joy that I get to lead.

[00:03:57] And so it's about a billion dollars worth of business, which is super fun and always a little bit scary. But at the end of the day. It's just, you're just running business. You're selling cereal. So that's what I'm in now. I've been with General Mills for, it'll be 14 years this summer, which is crazy. I remember my start date.

[00:04:16] It was June 15th, which is weird because like I sometimes forget my wedding anniversary, which I, I, my husband knows. Not secret, but I remember my start day with general mills, which is, which is interesting, but it's been a wild ride. You asked like the double unicorn thing. I've had many careers here. So I started from finance, came in straight off of my MBA.

[00:04:36] I liked finance because I called it the decoder ring of business, meaning if I could understand finance, then I could like easily look at a P& L and diagnose the life stage of the business and what was working and what wasn't. It was also the summer of Enron and I was like, I'll be damned if I go to jail because I don't know what's going on about financials, which is why I studied finance in the first place.

[00:04:57] And then I did that for a couple of years and found I was really drawn. To the strategy side and the why we did things and then the more I learned and so that a time when purpose marketing was just kind of starting up, I started realizing like that was what made me super motivated was like having a purpose in somebody's life and you didn't get that in finance, you were kind of like the executor of that purpose and that was like that first kind of glimpse of purpose is when I started thinking, huh, I think I might want to do something different with my life.

[00:05:29] And then over time, I've worked my way into marketing and now sit on this great serial business where I am the business leader director. So I'm kind of a general manager with a heavy lean towards marketing.

[00:05:40] Ryan: So how many years in finance before you shifted

[00:05:43] Nicole: five years in finance?

[00:05:45] Ryan: Wow. I mean, Okay. I have to ask, and this is, I want to be careful because I know you run a big team and someone will stumble into this podcast and they're going to listen.

[00:05:59] So a lot of marketers don't understand money. They, they, I think we're better at it. I think since. You know, performance marketing has rolled around. You have to understand the dollars and cents, maybe on the brand side, on the agency side, creatives, it's sort of a foreign language to us. Are you still seeing that?

[00:06:25] What is your advice for us that don't totally get. That universe,

[00:06:32] Nicole: I think it's mixed. I think you see more get it also because there's, you're competing for the same dollars, which is there's retailer media, there's performance media, and we're as business leaders trying to decide, where do you allocate the money?

[00:06:44] So it's about the idea and the magic of the brand, but also the reality of like, where are you going to put your dollars? How does that bring come to life? So I think people have to start to understand it more and more, but I think the, the way to explain it is like. I tell this to people on my team and I think it's funny.

[00:06:58] I tell them, I'll tell them my agency. I'll tell anybody to listen. I'm like, I'm not running a nonprofit. That's just not what I'm doing. And I understand that I make decisions that are for today and that are for tomorrow. And you have to help me understand if it's for the value of the brand for tomorrow, because the only reason people pay a premium for our brands is because we elicit deep emotion and that is the business model that we run and that deep emotion took 75 years to build on Lucky Charms and we have decades old brands.

[00:07:26] And we have to continue to invest in that, but I need to know how that connection is going to keep building so that I can keep selling my brand. In the future, like everything should tie back to how this is going to help me sell in this current job. Cereal. I mean, it can be how you help me sell cereal a day and how you can help me sell cereal tomorrow.

[00:07:44] And we talked about that short term long term. So how do I create that emotional connection? So I keep long term consumption, but also how do I generate that short term consumption and we have to do both. And so I think that's how I try and engage because we have different levels of the funnel. We're trying to execute on and but at the end of the day, I'm just trying to sell more cereal.

[00:08:03] Thank you. Kind of the simple, simple, just to me.

[00:08:07] Ryan: So if you had to step back out and imagine someone like me having to present ideas to you, would you be easier or harder to sway? On brand because you're like, Hey, this needs to link back to the money, right? You talked about it's an emotional decision, but you can also come back and be like, Ryan, it took us 75 years to make lucky charms.

[00:08:33] Lucky charms. We have extracted some serious equity. Now, now we have to sell cereal. Like how often do you come back to that?

[00:08:43] Nicole: Yeah, well, I think the fun thing about Serial is that you have new families coming in to the category every day as kids join families, kids are born and grow up and parents are bringing Serial back into their houses.

[00:08:58] And so the reality is, like, the job's never done. We need to continue to create that bond because you love it, but I need you to want to give it to your kids so that when your kids turn into parents, They love it. They want to give it to the kids. And then the cycle keeps going for another 75 years. So, I think we talk a lot about nostalgia and serial and how it's important, but it's only good if we keep building it and keep recruiting new kids to still love our products.

[00:09:24] So, I guess the answer to your question is, I think you can convince me if you can convince me that that's what's going to happen with the work that we're delivering because lucky needs to be magical. No one's going to buy a box of charms unless he's stinking magical and makes you feel good about, you know, sitting at the breakfast table and having that moment that cuts out the chaos of the day. So.

[00:09:45] Ryan: I'm all for levitating at breakfast. Like who doesn't like levitation at breakfast? I mean, all right. So go back to year five in a day. Okay. So it's year five or day two and year six for you. And you know, I don't know if I've shared the story with you. So I'll in the spirit of storytelling for me, it was year four today.

[00:10:11] It was like, I. Did everything in my power to get into the creative department. I didn't get my first choice. And then I finally got in and it was like, Oh my gosh, I can give up my khakis and then this button down and the belts for t shirts victory. Right. And, and everyone looked at me like I had 10 heads.

[00:10:30] Like, are you here to brief us? What are you doing here in the creative department? So there was. I don't think it was mental warfare, although I wouldn't put it past some of the creatives to like just do what they do to keep us down a little bit. But I did feel that, you know, you finally pass go and move into this new world.

[00:10:50] And then there's. Other questions, which leads to doubt, you know, and did you, when people first saw you shift, it's like, what is there a finance meeting happening here? So what, what's the finance person doing in this strategic meeting? Or was everyone like, yes, this is awesome. Come on in. Let's teach you.

[00:11:08] Nicole: That's a good question. So when I made this shift, I was living in Switzerland, working at our Serial Partners Worldwide office as the finance manager for marketing, which is where I felt fully head over heels in love with marketing, which I maintain that love relationship with today. But I came back and no one knew who I was because I was gone for three years and they were just like, who's this girl?

[00:11:30] But my finance people were like, Oh my God, I'm so glad you're in a commercial role because I can talk to you and you'll get it. So that was, those were my like lovers for the finance.

[00:11:38] Ryan: You see, this is what I mean by unicorn because it is, it's like you're a translator, right? It's, it's a completely different language sometimes.

[00:11:46] Nicole: It is. It is. And so I got like a lot of support from the finance functional peers who I had, but your question of like, who are the haters? And like, funnily enough, I think I was probably my biggest hater because I, I would introduce myself. It's like, Hi, I'm Nicole from finance. But now I'm in marketing and I did this for you, like for years, I finally had somebody pull me aside and be like, you know, you're, you're just a marketer now.

[00:12:10] Like you, you've ticked the boxes, you've built, you've built the consumer journeys and the brand archetypes and the brand hierarchies and you, you know that and like, you're actually just a marketer. And I think it took me like four or five years to stop introducing myself as. a finance person who moved into marketing.

[00:12:30] So I think it was actually from probably took me longer to feel like I had earned the street cred in the marketing function than did anybody else in all honesty.

[00:12:40] Ryan: I mean, you know, this shows about you, not me, but I, I don't, I think that resonates with me. Like, I'm sure I was my biggest, like, hater and deep, deep, deep down.

[00:12:52] I probably knowing me use that as fuel, right? Like you're not good enough. You're not one of them. I'm going to have to keep working. I'm going to outwork people. It wasn't that clear, you know, it's sort of swirled underneath and all. So you said. Yeah. Get me from, how did you get to Switzerland? Where were you?

[00:13:14] How did, when you went over there and how long were you there for?

[00:13:17] Nicole: So Switzerland was, was early in my career. I think I'd been here for three years. And I remember I love international. I studied abroad. I lived in Paris for a year. I worked in West Africa in my first career when I did international development before grad school, speak French, like all the things I'm like very into travel.

[00:13:36] And so I started and I was like, Hey, I'd love to go to international and people are like, Oh, that's adorable. You little analyst. Like, you don't go international to your director, like, in a nicer Minnesota nice way. But that was kind of the answer I got. But I just kept telling people like, you know what? I hear you.

[00:13:51] I'd love to know the skill sets I should be building. I still want to go to international, whatever. I'm ready or you're ready or there's a role and it only took three years and I went, I was promoted from kind of an analyst to a manager, which was unheard of. And people like, how did you do it? I'm like, because I told everybody who would listen.

[00:14:07] Hey, I'd like to go to international. So I got that opportunity. I work for an incredible, incredible manager. And she was so demanding, which was great because I really wanted to do marketing. So I could go in with ideas. I'm like, how do I help with this? And she'd be like, I have all these things you can try.

[00:14:25] And I got to do some of the kind of marketing type work where you, I worked on like three year LRPs and like, Okay. How do we do planning competitive assessments to enter market? And I love that stuff. And then I kind of came to her and said, you know, I think I want to do marketing. And she looked at me and she said, yeah, it was like totally wondering when you were going to come tell me that.

[00:14:44] Cause I've seen it for like a month. I was the last one to figure it out. And so I went and moved into marketing and then moved back to the U S and then spent about three or four years here and said, you know what? I really want to go back to international when you're ready. And if you're like, no, you don't go to international twice, like, don't be silly.

[00:15:01] And I was like, well, I mean, if the opportunity opens itself up two and a half years later, they're like, Hey, do you want to go run our marketing department for serial partners worldwide or the innovation department? And I said, totally. That sounds awesome. Send me back.

[00:15:14] Ryan: You should probably explain what that is, by the way, because people are like serial partners world.

[00:15:20] Aren't you at General Mills?

[00:15:22] Nicole: So confusing. So cereal partners worldwide is. A joint venture between General Mills and Nestle, and we joined our forces. I think it's probably close to 20 years ago, 25 years ago, because they have the commercial footprint and we had the brand equities and marketing acumen and I would say like.

[00:15:43] Ability to make the cereal products and through cereal partners worldwide. We sell all of our general bills brand and some nestle brands Outside of north america. So if you go and you pick up a box of cheerios in the uk or in france It's sold through this joint venture.

[00:16:00] Ryan: Okay, and you're there so you're so you go back again for the second, by the way at this point You're married

[00:16:06] Nicole: Married.

[00:16:06] Yep. Now I'm married.

[00:16:08] Ryan: And you're, you're married and you're dragging your husband, kicking and screaming to Europe for the second time.

[00:16:16] Nicole: He was not kicking and screaming. He was thrilled. He liked to call it his retirement and I was like, you're not retired. This is just a sabbatical, but he loved it and he picked up like a full time job travel agent and he booked us and we traveled all around the world.

[00:16:30] We traveled every other weekend when we moved there, he had been to three countries and when we got back, he'd been to 42. That was for three years we were there. Yeah, we traveled a ton.

[00:16:42] Ryan: And I know you have children now, but the, did you have kids the first time when you were there? Or the second time? No kids the first time.

[00:16:50] And then the second time you had one.

[00:16:52] Nicole: And then the second time I had two.

[00:16:54] Ryan: You had two. And now you have two. Okay. I'm just, just trying to get caught up here. Yeah. So, so how long have you been back in the States? I've been back now for two years. Are you getting the itch? Cause usually things happen in threes.

[00:17:09] I'm just asking.

[00:17:10] Nicole: No, no itch, no itch. We, we love our children and we were really kick ass parents of one child. And we were like, we're living our best lives. And then I got pregnant and I was like, well, that's, this is happening. And I'm so glad it did because my second is lovely, but at the time, so I didn't tell you that.

[00:17:32] So. When I was pregnant with my found out I was pregnant with my second daughter, I had just been promoted to director and I found out I was pregnant. The day I started the day I started and I was so excited. I was going to lead ice cream, which is hugging us brand and snacks, which is the biggest brand in Europe was Nature Valley.

[00:17:56] And it was for Europe and in Australia. And I was super excited to start this job. And I was like, this is my next chapter. Like I'm killing it. I am so pumped. And that night I found out I was pregnant and I was like. This wasn't like, just not on the plan, and I was terrified to tell my boss because I was like, he's gonna think I totally put one over on him, but he was amazing and super supportive and very happy for me, but I ended up doing that job for for 10 months, like, literally, because I found it 10 months later, and then did that in for a year, and then came back while I was on maternity leave, and they called me up and said, hey, We have a job for you in the U. S. We can't tell you what it is, but we need you to get on a plane and move back to the U. S. And it was the tail end of the pandemic, and I was like, okay, I mean, you've treated me right so far, General Mills, I guess I'll do this. Got on the plane, moved back, and I still remember, I was like, we rented a cabin up north, because that's what you do.

[00:18:50] Here, not from here, but you do that if you live here and here being Minnesota. And I remember standing like in a, in a grassy lawn area. And I got the phone call and they're like, you are going to be working in cereal. Like, Oh my God, this is amazing. These are the most iconic brands. I can't believe you're trusting me with this business.

[00:19:08] And then I had like a little bit of a heart attack. Cause I was like, it's a billion dollars of the most iconic. Some of the most iconic food brands, like, what are they thinking? Putting me in charge and here you are today.

[00:19:21] Ryan: All right. So, you know, what I love about this conversation is inside the vessel of the voices is like, there's some, some pretty serious learnings.

[00:19:32] So like, here's what I'm hearing one. It's not where you start. It's what you chart. You know, like you knew you wanted to go, you know, go to Europe. You knew you wanted to play around in marketing it like me. We didn't get our first choice. Maybe you did get your first choice, but then discovered, Oh, wow. I'm, this is interesting.

[00:19:55] Now I know money, waterfall effect, money, and story. You're you're much more dangerous because of it too. Why not you just because no one else has gone to Europe doesn't mean that it's not possible, which I think is sort of to be, which is ask. I'm a big stated and created guy. So like stated and created, let the intention be.

[00:20:23] Known that you want to go to Europe and guess what you've now fulfilled that destiny of going to Europe not once But twice and then I just think you know, look, I don't have to tell you about hard work and staying curious I do find it really fascinating when you said the baby was not in the plan You know as someone that knows money and knows marketing I mean it you couldn't have just defined plan more like there's always a plan.

[00:20:51] I guess I'm curious even in your job And I know the canned answered, you have to stay fluid and agile, but like, how often are you trying to stay on plan and realistically the world seems to be so fast now you could build a year plan. You could build a five year plan, a 10 year plan, but what is realistic and how often do you stay on that plan versus another pivot, another pivot, another pivot?

[00:21:22] Nicole: That's a good question. I think the plan. The thing I say a lot to my team, it's like, we're going to build a plan and we're going to build the best plan that we know we can. And then we're all going to look at each other and say, we know that's not actually what's going to happen, right? Because we don't know what is going to happen, but I can tell you categorically that the plan we wrote will not be what happens over the next 12 months.

[00:21:45] And that's just because of the reality of what it is. And so I think teams who respond well together. To the challenge of change are the ones who win. And I think I consider the team that I have super high performing and when new people come on to the team, they're like, wow, it's so easy to kind of like step in.

[00:22:04] And I think the reason that is, is because we are very adaptive together, not just like me being like, Oh, what's the change? What's the change? But knowing how my role is going to affect this person's role and this person's role so that we come together and say, Hey, we're going to form this problem and we're going to pivot.

[00:22:20] Which at the end, unless you deliver your plan, but the way you got there ends up being different than you thought you were going to get there. And so I always say, like, our, whenever you're on a team, like, your competitive advantage is not like, can you run the plan? But can you adapt quicker to achieve what you said you were going to achieve?

[00:22:37] Because the way you get there is going to be different than you thought it was. And that has been kind of, especially when you reflect over the past couple of years of crazy supply chain and inflation, all the things that are being thrown at you, I think your ability to react is really what sets you apart as a person.

[00:22:51] And as a team, more importantly, that you can react together.

[00:22:54] Ryan: You know, this is where I know too much about you. And so I know how sports has played a role in life before work. Can you talk a little bit about. What you played, how competitive you are on a scale of one to 10. That is such a setup. And look, yeah, that, I mean, you have to do your role, right?

[00:23:16] But you're not a me, you're a we. You've always been a we and you've seen success from the team. So give a little bit of background on that sort of what you played. And then how does that apply to the job today?

[00:23:27] Nicole: So. I have the, like, distinct privilege of playing volleyball in college at San Diego State, which is, you're in San Diego, which is near to my heart, and it's, and I played all through high school, all through college, and you, you can't play at that level without being like a 10.

[00:23:44] I don't think, I don't think it's possible to competitively, but then when you leave, you're like, where do I put all of this, like, energy, and it ends up working its way into, like, my professional release, if you will. And so I'm fairly competitive. But it's, it's very externally focused, which like for me is like the most productive way to do it, which is like, I want to beat the people outside of my building, not the people in my building and, and that's like, that's just kind of how I orient my competitiveness.

[00:24:14] And then as far as the, we, like, I was reflecting upon, like, you're like, is this like, I think you would ask me this question, not here, but somewhere else. Like, is it like scary running a billion dollar business? And I'm like. Yeah, a lot of money. It's important and it's a big company. But then I also think of like, but I don't really do it alone because I have an incredible team of people who are experts across all of the functional areas and like the ability to like get the best out of people and creative environment lets them be As, as high potential as they can makes it far less scary because, you know, you have an army of incredible people who are getting the right stuff done.

[00:24:57] And that's kind of like the, the weed that you mentioned and how I have translated it from being a sports person to being in business.

[00:25:06] Ryan: Is it conscious when you look at adding people to the team that you're like, yes, Oh, Oh, that was a swimmer. This one was a fencer. They're they're playing individual sports versus like team sports.

[00:25:23] Like are, are you looking at team team at all? I mean, it was, I'm assuming you are, but when you're like, oh, cool. This person played a team sport. Is that part of the process?

[00:25:33] Nicole: I think it's less around. Do you play a team sport and more around? Can I identify where you're going to play the best position? Like, what is your unique set of skills that will enable you to contribute to this team in the best way possible?

[00:25:50] And then, and then, you know, like, okay, so I have, I have somebody who's super critical and will ask me 50 different questions to see if something is. It's going to like play out or not, and I know to go to them when I'm like working on a problem and I want to make sure I foolproof it. There are other people who are like really good at rallying the troops and it's like, okay, can you help me set this up?

[00:26:08] And so I think trying to figure out what the strengths are in your team so that you can deploy them is more of the focus versus like, are you a swimmer or are you a fencer? It's like, okay, if you are a swimmer that means you have strong shoulders. So how can I use your strong shoulders?

[00:26:27] Ryan: I like where you went with that.

[00:26:28] Nicely done. So I did mention at the top of the show that you're in double unicorn status and let's just assume that, you know, someone hasn't done any research and we're just in their ears. I mean, volleyball player, black woman, tall, right? Slightly tall when you now walk into a room, are you like, I'm kind of alone up here.

[00:26:57] Like who looks like you, who doesn't look like you. And, and again, I, this is a show about courage. I don't see how I don't ask this question, right? Like, do you feel, is it, and is it cool? It's cool to sort of like, as a woman and as a black woman. And I think those are both separate and together. What's it like?

[00:27:18] Nicole: Yeah, it's a big question. I would say, so I had this realization, and I've told this story before to some of my colleagues of, I was in a room with my leadership team and I had a new VP of supply chain who had joined and she was a black woman. And I was like, Oh. You look, you look like me. And I can ask you, like, she's curling her hair like me.

[00:27:39] I'm like, Oh, I can ask her about her hair. And I was like, Oh, this is so comfortable. And then like a month later, I had this like realization. I was like, Oh my God, this is what white men have been feeling forever because they get to sit in rooms where people look like them. And it's like this underlying level of comfort that I just didn't know.

[00:27:56] And since I didn't know, I didn't know I was missing it. And now that I've seen it, I'm like, Oh, this is, this is probably a contributor to maybe why I would be more comfortable in certain settings or not comfortable in certain settings. And many of the settings I'm in, I'm not going to instantly, physically have a connection with somebody because we have similarities.

[00:28:14] And it was just that it was interesting because I had never thought about it because I'd never experienced it. And then once I experienced it, I realized that it's actually quite a benefit to those who have it all the time.

[00:28:23] Ryan: Or not, or not, like, or not, you know, I'm not playing the, the, just what we need is another comment from a white dude card, but like, if comfort is the enemy of progress, right, if comfort is the enemy of growth, and again, I've sat in those rooms and I, you're spot on, like, it's, I mean, I don't think, I think it's like, Oh, boys club, we're so uncomfortable with each other, but I do feel that there's a, There's a freedom to the conversation that's happened there and I'm not like, and let's, let's, and we've got decisions to make on the business.

[00:28:58] Let's go again. That's what's also been in our way. So now you're sitting in these rooms and they're going, okay, everyone looks like us and, and the world is changing. How are we evolving? And by the way, have you actually asked? You said I could ask her what she puts in her hair and what, because I feel like I've been told, don't say that.

[00:29:19] I mean, I'm bald. So what would I know anyway about that? But like, it's, it gets complicated.

[00:29:24] Nicole: Yeah, it does. But I think the, the thing I learned is you just like being, being able to establish a connection with somebody makes it easier to have harder conversations. Or be like a straight shooter or somebody feel like actually have the terrible idea, not because I have anything wrong with you, but just because I don't think it's going to work for the business.

[00:29:43] So let's think of something else. And you have to have like a little bit of trust and connection with somebody to do that. And you got to work on it. And even if you look like somebody you don't look like somebody, I feel like that's the basis. For being able to to react in situations and take bold choices and pivot quickly and take risks together.

[00:30:02] And so I think, like, I think you're right. It's not necessarily like a good or a bad thing, but I think the recognition that having that connection with somebody makes it easier to have those conversations that can be hard, or maybe you would hold your tongue. It is, it's helpful. It makes, it just makes for better business.

[00:30:20] It makes for better decisions. It makes for bolder decisions.

[00:30:23] Ryan: I mean, I'm just, I'm trying to put myself in the shoes of, Oh, well, first of all, let's, let's state the obvious general meals is clearly focused on. Like diversity, equity, inclusion, just like courageous is just like lots of like, this is, and I do feel like I feel like we are making progress when I say we, I don't mean America.

[00:30:45] I mean, we curious to get your take on this. Are you seeing success. Are you seeing a conscious, thoughtful approach? I almost feel like this is a silly question because I can't imagine that you guys wouldn't be investing in this conversation and operationalizing the outcomes.

[00:31:03] Nicole: Yeah. And not to be weirdly company line, but I'm super proud of the progress General Mills has made.

[00:31:09] And I've been here for 14 years and it is markedly different. The conversations we have now than the conversations we had 10 years ago. And they're the representation we have, like, At a officer level, I think we're about 30% people of color were pretty well represented 50% representation of women, but I don't what I think is, is awesome because I think we can set a standard and we are not done yet.

[00:31:33] I think we have work to do on black managers and we have pockets of work to do and we're not done yet. But when I look outside of general bills. We're like far, far, far beyond a lot of our, a lot of other companies and how they're, are, have progressed against diversity. So, I think we're on a spectrum, like, as is corporate in America.

[00:31:54] I'm really proud to be at the, at the tip of that spectrum with General Mills and how we've built the, kind of the diversity across multiple levels of the organization. But I will say, like, there's some more work to be done. Um, and I spend time thinking about, like, What am I going to do within general mills to continue the trajectory, but also like, how do I think about impact beyond general mills?

[00:32:15] Cause I think we're, we're, we're in front of a lot of other companies and how do we influence broader than just the building that I work in? So we made a lot of progress. We're not done.

[00:32:26] Ryan: If you were a, let's say there's a white man listening to this and is in a boardroom or in a. Team setting with someone who looks very different than them, and they are afraid to start a dialogue because I, you know, for all the reasons that might be swirling in their head, right?

[00:32:45] Don't want to say the wrong thing. Don't want to offend. Where should somebody start?

[00:32:50] Nicole: This is going to sound basic, but like, we're all just people. I'm not trying to be weird about that, but like, Just find something in common to talk about. It's not that complicated. I don't know. I don't think it is because once you start talking about something in common, you're going to realize you have more in common with people than you have not in common.

[00:33:07] And that doesn't mean you, you don't recognize that people have different experiences, but just focusing on the connection is like half the battle because then that's a, that's a human to you and you can have a real conversation with them and then you get over all the shit that we're worried about. I'm not supposed to say that, but you know, it's like, I think you just have to connect as a human and then it goes from there.

[00:33:25] Ryan: How big is that leadership team that you're sitting on?

[00:33:28] Nicole: Oh, gosh. So my leadership team is like 12 or 13. I have to say like my leadership team is the most diverse leadership team I've ever sat on hands down. I

[00:33:40] Ryan: was going to ask how long does it, you know, does it take to get to know and connect with, I mean, you've been in the org for 14 years.

[00:33:48] I'm sure some have rised in the org with you. Some were probably there and you've joined them. I'm sure it's a nice. Blend, but in the spirit of yet connection, how easy has it been to sort of mesh with them and also keep yourself open for them to get to know you. And I think this is more about leadership, not about.

[00:34:09] You know, diversity, equity, inclusion.

[00:34:11] Nicole: Yeah, I mean, I think it's hard and epidemic. It's hard when you're not in the office or in person for moments of time. I think it's, it's, it's hard to connect with other with your leadership team and the team who is reporting to you. So I come into the office a lot just to see people because that's just how.

[00:34:28] It's easy for me to connect and then like basic things are like, how, how are you doing healthy? I'm already going. Is this hard? And I'm pretty like, I'm pretty straightforward. And so like, I'll show up and be like, man. I am underwater and I do not know if I know what I'm doing today. And I think letting people know that's how you feel about yourself, particularly if you're like a six feet tall Black woman and people find you intimidating.

[00:34:53] Letting them know like, no, you know what, I do not have everything figured out and just because you think I do, just let me, let me disabuse you of some of those things. I think being vulnerable makes it easier to connect with people because they see maybe a different version of you than you see. And if you're able to be vulnerable, they're like, oh, okay.

[00:35:10] Like, We can have a real conversation.

[00:35:13] Ryan: Yeah. I, and it's in their heads, right. They don't spend a lot of time with you all the time. Right. So in their heads, they have an idea of like, what's the coal really like in this. Powerful leadership position. And you're like new flash. I don't have all the answers either.

[00:35:28] Like that's what the team is for. My hope is to give them permission to be themselves. You know, you can't see me audience, but I'm wearing my, my mistake until you make it t shirt today, which I like a lot better than fake it till you make it. You know? And so I think that's. That's what it is to like, keep the mistakes small, maybe not a billion dollar mistake in the spirit of billion dollar businesses, but like run little experiments and give yourself permission to learn from those and pivot from those and grow off of those.

[00:35:57] All right. So take us, take us home. If you want the listener to walk away with a one, two, three lessons that they can learn or extract from even this conversation or from. Your job or your life, what, what do you want them to take away?

[00:36:17] Nicole: I like three. Let's do three. So, okay, one, you, you mentioned this a little bit as we went through this, but I think I've done a lot of things that people are like, are you for real?

[00:36:27] Like, you're just going to go change function. You're just going to like move to Paris with a suitcase. You're just going to go to Europe, these things, right? And I was reflecting on it and thinking about why. And I think it's easy to make decisions when you see the possibility of the, like, the positivity that could come out of it.

[00:36:45] And you're like, this is going to be awesome because, and then you're going to figure out how to solve the problems along the way. And so I think some of the shifts I've made. I think it was because I was saw the positive and the possibility before I saw the challenge. And so then I could get to the challenge when I was faced with them, which they inevitably came, but it's easy when you start with, with, with what you're trying to accomplish.

[00:37:04] And then the second part, which kind of ladders up to that is, I think I, I've spent time thinking about how I really want to spend my time. And when I was working in finance, I realized that I really wanted to do the things that my colleagues were doing in marketing because that looked fun. And I made the move and I've loved it ever since I spent time thinking about how do I want to build my career.

[00:37:25] I want to be international in the US and I really wanted to build a career in international and I had fun and it was exciting and it's made me who the leader I am. And so making sure you spend your time doing stuff you actually want to do. I think is really important because it means you can do the hard stuff because you really want to do it.

[00:37:42] And then I think the third one, and it gets to kind of this, the conversation we had about being kind of the unicorn of you're woman, you're black, combine those two together and it makes you, can be very different in certain settings, of just, like, taking the time to connect with people as humans. And, and how much of growth can just come from that tiny step, regardless of what you look like.

[00:38:03] I think it's maybe the third, the third one.

[00:38:06] Ryan: I love it. Yeah, here's what I heard. One, stay positive in the possibilities, right? Dream it, stay curious, go, go make it happen. Two, maybe spend time thinking about how you spend your time, right? So, which is a visualization exercise. And then three funny to talk about time and then say, slow down and really make meaningful relationships and it is, it's, it's the relationships that make the world go around.

[00:38:40] And by the way, it's okay to also acknowledge, I'll put it out there that you're not going to be besties with every single person that stumbles into your life. There will be people in your family. That you don't perfectly connect with. There will be people that you work with. It's going to be transactional and it's not throwing them away.

[00:39:00] It's still human, but you're, you're driven by different things. You like different things. It doesn't mean you shouldn't ask them how their day was. Right. But deep down, you know, it's like, Oh, you know, it, it, it goes back. And I liked that we're sort of full circle that, you know, I met this person and a party that I wanted to talk to because we're aligned on so much stuff and I knew right then I'm like, I wanna work with this person and it doesn't have to be today, it could be 10 years from now.

[00:39:28] This is not a lead or a seed thing, but like I think we both agree that it's like, yeah, you're, that's the whole point of the exercise is to try to figure out a way to just do you, and then if you happen to be doing you and someone else is doing them and they're similar enough, then well, let's do that together.

[00:39:45] Let's figure out a way. And I think that is the goal, right? Find your people, become a team, do the we thing versus a me thing. Give me like even one thing you're terrified of right now. It is, this is a show about courage that you're afraid about that. You know, you've got a leap on, or I'll give you a slight out, something that you have.

[00:40:13] You're like, that was super courageous of us or me, and I'm really proud of what we're doing. Just give me one of those.

[00:40:21] Nicole: I will say, I've been in this job for two years now, and I'm on my third round, and it's just like, I feel like it's just getting tougher and tougher in CPG. Because it just is. It's just like kind of a dogfight and I think about how I want to lead through challenge and what kind of leader am I going to show up on when I'm stressed and like, can I be the type of leader that people need?

[00:40:47] And provide like the steady hand, the decisiveness, the fairness in in a really challenging environment. And I think a lot about how do I ensure I show like a leader that I would want to work for in times of challenge? Because I think that's like the ultimate test. And so who knows what the year will bring?

[00:41:05] But I, I just think that business has been hard for years and I've kind of gotten a couple. You know, reps around the track. And so I just reflect a lot about like, how am I going to be a good leader in times of challenge?

[00:41:17] Ryan: I like the stepping into the shoes the other way and looking back and like, if I were them looking at me, am I the leader that I would want to work for?

[00:41:29] I mean, it seems so logical, right? But, but I think when we are crazy and it's chaotic, and like you said, it's getting harder, which is all little fear levers you get. Why we don't do that. And I call it body jumping. We body jump less and like jump into the bodies of the people looking at ourselves. Our last, last questions.

[00:41:50] And then you get, you get your life back. So you and your team, not just you are running this billion dollar business, but do you still have imposter syndrome? Yes,

[00:42:00] Nicole: I think if you don't, you are dangerously close to being reckless, to be honest, like if I get to work and I'm like, I've got this, I'll figure it out.

[00:42:10] I just don't think you can, there's too much stuff changing and it keeps you from like, asking and being inquisitive and pulling in experts and, and just like, Looking outside to see, am I missing something? I guess I don't, imposter syndrome is a different thing where you feel like you don't belong and you shouldn't be where you are and I haven't earned it.

[00:42:31] I don't necessarily feel like that, but I don't think I come into work and think I've got it all figured out because I think that's a I think if you think that, you're probably missing something.

[00:42:39] Ryan: Yeah. Well, it's also a nice little cue to be like, keep your ears open, stay open minded, right? You're asking questions, all that good stuff.

[00:42:48] Thank you so much for popping on here. Next time you come to San Diego, make sure you let me know. I'm sure you will. I will. And keep doing what you're doing. I'd love to hear more stories from the boardroom, and we'll stay in touch. Sound good?

[00:43:03] Nicole: Sounds excellent. Thank you for the time and that provocative question.

[00:43:06] Ryan: Wait, I know. Double unicorn. Double unicorn. That's where I went. Way to go, Ryan. Bye. Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Courageous Podcast. If you enjoy the show, don't forget to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts so more people can find us. See you again next week.

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