Welcome to our series of interviews with leading female CSR practitioners where we are learning about what inspires these women and how they found their way to careers in sustainability. Read the rest of the series here.
TriplePundit: Briefly describe your role and responsibilities, and how many years you have been in the business.
Catherine Gunsbury: I am the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at General Mills. I am currently responsible for General Mills’ global responsibility strategy, reporting and communications. I have been with General Mills for 15 years, working primarily in marketing and innovation. I assumed my current role a little over two years ago.
3p: How has the sustainability program evolved at your company?
CG: General Mills has a strong tradition of corporate citizenship and ethical business practices. Corporate responsibility at General Mills traces its roots to the founding of the company more than 100 years ago. At that time, it was expressed as innovations in milling safety and generous concern for our community.
One of our founders, Cadwallader Washburn, developed a way to make mills much safer and shared it with his competitors. Milling was an explosive business in those days…and in 1878, Washburn’s mill – the largest in the world – exploded. He immediately began outlining plans for a new, even larger mill. But Washburn also believed that he had a responsibility to the families of the 18 workers killed. To the orphaned children. To the employees who would work in his new mill, his community, and even his competitors. So he built an orphanage that survives to this day, and he invested in technology to filter flour dust from the air, making milling dramatically safer. And he shared that technology with all of his competitors.
Today, we continue to be principled in doing the right thing and living our values. It’s essential to maintain trust with our consumers – they expect it. That’s why we are committed to the sustainable use of resources in our products, to improving the health and nutrition of our products, and engaging in and supporting the communities we serve.
3p: Tell us about someone (mentor, sponsor, friend, hero) who affected your sustainability journey, and how.
CG: The people I most admire are those who look at problems differently and ask, “How might we?” or “What if?” I have had the good fortune of being surrounded by folks like this throughout my life, both personally and professionally. My husband Curt is one of those people. Curt is an entrepreneur who develops green buildings. In walking this path with him, I have learned firsthand the power of systems thinking when it comes to sustainability. It requires a pragmatic problem-solving approach to make progress within given constraints – be they environmental, human, or economic. It calls for intentionality – an approach that considers the impact of one choice over another, while acknowledging inevitable trade-offs. It necessitates that one not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. And, it reminds us that small things really can make a difference: alone, choices may not be risky or complicated or expensive or even noticeably impactful. But combined, they can have a powerful, long-term, positive impact.
3p: What is the best advice you have ever received?
CG: I collect advice and because of this, do not have a “best” of. There are, however, a couple of guiding principles I return to, time and again. My parents have always said, “You never know what problems people are trying to solve.” I love this because it is a very humane reminder that things are not always what they seem and that empathy is an important quality to cultivate. And the other, from a colleague, “Snuggle up to the discomfort.” Life is tough and things are messy. Get over it and get on with it!
3p: Can you share a recent accomplishment you are especially proud of?
CG: It’s a very fresh accomplishment – the late April launch of our 2013 Global Responsibility Report. The report charts our progress over the last year and reflects our efforts to increase transparency. I am especially proud of the work we are doing to source our raw materials more sustainably. We’re making good progress there in innovative ways – it is exciting to share our story and our plans for the future.
3p: If you had the power to make one major change at your company or in your industry, what would it be?
CG: I would shrink the market rewards gap between long-term investment and short-term outcomes.
3p: Describe your perfect day.
CG: A summer day on the lake. It is sunny and warm. Gone is my concept of time. Before anyone else is up, I enjoy a cup of coffee whilst scanning the paper or spelunking around Zappos. Later, my twin sons, husband and our rascal of a dog have some sort of outdoor adventure, maybe ill-fated but always memorable. After lunch, we snooze and then rally for a fast paced game of Crazy 8s. Over dinner, our boys regale us with their 5th grade humor – entertainment only a parent could endure. (Another glass of wine, anyone?) Nightfall brings the song of peepers, a gentle breeze through the porch, moonlight on the water. Lights out.