Realising long-term goals relies on a series of short-term successes, General Mills head of corporate strategy Peter McDonald tells Jo Bowman.

Sustainable growth requires a planning process that keeps distant goals in focus – and at the same time builds in frequent opportunities to course-correct, says the strategy chief of one of the world’s leading global food companies.

Peter McDonald is vice-president, corporate strategy, at General Mills, a food business ranging from cereal, berries and ice cream to pasta, pastry and yoghurt. Its best-known brands include Cheerios, Old El Paso, Haagen-Dazs, Green Giant and Betty Crocker.

“The long term is made up of a series of short terms, but if all you’re focused on is the short term, you have tendency to drift along with short-term initiatives,” McDonald says.

Short and long-term strategies deserve equal weighting, he says. “Both are important. I like to think about a bifocal approach to strategy. The distance vision is about where you want to go over time, with big initiatives, and the close-up vision is about the specific projects and initiatives that you need to be working on today that are going to build to those longer-term efforts. That’s how we’ve evolved to doing things here at General Mills. We have a series of long-term strategies but we’ve broken them down into short-term initiatives that will carry us forward. In the short term, you’re really contributing to the long-term progress that you’re after.”

Check, and check again

In a fast-changing world, there’s a need to balance commitment to the vision with a nimbleness that recognises even the best strategy is getting old before the ink dries. “I am definitely a believer in emergent strategy, meaning you can’t just formulate strategy from your desk or office,” McDonald says. “You have to incorporate real market experience and you have to recognise that anything you’re going to put down on paper for five years out is going to be 60 to 70 per cent off, and you need to be willing to, as you get more information, come back in and make adjustments.

“The best strategies are dynamic. The day you put it down on paper it’s already wrong, you just don’t know how. You have to revisit it and make those adjustments.”

The temptation to set out a strategy and stick to it regardless of what happens along the way is fuelled, McDonald notes, by the prevalence of high-profile stories in which persistence in the face of extreme adversity and against all advice ultimately delivers business success. There’s being completely wrong, he says, and being slightly wrong about factors that aren’t catastrophic.

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