Maize and blue Nikes, storytelling, empathy, and sustainability: four topics that came into conversation on April 10, 2023, during a chat with the chief financial officer of General Mills, Kofi Bruce, MBA ’98.
Bruce joined the Sanger Leadership Center at Michigan Ross as part of Leadership Dialogues, a speakers series where leaders of Fortune 100 companies, social movements, and politicians sit down with renowned Michigan Ross faculty members for discussions at the intersection of research and practice across the fields of leadership, organizations, and management.
“I am a big believer in life-long learning and following curiosity,” Bruce explained at the beginning of his conversation session, during which he and Spreitzer touched on numerous aspects of his non-traditional career journey, the importance of culture in the workplace, and the power of storytelling. He went on to encourage students to follow their curiosity to design their own career path, even if it is non-linear: “You have to be comfortable setting your own path,” Bruce explained.
After earning a degree in international relations from Stanford University, Bruce awaited his placement in the Peace Corp, picking up a job in mortgage banking to pass the time. He quickly realized that the soft skills of leadership, communication, and influence he was gaining were applicable to more than just international relations, becoming an “accidental tourist” in business. In search of tactical business skills, Bruce pivoted and pursued an MBA from Michigan Ross, setting him on the path to the c-suite.
Moderator Gretchen Spreitzer, Associate Dean and Professor of Management and Organizations, guided the conversation, bringing an academic perspective to the discussion and emphasizing the importance of being open to change and learning in the professional sphere. She explained that research shows many people switch jobs, sharing “the majority of people today, they move” and “don’t have to feel stuck.”
Appointed CFO of General Mills one month before the pandemic reached the United States, Bruce learned how to navigate ambiguity and create a community, despite uncertainty. He explained how as CFO, it is his job not only to communicate the financial performance of the company, but also to “shape the culture of the organization by shaping success and providing clarity in times of uncertainty.” Bruce and Spreitzer discussed the power and value of communicating through storytelling and how important it is to recognize the quiet fears or feelings individuals may have. “I can’t give them certainty but I can give them clarity,” Bruce explained.
Spreitzer highlighted the growing responsibility of leaders at the top of organizations to enact positive change. She inquired about Bruce’s approach to leading an inclusive organization. He explained that “finance is incredibly important in shaping the organizational culture” and that “it’s not enough for [him] to get up and say [General Mills] had an excellent year.” Rather, by prioritizing his own well-being and being vulnerable about his own struggles, he sets the tone for a positive and empowering company culture. While this may seem out of the wheelhouse for a CFO, Bruce explained that by ensuring employees are at their best in various aspects of their lives, he helps to “create conditions for employees to give the best measure of their talents,” thus increasing overall workplace productivity, joy, and effectiveness.
Mike Minelli, EMBA Candidate ’25, said the event was incredibly insightful, sharing, “The undergraduate students get a real appreciation for real life experiences for how the world actually works – you can’t learn these speakers’ journeys in the classroom.”
The next installment of the Leadership Dialogues speaker series will be held in the fall. Additional details will be announced soon. Learn more by visiting the Sanger Leadership Center’s website.