Lucy Dinwiddie’s path to learning was not a typical one. Now the vice president of organization development at ConAgra Foods, she uses all she learned about teaching, manufacturing and OD to develop a cutting-edge, holistic approach to learning and development.
It was a chance meeting, but it changed everything. When Lucy Dinwiddie, a young and talented manager and systems engineer at EDS, crossed paths with Kathleen Dannemiller, one of the founders of organizational development, it marked a new twist in Dinwiddie’s career.
The Periodic Table of Elements and differential equations were her past; her future lay in the field of organization development (OD).
“I have a profound belief that I am doing the work that I was put on earth to do,” said Dinwiddie, who is now the vice president of organization development at ConAgra Foods. “Every single bend in this meandering path I’ve followed was necessary to have me at ConAgra doing the work that I do.”
After getting a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from The Pennsylvania State University, Dinwiddie became a math and science teacher, an invaluable experience that ultimately prepared her for a career in learning and development.
“It’s a great place to begin this because, when you work with junior high and high school students, you learn to assess learners’ needs [and] how to present material in multiple ways to meet different students’ needs. I think I could still tell you six different ways of teaching cellular mitosis,” she laughed.
Post-teaching, Dinwiddie took a position at EDS, where she realized a passion for manufacturing and met her first mentor — Dannemiller.
“She was leading this large-scale change project, [and] at the end of it [when] we were walking out the door, she came up to me and asked me if I had ever thought of having my career in organization development,” Dinwiddie recalled. “She said, ‘You would be great at OD; you would be one of the best.’
“I don’t think people always realize how often they impact [other] people’s lives. [But] if Kathleen hadn’t seen something and talked to me, I would probably still be writing code.”
Intrigued and eager to learn more, Dinwiddie used her own money and vacation time to educate herself about OD. She later went on to get a master’s degree in OD, a master’s in human development and a Ph.D. in human and organizational systems.
After tenures at Ernst & Young and Ford Motor Co., Dinwiddie happened upon a job she couldn’t resist and became vice president of OD at ConAgra Foods, a position that melds her previous experience and her love for learning, manufacturing and OD. Inevitably, her learning philosophy rests on her passion for each of these.
“I truly believe that [an] organization’s only real and lasting competitive advantage is its people, and consequently, our people need to be continually growing and able to leverage their skills and talents each and every day,” she said. “What this means to us at ConAgra Foods is that we [must] have [strong] organizational capability, and this is important both in the technical and leadership realms. Each is dependent on the other for full realization and optimization of people’s potential and superior business results.”
When Dinwiddie first came to the well-known branded foods company, ConAgra had a fragmented approach to learning. She was charged with developing a more “holistic and prioritized plan” for learning and development, leadership and executive development, talent management and change management for the organization’s 25,000 employees.
Dinwiddie had to start from scratch, but that didn’t deter her, as she set about assembling a compelling business case for ConAgra’s first learning management system and implemented it. From there, she helped build the organization’s first technical competency models for procurement, research, quality and innovation, and engineering. Similar models are being developed for manufacturing and marketing.
In terms of leadership and executive development, Dinwiddie used her and her counterparts’ innovation to create a comprehensive platform that includes a leadership competency model and a three-tiered programmatic approach to developing leaders.
“We worked with our CEO and his team to build our model and what we call our distinctive leadership qualities — [the] qualities that set us apart,” Dinwiddie said. “So integrity and customer focus [are] the bar. You have to have those to be a leader.
“But what makes us different, and what will make our leaders different? And we identified vulnerability, authenticity and courage.”
In constructing the program, Dinwiddie and the OD department met with ConAgra’s senior leaders, interviewed them and analyzed their responses for key themes and learning needs. As a result, ConAgra created three sessions that concentrate on leading self, leading people and leading the business.
With the first session, the participants sit among an orchestra, watching and experiencing the power of the leader, the power of the team and the power of the individual musician. In the second session, the leaders go to Colorado Springs, Colo., to spend the day at the Olympic Training Center to gather insight on the relationship between coaches and players.
“We have worked with the U.S. Judo Olympic Team to remind ourselves how one learns new skills and turns them into complex actions or processes,” Dinwiddie said.
“First, you learn how to have your body absorb shock, then you learn how to fall, and then you learn how to throw. It’s a very powerful metaphoric experience. But it’s not just a metaphor; it’s actually a physical analogue because you’re learning as a whole person.”
In the third leadership development session, participants turn their focus to the business, its customers and consumers.
“We have Wall Street come in and talk to us about where we are, what we’re seen as good at and not good at [and] what the expectations are,” Dinwiddie said. “We work as this representative microcosm of ConAgra Foods to say, ‘How do we approach these challenges that we’re hearing, and where do we need to go?’
“The second day is [focused] on our customers and consumers. We start out looking at what makes exceptional customer service. Then our folks go to stores, and they videotape and talk to both store management and customers. And then they come back and watch the video.”
Dinwiddie is proud of this program, as it takes a more creative approach to learning and teaches the whole person, not just the mind.
“It’s hard to develop executives in a program [because] there’s a reason they’re executives,” she said. “And so getting people into that place [where they stretch] their learning and experience something different is a real challenge, and we’ve tried hard to be creative. I would put our executive development program against any in the world, and I think we would fair very well.”
While the executives at ConAgra have the biggest impact on the business and its results, the first-line managers and supervisors have the greatest impact on the organization’s core employees. As a result, ConAgra created the Foundations of Leadership program for first-time and emerging managers and supervisors. The company also is developing a program for the senior manager and director-level positions, which will teach them how to “thrive in the matrix,” Dinwiddie said.
“In that population, we’re trying to focus on, ‘How do you operate as that middle, yet critically important leader in the organization?’” she added.
Just previous to Dinwiddie arriving at ConAgra, it was a confederation, in which there were multiple autonomous brands. As such, there was no single change-management approach or methodology.
“We had no one way of seeing change, of leading change, of approaching change, so we assembled our key stakeholders and designed a comprehensive and leading-edge change-management methodology,” she said. “We [also] created a class called The Dynamics of Change, which is a four-hour workshop that helps managers and teams look at what the change is, understand resistance and talk to people about how to engage in that change.”
Dinwiddie also deployed the McBassi organizational assessment, which provides ConAgra with a “fact-based road map” that helps to prioritize and guide its investments in people. And it’s especially critical to target one’s investments in today’s economic climate, Dinwiddie said.
“As a food industry, we are facing tremendous challenges right now — everything from the high cost of commodities [to] fuel costs,” she explained. “We’re also very conscious of our consumer that only has a certain amount of money to feed their family. [So] in our research, we’re really working hard at that.”
Because of these developments, ConAgra has seen an increase in the number of director-level positions and above that are filled internally. When Dinwiddie began her tenure, 30 percent of these positions were filled internally and 70 percent externally. Now after two years, 50 percent are filled from within.
“It’s not a Lucy Dinwiddie success,” she said. “It’s an OD and HR function success.”
Because of her passion and devotion, Dinwiddie ultimately wants to see learning and development become “part of the fabric” of ConAgra.
“We really do — and it sounds trite — want to have a development culture,” she said. “We [want] to manage and leverage all the ways that people can learn. Coming from a place where there wasn’t centralized learning and development, we want to be in that place where people have the right tool at the right time to help them build the right skill for themselves and the company.”