Changing Our Ways to Adapt to the Millennials

February 12, 2015

In the early 1990s, I developed the Purina Food Safety Symposium to train our distributor/retailer customers in pest management in an effort to reduce the pest contamination occurring after our petfoods left the plant. The annual symposiums have become very popular with our customers and have proven to be valuable for Purina—in a number of ways. Not only has post-plant pest contamination decreased, but we also have learned lessons from the years of trainings. Lessons that we intend to turn inward in 2015.

Included in these were the realization that we had developed customer training that also could be used for better training our internal programs, including those of plant workers and our sales force; and the understanding of new needs in adapting our training to our audience. So this year, we are refocusing our training and developing tools for our internal use that meet the needs of today’s newest workers: the Millennials.

Training Millennials.

At Purina, I will be focusing primarily on the training of our territory managers who are responsible for working with our retailers. But, with a generally new workforce, these young people would be comparable to workers hired on the plant floor, at least in the way they learn and their experience in their positions. And, like the plant-floor worker responsible for one of the most vulnerable aspects of any food production business—the safety and quality of the food produced, our territory managers are responsible for one of our most vulnerable markets—specialty petfood stores, which have the highest potential and occurrence of infestation but have our largest potential for organic growth. And, like the plant-floor worker, this critical frontline tends to be our youngest, greenest employees.

With the turnover and retiree rate of our industry as a whole, these young Millennials are completely changing the demographics of our companies.

It would be easy for 62-year-old me to say we’re going to do our training the way we always have, and these new hires can adapt and deal with it. But today’s young people don’t learn the way we did, and, you know what, we’re not going to change them. Rather, they are going to change our companies. In fact, the way I see it, the future of food safety business is in training—using the technology that these Millennials have that we never did.

It’s not an easy thing for me; I’m not a complete stranger to technology—I do text. But I don’t have a Facebook or even LinkedIn account, and I don’t really want to. But I do work with 20-somethings who have all that and more, who use all types of technology and social media, and I am quite willing to defer to them, and learn from them, in this area.

Some of the things already implemented at Purina are a Chatter system, a sort of an internal Facebook where everyone can connect and share ideas, and LinkedIn’s presentation tool, through which we can create webinars for our employees to view live or on demand. Technology is moving fast, but we have to move faster.

The People Side of Training.

But all that said, the technical side of training is the easy part. What can be more difficult, and is ultimately the most important part of training, is the people side: the need for managers, educators, and trainers in our industry (or any industry for that matter) to focus on people skills; to be knowledgeable and adept in communication, collaboration, and negotiation. This can be accomplished by learning and adopting the people skills that are an essential tool in any effective sales training program. Yes, I said sales. What is training if not getting the participants to buy into your way of thinking and take action based on the lessons you are “selling”?

Where do you learn these skills? By studying the experts. Walk into your local bookstore and trek over to the business section (or search Amazon if you prefer online). You will find shelves and shelves (or listings and listings) of books in a multitude of categories – from sales to management to entrepreneurship to leadership to training. Focus first on the sales section, this is where you will find many of the books on people skills; then move on to any books that have titles that seem relevant. And don’t worry about publication date—the people skill information of books from years past is just as relevant as those that will be published in 2015.

A few of my favorites are Stephen Covey’s The 4 Disciplines of Execution and Colin Powell’s It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership. Powell discusses 10 things he’s carried with him through his career, and I figure if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for anyone!

There are also numerous online articles and blogs as well as e-newsletters to which you can subscribe that provide advice, tips, and best practices on all forms of management, training, and industry updates. Some of this will be the flavor of the month but there is also a lot of wisdom to be found. Of those I’ve seen, the one I turn to most often and read each morning is Kevin Coupe’s Morning News Beat ( Although the newsletter is focused on the retail market, I always find advice that is relevant and information that is important in our understanding of how the dynamics of the retail market impact what we do in food production and food safety.

Whether you are responsible for the training and education of your quality and food safety staff or management on the floor, your success—and that of your company—will be about your ability to communicate in the vocabulary and voice of those for whom you are responsible, and their belief and trust in what you communicate. That voice has changed and we need to change with it.