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Chris Shea was a General Mills dropout. Seventeen years ago, when her four children were young, Shea stepped off the fast track for a stint of part-time work and then a stint on full-time leave.
She left as a vice president, and four years later she came back as a vice president. Since then, a series of promotions has racked up the three titles she now holds: senior vice president of General Mills Inc., senior vice president of external relations and president of the General Mills Community Action and Foundation.
That's the kind of flexibility it takes to raise women to the highest corporate levels, according to Working Mother magazine. And that's one reason the magazine's October edition will name the Golden-Valley based foods manufacturer one of its 100 best companies.
Flexible work arrangements are spreading, with 56 percent of U.S. companies offering some form of them, according to one national survey. They continue to be the most-requested benefit by women, who are more likely to leave the workforce for a time or cut back to part-time schedules.
Still, two-thirds of women in a new Working Mother national survey said they're convinced that if they make use of the option their careers will suffer.
"They are very afraid that if they use the benefit, it will not sit well with their companies," said Carol Evans, CEO of Working Mother Media.
That's why the magazine made flexibility one of its most important criteria in this year's assessments, Evans said.
General Mills is the only Minnesota-based company on the 20th annual list, and it's one of the top 10.
Two other companies with a large presence in Minnesota also made the list: New York-based American Express and New York-based IBM, which has about 5,700 employees in Rochester and the Twin Cities.
The 5,300 employees in American Express' Minneapolis offices will be split off this month into an independent firm called Ameriprise Financial Inc.
As recently as 2001, five Minnesota companies made the list: General Mills, Target Corp., Carlson Companies, the St. Paul Companies and the West Group. Imation and 3M Co. also made appearances on earlier lists.
There are many reasons companies come and go from the list, with about 20 falling off every year, Evans said.
Some don't apply while they're going through mergers or restructurings, she said.
"Also, if 25 new companies are doing wonderful things, they'll knock other companies off the list," she said. "It doesn't mean those companies are doing less for their employees, it just means others did better."
3M chose not to apply this year, company spokeswoman Jacqueline Berry said.
"Rather than look for external feedback we look for internal validation from our employees, and they tell us that 3M is a good place to work," Berry said.
Target did apply, and it has a high percentage of female employees, including 44 percent of its company officials and managers, spokeswoman Lena Michaud said.
"The list shows that many companies are making strides in offering benefits that support working mothers, and that's great," Michaud said. "Regardless of whether or not we're on the list, we have a strong commitment to supporting all our team members [and] providing an inclusive work environment."
The new business argument for flexible work schedules is that they improve employee performance, said Susan Seitel, president of Work & Family Connection, an information clearinghouse based in Minnetonka.
The previous premise was that companies could help their employees balance work and family obligations without taking a toll on business, Seitel said. But that idea didn't catch on, because companies still viewed flex time as a give-away to employees, she said.
A new project, the BOLD Initiative funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, raised the bar to test if flexible scheduling can actually help a company, she said. In a report in July, 10 pilot companies reported that if they started the process by dissecting jobs into their components, they inevitably found duplication and waste. By eliminating those issues, they improved employee performance while also accommodating schedules such as split shifts, odd start-and-stop times, and half-hour lunches.
"Companies love this dual agenda," Seitel said.
In that sense, Shea was ahead of her time.
"I approached my supervisor with a proposal on how I could do my job so it would fit in a reduced-hours template," she said. "We knew it was short term, that I did want to come back full time."
Besides being convinced that support generates employee loyalty, General Mills also calculated the cost for replacing a top employee.
"I was told right away, 'We'll make it happen,' " Shea said.
H.J. Cummins is at email@example.com.
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