John Sommerville – His Leadership Journey from Marketing Executive with General Mills to Chief Financial Officer at The University of Northwestern – St. Paul

“In high school, I worked at a grocery store and on a farm.  As I look back, I think that’s where I realized that I needed a work ethic.” -John Sommerville

[00:00:00] John Sommerville: I was in the elevator at General Mills one day with the president of our division. There were about eight of us in the elevator and the elevator stopped between two floors. And I was the one closest to the buttons. And I had no idea what to do.

The elevator stuck. The president of the division reached around me, opened up the little box with the telephone in it, and called on the telephone to get the building supervisor to come and get us out. And what I learned from that is when you have a problem, do something, just get started.  And I was standing there frozen what in the world do we do? And he took action.


[00:00:38] Tommy Thomas: Our guest today is John Somerville. I first met John when JobfitMatters conducted the search that brought Alec Hill to the presidency of InterVarsity. John was a board member of InterVarsity at the time. He’s had an amazing career. After getting his MBA from Indiana University, John took a marketing position for General Mills and worked there for 11 years. If you’ve ever noticed the heart on a box of Cheerios, you’ve seen some of John’s marketing skills at work. He conceived and implemented the major heart-healthy campaign for Cheerios, which landed them the American Heart Association Certification. Following his time at General Mills, he was in senior leadership at Wooddale Church. Then he planted the City Church in Minneapolis. In 2021, he assumed the role of Vice President of Finance and Operations at The University of Northwestern – St. Paul. Let’s pick up on my conversation with John Somerville.

[00:01:44] Tommy Thomas:  Before we dive too deep into your professional career, I’d like to go back to your childhood, and what are some, maybe two or three, remembrances that you have that have been fairly formative in your life?

[00:02:01] John Sommerville:  Even as an elementary school kid, I was always organizing things.

And I remember that I was fascinated with the Olympics in 1968, at 10 years old. I was completely blown away by the whole experience of watching it on television. So, I decided that our block needed an Olympics. And so I made up events. We had a 40-yard dash. It was the first three houses on the block.

Our house was the second house. So, I organized that. We had a high jump pit that we put leaves in. And we did this Olympics, and there were probably about a dozen kids from a couple of blocks that came over, and we made medals and all that sort of thing. And so I had this desire to organize things, to get things moving.

And then one of the things I later looked back on when I became a pastor and started a church was an experience I had in high school. The church I went to was a really good church but they didn’t have a youth group that was vital and really engaging. And as a sophomore in high school, I wrote a proposal to the church board.

I went to their board meeting, and I presented this proposal, and I told them that we should hire someone, should buy a pop machine. I put it in the fellowship hall of the church. We should get a pool table. That’s by the way, where the whole thing went off the rails. But I wrote this proposal on how to make the group a better group and the board didn’t go for it.

I have always had a tendency to look at a problem or an opportunity and try to make something happen. That was part of who I was, even as a kid.

I ended up becoming involved in Youth for Christ had a thing called Campus Life, and that was for my junior and senior year in high school, I got involved in. I had a tendency to look at a problem or an opportunity and try to make something happen. That was part of who I was, even as a kid.

So, I look back as I think about what was I like. I was reflective, I read, but I also wanted things to happen.

[00:03:54] Tommy Thomas: What was the greatest gift that you think your parents gave you?

[00:03:55] John Sommerville: Curiosity. My parents are still living there in their mid-90s. My father was the earliest intellectual influence in my life.

He’s a reader and a thinker and read lots of books to us, and encouraged us to do the same. My mother was a nurse and very interested in nature. She used to have a bird book that sat in the kitchen. She’d look at birds out of the backyard and identify them. And so, I think that kind of curiosity openness to the world, and learning was one of the greatest gifts that my parents gave me.

And their faith. Maybe that goes without saying, but watching them have quiet times, time with God, the way that their faith was really integrated into all of their lives. Those were big influences on me as a young one growing up.

[00:04:41] Tommy Thomas: So, did you have a job in high school?

In high school, I worked at a grocery store and on a farm.  As I look back, I think that’s when I realized that I needed a work ethic.

[00:04:43] John Sommerville: I worked for a year at a grocery store which was interesting.

As I look back, I think that’s when I realized that you needed a work ethic. I worked with a lot of folks who were around my age who were mostly lazy. I worked on a farm for a summer. Years later, the farmer that I worked for went to the church that I grew up in.

And I’d gone to college, and I think I was probably a sophomore or junior in college, and he called me over and he introduced me to all of his friends. And he said I’m the reason this kid went to college. In other words, working on the farm gave me a hunger for learning and maybe doing something different.

I don’t know if that’s a direct, but it’s somewhat true. So those were a couple of experiences that I had working during high school.

[00:05:28] Tommy Thomas:  When you went to college, how did you decide on your major?

[00:05:33] John Sommerville:  My father was a practical person. And he said, I want you to get something that you can get a job with.

But I was also interested in history and philosophy and other sorts of things like that. So, I found a major, it was Personnel Administration, what you now call HR or People Management. And it allowed me to take classes in the business school, so I could take accounting and finance and other things like that.

And also take liberal arts classes. I took classical Greek, for example, as a language. At the time, I was wrestling with the direction that my life might take, and I had two ideas. One was to work in business. The other was to work in the church, and I had to try to discern that, and it wasn’t just what I took in the classroom, but some of the experiences I had outside that helped guide me in that direction, to figure that out, and ironically, I ended up doing both as part of my career.

[00:06:27] Tommy Thomas:  You graduated from college, you went on to get your MBA at Indiana. What do you remember about the first time you managed people?

[00:06:34] John Sommerville: I think I’d been at General Mills about two years when I was promoted to a manager position. And what I remember is being an individual contributor. You’re only responsible for yourself, just getting your own work done.

But all of a sudden, you’ve got to direct the energies and work of others. And I remember pretty quickly understanding that there were some things I needed to do and one was to give everybody clear direction. I always appreciated people who supervised me, giving me a clear idea of what they were expecting.

As a manager, I realized that if I gave vague directions, I got vague output.  I realized that I needed to give clear direction.

And I realized pretty quickly that if I gave vague directions, I got vague output. And so, I learned that I needed to be able to give clear direction. And then I think the idea of both affirmation and correction is woven together. So, see people when they’re doing something that they’re doing right.

My parents used to say that they tried to catch us as children doing the right thing and then reinforce that. I think that principle applies as well as quickly correcting. And so those are some principles that I think early on that I learned and it’s hard to be consistent in those. Sometimes you just assume people are going to do the right thing and know what to do.  But those are things that I kept coming back to in those early years.

[00:07:44] Tommy Thomas: What was the highlight at General Mills when you think back on that chapter of your life?

[00:07:48] John Sommerville:  I had a really great experience in the organization. I’ll give you a couple. The very first thing I was assigned to, I was brand new, I was put on a a project team to develop a boxed salad.  We ended up calling it Suddenly Salad.

It was a boxed pasta salad mix. At the time what they were looking at was trends in food where pasta salads were starting to appear in restaurants and other places, and they wanted to take advantage of that, and I worked in the division that made Hamburger Helper and some of the Betty Crocker potatoes, and so they had the technologies available, so in six months this project team developed that product and I was brand new on it, so I had a lower level role.

But it was so much fun to work and see this project on a fast track become a reality. I spent quite a bit of time in new products and in new markets when I worked in Europe. That new product development thing was really significant. The other was the opportunity I had when I was the Marketing Manager of Cheerios.

My wife and I lived in Switzerland for three years where I worked for a joint venture for General Mills and Nestle. When I came back, I was assigned to be the Marketing Manager of Cheerios, and the brand was declining in volume. And what we found serendipitously is that oats have the effect of reducing cholesterol.

And we did a clinical study that led to the ability to make a claim around the heart healthiness and the cholesterol-reducing properties of oats. And introduced that, the heart-shaped bowl on the box came out at that time. Very satisfying experience. I left right as that was being implemented, but it had led to a real resurgence of that brand. So had great satisfaction about being involved with others in that process.

[00:09:37] Tommy Thomas: What do you think of all the things you learned in the private sector, what did you take to the nonprofit sector that you think has helped you the most?

There is an underappreciation in some ministry organizations and churches and others for the disciplines of financial management, and operational leadership of getting systems and structures to work for you.

[00:09:49] John Sommerville: I think there is an underappreciation in some ministry organizations and churches and others for the disciplines of financial management, operational leadership, of getting systems and structures to work for you. For example, in starting a church, one of the things that I was committed to, even when we were relatively small, was the idea of building systems and structures that made our work more efficient, more effective, and allowed us to do more of what we really needed to do.  Working with people doing services and that sort of thing.


[00:10:23] Tommy Thomas: Let’s stay in your private sector world for another minute or two, were there mentors there that kind of took you under the belt and what did that look like?

[00:10:31] John Sommerville: I’ve had a number of mentors in my life and one of the most important was a guy named Leith Anderson who was the Senior Pastor at Wooddale at the time, who later became the President of the National Association of Evangelicals.

And Leith, early on when I was brand new in the church, showed an interest in me and gave me some opportunities for leadership, being on boards and task forces, and things like that. And at one point, he asked me if we could get together. We went to a local restaurant one evening after a meeting for pie, and he asked me, what are you going to do with the rest of your life?

And at the time, my vision was I’d work until I was 55. Then I’ll quit and go work for a ministry organization. And his question for me was, why not now? Now, it would be five years before I left General Mills. But his point was, you don’t have to wait all that time maybe it would be a sooner deal.

And it did turn out to be that. But I think with mentors, I think we need multiple mentors in our lives. I’ve heard one say that if you have just one mentor, you become a clone. If you have two, you’re confused. If you have 10, you become wise, and your mentors don’t all have to be living.

I think one of my mentors is George Marshall, the general who became the architect of the Marshall Plan and the great diplomat. I’ve read a number of books about him and those are examples of people that I admire, and their lives, in one sense or another, have shaped me.

[00:11:58] Tommy Thomas: What’s the most ambitious project you’ve ever taken, and how did it come out?

[00:12:03] John Sommerville: I think starting a church. There’s something about entrepreneurs, church planters, and others.

They are naive and they often don’t understand what they’re taking on. And I think that is good. Because sometimes it’s more daunting maybe than you realize. And I think deciding that we could start a church in an established neighborhood that was not particularly hospitable to an Orthodox expression of Christian faith was probably the most daunting thing.

And looking back on it, I wonder how in the world we got the courage to do it. But that was probably the most, and I believe today, even today, and probably will be for the rest of my life, the most significant, important thing that I have given my life to. And I believe brought great satisfaction.  But it was not easy.

[00:13:00] Tommy Thomas: I’d like for you to respond to this quote “A group is a bunch of people in an elevator. A team is a bunch of people in the elevator, but the elevator is broken”.

[00:13:11] John Sommerville: I’ll tell you a story and it’s an elevator story. I was in the elevator at General Mills one day with the president of our division. There were about eight of us in the elevator and the elevator stopped between two floors. And I was the one closest to the buttons. And I had no idea what to do.

The elevator stuck. And the president of the division reached around me and opened up the little box with the telephone in it and called on the telephone to get the building supervisor to come and get us out. And what I learned from that is when you have a problem, do something, just get started.

And I was standing there frozen. What in the world do we do? And he took action. And I think what he did is he led us, now obviously he was the one doing something. But it could have been somebody else, but he just did something. And I think teams need to just start moving. I don’t know if that’s exactly what you’re looking for, but that was certainly very memorable.

[00:14:10] Tommy Thomas: I want to ask you some generational difference questions and there’s no right or wrong answer. I talked to somebody the other day and he said, I don’t think there’s very much difference in the generations and he had a good rationale.

And then I’ve talked to others. I talked to Tom Lynn at InterVarsity and Tom had some thoughts on leading different generations. You’ve obviously, in your four environments, led different generations and now you’re working with different generations at the University of Northwestern St. Paul. Maybe when you think about at least broad categories of Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z, any observations on the differences of them working as a team together?

[00:14:51] John Sommerville: I would fall in between your two guests. I think that we sometimes confuse generational differences for life stages. In other words, 20s have a certain set of concerns, and we sometimes forget the cycle we went through as we grow up.

There are some things that I sometimes hear when people are reading an article about generational differences, and I think you’re just thinking about life stages.

There are some things that I sometimes hear when people are reading an article about generational differences, and I think you’re just thinking about life stages, but I also think there are things that are different from one generation to another. My parents were raised in the Great Depression, and the way that they function and still function in their mid-90s now is around the idea of scarcity. They’re very concerned, very frugal, and they have really a scarcity mindset.

Boomers tend to have more of an abundance mindset because that’s what they grew up with. And then as you move forward, different generations with things playing out different ways. And I’m watching this now with college students and those that are in their early 20s, just the influence of the cell phone and technology.

There are distinct differences and I think we need to adapt what we do to be able to communicate well with each new generation. And sometimes that’s being sensitive and learning ways that can contextualize what it is we’re trying to communicate or work through with them. I think those are really important.

[00:16:09] Tommy Thomas: What about creativity and innovation between the generations?

[00:16:12] John Sommerville: I’ve thought so much about that. I will say that I think that creativity and innovation is a mindset that has to, in an organization, has to be nurtured and fostered. Some people tend to be more creative than others. They think in more novel ways and other people just need to be given the freedom to actually do that.

And that’s one of the things that leaders are not always effective at because they tend to believe they know the right answers and they tend to not let people think long enough and hard enough about a new idea to be able to see where it might go. And I think the older leaders, the more impatient they get, and at the same time, the more nurturing they need to get of ideas that maybe they might initially disagree with but might have fruit.

[00:17:00] Tommy Thomas: I want to go to resilience. Most of us hope we learn something about resilience during the pandemic. I want to give you a couple of definitions. It’s too strong of a word but maybe not. So the University of Massachusetts Global says resilience is not a one-time action.

It’s a sustained effort to adapt, survive, and thrive in times of stress and uncertainty. Forbes –  Resilience provides the ability to recover quickly from change, hardship, or misfortune. It’s the product of a broad perspective. Your thoughts?

[00:17:36] John Sommerville: There’s a Greek word, hupomene sometimes it’s translated steadfast endurance or endurance in the New Testament, I mentioned earlier, that I took Classical Greek as an undergrad. That word really stuck with me, and the reason why is that it’s translated sometimes in a very flat way in English, and yet the Greek word has this idea of persistence, of resilience, of tenacity, of sustained effort toward something that is, it’s an undaunted kind of approach to life.

And I think that this is undervalued by many because I think the assumption is that if it’s something that I’m gifted to do or it’s something that needs to be done, it will be easy. And I found that most things worth doing are like pushing water or pushing a rock uphill.

It’s just most things that are worth doing are hard. Woody Allen once said that 85% of success is just showing up. And I think that part of what we have to do as leaders and as people of character is just keep showing up. And so t resilience is a very important character quality.


Most of us are afraid to fail because we don’t like to be embarrassed.

[00:18:50] Tommy Thomas:  It’s been said that we learn most from our failures. And if that’s the truth, or if that’s the case, why are most of us so afraid to fail?

[00:18:57] John Sommerville: I think because we don’t like to be embarrassed. We don’t like to invest in something that we feel, the equivalent of the oil industry person drilling a dry hole.

We don’t like effort that seems to not go anywhere. And so, I think sometimes we need to remember that risking things is the only way we’re actually going to achieve things. And sometimes you have to fail several times before things actually go right, and I think sometimes we’re just way too afraid of finding ourselves in a place where we might feel embarrassed, or we wasted time.

I think the other thing is that we sometimes think that the consequences of failure are permanent, and they aren’t. We’re often in a place in life where we at least know one thing that doesn’t work. So, then we can try something else and figure out what does work.

[00:19:53] Tommy Thomas: Let’s go to authenticity. There’s a great power in authenticity.  Arthur Wilde said, be yourself, everyone else is already taken. Saint Catherine of Siena said, be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire. What lessons have you learned about authenticity over these four chapters of your life?

We need to be transparent with people enough that they can see what actually is going on rather than trying to put on some persona.

[00:20:12] John Sommerville:  I would say a couple of things. First of all, we need to be transparent with people enough that they can see what actually is going on rather than trying to put on some persona.

And so, authenticity means in part that we’re in a place where we’re letting people see who we are and not trying to fake something, the transparency is very important. Now, the one thing I’ll say about authenticity is authenticity can also be an excuse. In other words, authenticity can be an excuse for immaturity.

We need to understand that being authentic can mean also that we might be in sin. One of the things that we need to do as Christians is to be made into the likeness of Christ, which means there may be character qualities or things that might be authentically us. But also, maybe sin, so part of it is to let people see enough inside of us, but at the same time recognize that authenticity whether it’s anger or greed or impatience may be things that God needs to work on and process of sanctification needs to be the exercised in those areas.

[00:21:24] Tommy Thomas: You’ve observed a lot of leaders. Over the years, what do you think is the most dangerous behavior that tends to derail a leader’s career?

[00:21:33] John Sommerville: I believe character. I think we’re in a generation where we are so impressed with competence, so impressed with people who have outsized skills in one way or another that we have forgotten that those skills, if not tempered by character, if not shaped by character, not channeled through character, can end up being toxic or worse.And I really think that character is really the foundation. It’s not all of it, because we need competence, but competence alone is not enough.

[00:22:07] Tommy Thomas: Maybe a little lighter question.   We’ve been diving deep into some serious thoughts here. If you were a judge on a nonprofit version of the shark tank and people were coming to you for early-stage investments in their nonprofits, what questions do you need answers to before you open your purse?

[00:22:25] John Sommerville:  I think the first question is, what need do you believe exists that your ministry or organization will serve? And how is what you’re doing, how will that serve that need? Because if there’s a true need I think many things follow from that. And if you have something unique that will really help meet that need, then the organization needs to exist.

So, I think those are big questions. And by the way, the other thing that I often ask is, who else is doing this? What I find is that there are people who are pioneers who do something for the very first time, and we write books about those people, but often what we need is that the people who are innovators are just being novel without actually being effective and so it’s important to understand the need, be able to meet the need, and then also give examples of how that works.

You may have a unique spin on it, but the core of it needs to be channeled into an area that others have been successful in the past.

[00:23:31] Tommy Thomas: If you were creating a dashboard to get at the non-profit’s organizational health, what is your dashboard going to measure?

[00:23:38] John Sommerville: I think that the effectiveness of whatever you’re doing, whatever effort you’re doing, is it effective?

If you’re taking care of orphans, or if you’re feeding the hungry, or if you’re ministering to ex-offenders who are trying to reintegrate into society, is what you’re doing effective? Can you show that? Can you measure that? The other is economic viability. Many people are very motivated. They’re compassionate people, but there does need to be some economic foundations and economic viability for what you’re doing.

And that can be achieved in a lot of different ways, but that needs to be there because otherwise an under-resourced organization will not be effective long term.

[00:24:20] Tommy Thomas:  Give me some of those illustrations of economic viability.

[00:24:24] John Sommerville: One thing that organizations operate in a lot of different ways, sometimes there’s a revenue stream that helps to fund the ministry.

And that could be, I’m familiar with an organization here that works with high school students through the schools and they have figured out how to work with school districts to provide programming and content that is useful and effective. It’s a Christian organization, but it works with public schools and does a very effective job.

They figured out a way to balance philanthropic revenue and revenue from many of their programs. And they’ve done it very effectively for 30 years. Other organizations are purely philanthropic. And they need to develop a core base of people that are interested in the ministry and constantly replenish that.

But showing effectiveness, and developing a sense of passion, not only for the people who work for the organization but those who are connected as donors. And then there are ministries that really do function as businesses, per se, a publishing organization or something like that may generate almost all its revenue from some kind of sales or revenue, but still, it needs to be mission-driven.  There are a lot of different ways to think about that.


Tommy Thomas Thank you for joining us today. If you are a first-time listener, I hope you will subscribe and become a regular. You can find links to all the episodes on our website.

If there are topics you’d like for me to explore my email address is [email protected].   Word of mouth has been identified as the most valuable form of marketing. Surveys tell us that consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all other forms of advertising.

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“As a manager, I realized that if I gave vague directions, I got vague output.  I realized that I needed to give clear direction.” -John Sommerville


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