When David Jansen was inaugurated as president of the International Association of Operative Millers (IAOM) in April 2019 at the organization’s annual conference and expo in Denver, Colorado, US, he never imagined his one-year term would turn into two.

But the vice president for production at Siemer Milling was asked by the IAOM — as were the organization’s other office holders — to extend his term rather than attempt to transition to a new leader in the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which has forced the association to cancel all in-person meetings in 2020.

Making the best of a difficult situation, the IAOM held a virtual online meeting Sept. 15-17 that included educational programming and networking opportunities.

Addressing IAOM members to open the three-day conference on Sept. 15, Jansen emphasized that the organization is pressing forward with its plan to address four issues it has prioritized: an aging world; the next generation professional; diversity and inclusion; and human-machine collaboration.

“As you can see, we did not identify a global pandemic when we met last October,” Jansen said. “While COVID-19 has brought significant changes to many, for us in the milling industry our lives have changed but not to the same extent as others around the world. I’m sure we will be revisiting our strategic plan based on what has happened the last six months.”

Diversity and inclusion discussed

Randy Garvert, president of IAOM, moderates a panel discussion on diversity and inclusion in the workforce during the IAOM virtual conference held Sept. 15-17.

One of its points of emphasis — diversity and inclusion — was examined in-depth during a panel discussion moderated by Randy Garvert, IAOM vice president and senior director of operations at Ardent Mills.

The three panelists — Fran Churchill, NAMA professor of practice of milling science and management in Kansas State University’s Department of Grain Science and Industry; Jennifer Harnish, vice president of business operations at PHM Brands; and Brenda Thornton, talent and development manager at Archer Daniels Midland Co. — discussed a wide range of issues related to diversity and inclusivity, including their personal experiences working in a male-dominated industry. The panelists agreed the industry is making progress addressing these issues but noted there’s still ample opportunity for improvement. Thornton, who graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in engineering and worked at an ADM corn milling plant before becoming a labor relations representative for the company, noted that often the issues associated with the gender gap in the milling industry are subtle.

“I can’t tell you how many plants I’ve been to where the female locker room or restroom is an afterthought,” Thornton said. “Some mills I’ve been to don’t even have a designated female restroom, so you have to use the visitor’s unisex bathroom.”

Although the panelists said they’d been fortunate to work for male bosses who emphasized the importance of diversity and inclusivity, they also had observed sexism in the workplace.

Thornton, who during a performance review early in her career was told by a supervisor after she was promoted to a leadership position that she, as a female, needed to “be seen and not heard,” said women working in “a man’s world have to prove themselves so much more than a man does. It’s also a known fact that women tend to be less confident in their ability to take the next step up.”

Diversity is at the center of many workplace discussions nowadays, but the panelists said efforts to improve inclusivity are just as important. As someone who teaches students from all over the world through K-State’s distance learning program — although most students in the department, like her, are from Kansas — Churchill tries to present her material with that in mind.

“I try to refrain from falling into my Kansas farm kid bias,” Churchill said. “I look at my way of speaking and using clichés, and I realize (the foreign students) may not know what that means.”

To create a diverse and inclusive work environment, company leaders must identify their own biases and be aware of how they can impact the way employees from backgrounds different than their own are treated.

“It’s really human to have unconscious bias,” Thornton said. “I believe 99% of the time people don’t do things with malicious intent to make someone feel lesser. Often we just don’t realize or are unconscious of how actions or what we say have an impact on somebody else.”

She noted that biases often influence managers during the hiring process without them even being aware of it.

“It’s hard to break out of the bias of hiring someone who is more agreeable to you, like you, and seems easy to get along with,” she said.

“It can be hard to break out of that mold sometimes,” she added. “It’s important to hire people who will bring a different perspective. It will make your team bigger, better, stronger and faster.”

While workplace diversity typically is centered on issues of race, sex and religion, the panelists also emphasized that companies must beware of falling into “groupthink” during meetings. Assigning someone to be the “devil’s advocate” in a discussion is a way to promote diverse thought.

“When you work with a group closely over a long period of time, you can get to the point where everybody merges to the same general perspective,” Thornton said. “If that’s the case, you need to assign somebody on your team to take the other perspective, so you won’t miss out on other opportunities or ideas.”

Melinda Farris, chief executive officer of the IAOM, said the live session on diversity and inclusivity was well attended and praised the panelists for providing provocative insight on this crucial issue.

“This is a line of discussion that we plan to continue to focus on over the coming year,” Farris said.

Chat room meetings

In addition to educational presentations, the virtual event gave suppliers of equipment and services to the milling industry an opportunity to have one-on-one “chat room” meetings with millers.

“The spontaneous conversations that happen as attendees roam the expo floor were a little more difficult to replicate virtually,” Farris noted. “We’ll definitely need to work on ways to better engage exhibitors and attendees at any future virtual events.”

Once the pandemic has subsided and in-person conferences return, Farris said the IAOM will consider still offering some events in an online format.

“There may be some events, like the annual conference and expo, that are offered in a hybrid format,” she said. “It might mean a slightly different offering for attendees dependent on whether they are joining the event in person or online.”

Jansen emphasized that while the IAOM was negatively impacted by the cancellation of in-person events in 2020, it remains on solid ground financially.

“I am proud to share that, financially speaking, we are a strong and healthy organization and will be able to continue operations despite lost revenue from the cancellation of in-person events and training,” Jansen said.