Finding Opportunities for Ownership

Leeway to make decisions and opportunities to get creative go a long way toward employee engagement.

by Ashley Nickle

Think back to the first time you pitched an idea to your boss and got the green light to run with it. How did you prepare to make your request? How did your boss respond? What were your first steps to make your new project a resounding success? How does it feel, years later, to recall the whole experience?

If reflecting on those questions gives you a sense of pride, of gratitude, of accomplishment–and maybe even a sudden desire to share the story of that long-ago triumph–you know what it feels like to be given the opportunity to take ownership in your work. Quite simply, it changes everything.

When I surveyed 200 produce managers for the first-ever State of the Produce Manager report, I asked how much leeway they had to make decisions for their department. About 20% responded that most of the decisions are made for them, so execution of the plan is their focus. Half of respondents said that, while assortment is out of their hands, they’re encouraged to merchandise creatively and submit suggestions. The other 30% said they basically get to run the department like it’s their own business. Guess which segment had the highest marks in four questions related to job satisfaction?

Surprise, surprise–the managers with the most leeway were more likely to enjoy their work; more likely to recommend their job to a friend; more likely to speak positively about whether they have the resources needed to succeed; and more likely to plan to stay at their job.

The good news is that a high level of job satisfaction was also reported by the managers in the middle, showing that it’s entirely possible for a company to have highly engaged store-level leaders and at the same time have parameters in place that guarantee a certain amount of consistency and efficiency. It’s just about identifying the right areas where to allow produce managers to exercise some creative freedom. 

As old-fashioned as it may sound in the age of AI, finding ways to let produce managers make their departments their own isn’t just a nice-to-do. It’s a must-do—because here’s the alternative. 

Among the 20% of managers surveyed who said most of the decisions are made for them, job satisfaction was much lower. The average score for how much they enjoy the job, for example, was 59 on a scale of 1 to 100, compared to an average score of 79 for managers with the most leeway to make decisions for their department. In addition, only 46% of managers with the least leeway would recommend their job to a friend, compared to 82% of managers with the most leeway. 

If I were a produce director, the thought of people running my departments who don’t particularly like their work would keep me up at night. How to avoid it? Retailers need to invest in teaching their managers the nuances of the business, and then allow them opportunities to apply what they’re learning. It takes time and commitment, but produce managers empowered in this way will surprise their bosses, delight their customers and move the needle for the business like nothing else. 

  • Ashley Nickle is a former trade journalist-turned-consultant, host of The Produce Retail Podcast, and author of the new State of the Produce Manager report.