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No More Learning the Hard Way

A young produce manager slumps his shoulders and sighs. He wants to learn. He wants to advance in his career. He’s optimistic about what’s next, but he’s disappointed about how his latest chapter ended.

Overseeing a larger team for the first time, he made some mistakes. He should have taken a tougher stance on standards from day one. He should have removed a toxic team member earlier. He shouldn’t have worried about coming across as likable. He asked his superiors for help, but he didn’t get it. Eventually, he decided to pursue a fresh start.

The produce manager shakes his head. He’s determined to keep improving, but he wishes he were one of those people to whom leadership comes naturally.

A veteran produce retail executive rubs his chin with his hand, remembering his first management role: 20 years old, promoted to lead the department because of his brilliance on the wet rack. He didn’t know anything about managing people. With high standards that he expected everyone else to be as zealous about exceeding as he was, he was a fair boss, but a tough one.

It wasn’t until much later in his career, with more education and training, that his perspective shifted. He then made people, instead of numbers, the focus of his efforts. Reflecting on his experience and thinking about others making the leap into management, the executive agrees that there’s a real opportunity for grocers to better equip their people for leadership roles.

When I surveyed 200 produce managers for the State of the Produce Manager report, I asked whether they’d ever received training on managing people. Forty-three percent said no.

Another question focused on areas in which produce managers would like more training. One of the top selections was leadership/people management. It wasn’t just younger managers who expressed interest; more than half had 10-plus years of experience.

The results aren’t surprising because of what the veteran produce retail executive learned long ago and what the young produce manager is learning now: Leadership doesn’t just come naturally. Anointing a person with a new job title doesn’t automatically bestow leadership abilities upon them. At the beginning, it’s hard for everyone. It gets easier, but it’s never easy.

Here’s the good news: Leadership doesn’t have to be as hard as so many find it at first. There will always be a trial-by-fire element, but smart companies can prepare their people better. Proactive training, role-playing difficult situations like holding an underperforming team member accountable, mentorship “hotlines” where a young leader can get advice from a veteran … the possibilities are endless. 

Finding the time and the money for these efforts, well, that’s where we always get stuck. It doesn’t have to be. Companies should consider the money that’s lost when a promising manager decides, “I can’t succeed here,” or when a capable part-timer leaves because the boss is devoid of any soft skills, or when a whole department underperforms for years because its leader isn’t comfortable delivering critical feedback. Those are the costs, as the saying goes, of the check you’re not writing.

Training is like immigration in that everyone knows a better approach is needed, but the challenge persists. The difference is that retailers don’t need an act of Congress. They need the stomach and the conviction to make a long-term investment in their people and their culture. Who’s ready? 


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