Putting theory into practice

Job rotations give aspiring managers the whole picture

Books on basic management and leadership skills — what they look like, what they can do for an organization and how they can be developed — fill the business shelves of most bookstores.

But buying those books is a waste of money unless the theories can be practically applied in a real-world setting. It’s the same thing for leadership training, says Linda Mulhall, manager of staff development and recruitment for Thrifty Foods Ltd., an independent British Columbia grocery store chain. Aspiring managers and leaders can be told what is expected of them but they learn best by applying those lessons in the workplace through the firm’s job rotation program.

“If you take individuals away and do training and then they go back to the same old situation, then nothing changes. You have to work with units of people together to change practices. And all the theories in the world won’t make any difference unless I’m getting positive reinforcement from my boss for doing things a certain way.”

When Mulhall, a 20-year HR veteran, joined the firm a year ago, management development at Thrifty Foods was largely informal.

It was common, for example, to throw aspiring assistant store managers from the meat department into the deli area to give them a different perspective on the company, but without a full understanding of the skills needed for the top job. This made it more difficult to identify an employee’s strengths and to focus on those areas and skill sets that required improvement.

“Because I needed to have a structure in place for a staff development program, one of the first things I did was to draft the competencies. Once I did that, the vice-president of grocery operations saw that we could use those as part of the assistant store manager training program,” says Mulhall. “This was a more structured way of doing it.”

Each year an invitation to participate in the assistant store management training program is posted on Thrifty Foods’ employee bulletin boards. Executives then create a short list of applicants they feel may have what it takes to move into management. An interview with each candidate follows and the final candidates for the program are selected.

Assistant store manager trainees now spend time in each of Thrifty Foods’ eight departments — rotating from the meat department to the deli, then on to the seafood, produce and other departments until everyone, the trainee included, is satisfied that the employee has a good grounding in the practical challenges facing the business overall.

Candidates are first introduced to core skills common to all areas of the supermarket business, such as food safety temperature control practices, ordering and re-stocking, security and dress code.

Then, working alongside each department manager, the trainee learns basic competencies that are specific to that department, for example, product rotation in the groceries department, cutting techniques in the meat department, crisping techniques in the produce department. No fixed limit is placed on the time a trainee can spend in one department.

“I may spend one week in bakery, but I may need to spend three weeks in meat,” says Mulhall. “It’s different for each person, depending on their background.”

Evaluating potential managers at Thrifty Foods has become such a high priority that four people are involved in the assessments that follow each job stint — employee, department directors, store manager and general manager of retail operations.

“We do a post-mortem with each of the candidates at the end, where we ask for feedback as to how they found it and what areas they felt needed improvement,” says Grant Burke, general manager of retail operations. “We’re continually tweaking based on their feedback.”

That “tweaking,” Burke adds, extends to the training program itself. He agreed with the trainees, for example, that the program might be strengthened if they met as a group with each department director “so that they would get perspectives from the other candidates and get more out of the assessment session.” Confidentiality is never an issue, he says.

Trainees not only gain an understanding of the specific duties required of each department but they observe how department managers conduct themselves in the presence of staff, how they explain company policy and direction and how they ensure the company’s vision is reflected in the work at hand.

It’s the first step on the way towards being a leader as well as a manager, says Mulhall. But, she admits, she has bigger ambitions, too. Mulhall wants to help those who are already in management positions gain the skills they need to become better leaders.

“We need to have introductory programs in leadership development so that by the time someone gets to this piece they’ve already done some basic, generic leadership stuff, (that is) they’ve done work in leadership style, on building effective teams, they’ve developed their conflict resolution skills.”

Mulhall would like to see Thrifty Foods emulate its sister company Longos in Toronto. Each year Longos sends the managers in its 13 stores on a five-day leadership program where they learn about emotional intelligence, gain advanced team building skills and so on. “That’s where we need to go,” says Mulhall.

“We all need to be learning and growing all the time and you may as well be supporting your store mangers in that development. Training is crucial in terms of the productivity of the company, leading the company and carrying out the strategic plan.”

Mulhall also says the right leadership culture must be in place for managers to be successful in new roles.

Managers must be given permission to act like leaders — to demonstrate initiative and act independently to meet goals and expectations. But it’s meaningless if they don’t get support when they make decisions. Encouraging managers to share financial information with staff is fine in theory, “but if my manager thinks that’s a bad idea then I can’t do it,” she says. “You have to have consistent reinforcement of certain kinds of practices in the company.”

As for the old leadership debate about nature versus nurture, Mulhall says leaders aren’t born and that they can be developed. They’ll have different personalities, different management styles. She insists, however, that every successful manager has basic, irreducible skills when it comes to leading people.

“A leader sets clear performance standards, gives employees ongoing feedback, recognizes when they’re really moving ahead, makes sure they’ve got the resources they need to be successful, whether good equipment or training, and makes sure that they understand how their work relates to the overall direction of the company. It’s not rocket science. It’s basic skills that we need to have to help people move ahead.”

David Kosub is a Victoria-based freelance writer.

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