Becoming a Leader

Leadership can be described as a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. Chances are if you are reading this article and directly receiving our regular newsletters, you most likely hold a leadership position within your company. Understanding the definition of leadership is relatively simple; truly becoming a leader is quite a different matter. We like to promote leadership as an attribute, and we like to use it as a description for what we want in our management personnel; and yet ironically, most management positions use the metrics of daily operations (and not leadership) to grade performance. Achieving your margin, hitting your sales and payroll targets, and keeping your inventory at a very manageable level are typically what amounts to a management job description in the food industry. Every company wants a good leader, but the truth is that most companies do not actually know what that entails. Being a leader in a retail food setting involves this simple truth - you must inspire the people you work with.

In order to inspire, you must first understand the basic concept that even though you are responsible for managing large quantities of food, and making sure that this food generates a profit for your company, it is not the determining factor in your leadership capabilities. Taking care of the aforementioned business may indeed make you an excellent manager, but it does not necessarily imply that you are a leader. A true leader understands that no matter what product you are selling, no matter how much money is at stake, what’s most important is creating a work environment where people can thrive, excel, feel innovative, and most importantly, enjoy their work. No matter how good you are at managing the operations, if you do not realize that the people you work with and manage are the most important and crucial component of your entire organization, then true success will seem elusive.

So, how do we inspire people when much of their work involves the same duties day in and day out, when quite frankly it’s not necessarily that enjoyable unloading a tractor-trailer full of food? Again, the key is to inspire. Imagine that you are leading a team of workers whose job it is to build a new highway. Much of the work involves digging ditches and trenches, both by hand and using machinery. The challenge you face in bringing inspiration to your crew could seem enormous, after all, it’s all about digging ditches. How the leader of a group presents and describes the job is crucial in determining how the crew will feel. If the job is presented as a very grueling and labor-intensive task, then you are likely to see your crew turnover within the first couple of weeks. If however, you can distinguish the task of digging ditches from the outcome of a new highway, you then have an opportunity to inspire.

Most people in their jobs are trained to identify with the tasks they perform. As a result, our work can quickly become routinized, boring and uninspiring. If we alter the perspective slightly and train people to identify with the outcome of their work, there is far more opportunity for creativity, excitement, motivation, and yes, even inspiration. So, instead of the road workers being trained to see themselves as ditch diggers, imagine that they are trained to see themselves as transportation experts. Their jobs are to create transportation opportunities for the people in their communities that were once not there. It’s difficult to imagine feeling inspired about going out and digging a ditch. But it’s not at all difficult to imagine feeling inspired about changing the lives of the people in your community because of the work that you do. Altering that perspective; changing the way that someone perceives their job is what leadership is all about.

So, let’s bring this all a little closer to home. Many of you who are reading this are the leaders of your produce department. How do you inspire your team? How do you get them to look past the task of simply putting food out on the rack as what they identify with as their job? First, let’s look beyond the tasks, and observe the outcome. A truly well done produce department is a work of art. Additionally, everyday, you put this amazing food out for sale, you have the opportunity to impact not only people’s personal health, but the overall health and sustainability of our environment as well. That’s a pretty big deal. The more that you can help your team to view themselves as artisans - food artisans - and help them to see how their work benefits the larger community, the less they will feel like they are simply prepping lettuce, or stocking tomatoes, or unloading bananas. A leader changes the storyline; but more importantly, a leader has a vision for what the story truly is, and that leader reminds the people that she/he works with everyday exactly what that vision is. You must inspire, and once your team feels inspired, all things are possible.

I realize that this may seem a little bit “pie in the sky” for some, but I encourage you to at least give it a try. Make the work you do seem bigger than life and don’t underestimate the power of how changing someone’s perspective on what they do can change their life. Become a leader.