WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Consultants have lots of sophisticated tools to motivate retail employees, but retail leaders know at least one simple, real-world solution: Get rid of employees who are jerks.
"It's important to give people mentors, but you don't want a jerk to do the mentoring," said Jeffrey A. Rein, president and chief operating officer of Walgreen Co., Deerfield, Ill. "If you can avoid hiring jerks, your company would be better off. When you see jerks in your organization, get rid of them. Jerks hold down your folks."
Rein spoke during Grocery Manufacturers of America's Executive Conference here in a panel discussion on the food industry's workforce.
"You can tell the difference between a manager that treats employees right and one that's a jerk," he continued. "Sales and profits are a short-term goal. If you put the right people in the right positions, you'll get that. So why not say, 'We won't tolerate bad actions?"'
Another panelist, Larry Johnston, chairman, president and CEO of Albertsons, Boise, Idaho, said two key dimensions to leadership are performance and values.
"Values drive a company forward," he said. "There are people who always make their numbers, but are lacking in values. Those are the people we are changing," he said. "Most of us have the need to improve on some values, and that's where life-long learning comes in."
Fostering life-long learning is one of the cornerstones of Johnston's efforts to remake Albertsons partly in the image of his former company, General Electric, which had progressive human resources practices, he said.
"We're re-engineering every facet of Albertsons, but especially the human resources function," he said. "We're focusing on life-long learning and executive training. We're letting people transform their areas of responsibilities."
Johnston said most of the time poor communication is the cause of losing an employee you would have wanted to retain.
"So we are trying to communicate better," he said. "Each of our key people has a mentor. If people feel empowered and valued and get rewards in both their wallet and heart, they will stay."
Albertsons uses a wide range of tools to attract strong applicants, from software to lower-tech efforts like minority job fairs and campus recruiting, Johnston said.
Rein said a major retention tool is the opportunity to move to different parts of an organization.
"We have so many stores opening each year that people can move from smaller to bigger stores," he said. "Or they can move to e-commerce or other areas."
The recent Southern California labor battle was a motivating factor for many Albertsons associates nationwide because it showed the company's commitment to remaining a viable factor in the market, Johnston said.
"It's not easy to keep the team focused and energized in an industry where traditional grocers have a structural disadvantage," he said. "We just took a stand in Southern California, and our people were energized by our resolve."
Douglas Conant, president and CEO, Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., another panelist at the session, said companies need to hold managers responsible for losing valued employees.
"All roads lead to the manager of the individual who has left," he said. "So we make sure every manager feels accountable for retention of people working for them. I work hard to celebrate the contributions of people. I send out 10 to 20 hand-written notes a day for that purpose."
Executives said policies on promoting from within vary widely depending on where a company is in its development stage.
Rein said promoting from the existing ranks is an important practice at Walgreen. "We make a big point of that," he said. "I've been with the company for 22 years, and moved up gradually in the organization. I find the ability to move up is a big recruiting tool for us."
Conant said that earlier in his tenure at the company, he had to recruit heavily from the outside as he remade the organization. "Now about three quarters of our positions will be filled from the inside," he said. "Some cultures are all promote from within, and some are less so."