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Notes and comments from the 2004 CIES Management Development Programme
The final day of CIES's annual Management Development Programme (MDP), attended by some 140 "future leaders" representing retailers from 24 countries, was devoted to the notion of leadership. What was remarkable about the first two sessions, however, was their contrasting approaches to the subject. One looked inward at "the new psychology of self," at how to develop leadership skills through personal exploration, while the other looked outward, at the impact that effective communications skills can play in energizing an organization.

This is not to suggest that the two approaches were inconsistent, just that they were as dramatically different as the two presenters. Leading off the morning was Caroline Sami, "chief ID:ologist" at Perfect Pitch Inc., and a woman who describes herself as being "bold, bald…defying definition, rejecting conformity and trashing stereotype." Following her was Bobby Ukrop, president and CEO of Virginia-based Ukrop's Supermarkets; while he didn’t delight in nonconformity the way Sami did, Ukrop did have the credibility attached to being the leader of what is arguably one of the three or four best supermarket chains in the US.

Ukrop's presentation certainly was the more mainstream, stressing the development and implementation of "team values" (honesty, safety, helpfulness, and hard work) at his company. But in the current environment - where headlines and news stories stress the deep divisions and distrust between management and labor - Ukrop's message seemed all too out of step with the times. "We are looking for a fully engaged Ukrop's associate," he said, suggesting that the company could not continue to thrive without such people on the front lines.

The company's dedication to its employees includes giving back 20 percent of pre-tax profits to associates on a regular basis (in addition to 10 percent of pre-tax profits to the community); Ukrop also spoke about other initiatives, such an ongoing job training and tuition reimbursement, as well as scholarships, regular field trips, and community events to create a sense of community within the stores. Recently, when associates were swamped with work cleaning up after the devastating effects of a hurricane, there were suggestions that the company ought to cancel an outing; but management decided not to, Ukrop said, because they recognized that this was precisely a time when people needed to have some fun.

And, there's another key factor in the Ukrop approach to company associates. While the company wants people who are passionate about food and health, it also wants people who are passionate about their own good health. It doesn't make sense to overwork people, he said, because it reduces their ability to live up to both company values and their own potential.

Sami's presentation, to be honest, is far harder to sum up. It was an eclectic mix of pop psychology, spiritual healing, and inspirational pep talk - almost as if she were the love child of Tony Robbins, Dr. Phil and Oprah Winfrey (you can figure out the permutations of this on your own). She spoke of the importance of "taking yourself to work," and allowing oneself to demonstrate the courage, candor, confidence, conversation, and character necessary to act with true and justified self-confidence.

Americans, it seems to us, fall into one of two categories - people who thrive on and eat up such pop psychology, and those who are simply too sardonic in their approach to life to be able to take such things seriously. We would fall into the latter group, and could easily dismiss Sami as just another self-help guru.

But in the hours since she finished her presentation, we've found ourselves thinking more and more about some of her message…and finding value there, though perhaps not in the specific ways she intended.

Some words that rang true:

  • "The difference between management and leadership is that leaders have to believe in something."

  • There is a difference, she said, between a mistake and a failure. A mistake is unacceptable, because it suggests shoddy, unprofessional work. But a failure is an honorable thing, because it only happens when one is reaching for something.

  • She dismissed the notion that "knowledge is power" as nonsense. "Acting in knowledge" is real power, she said.

  • "Courage," she said, "is always personal. There is no such thing as a courageous organization."

The linking theme among all these aphorisms, of course, is the notion the life well lived is one marked by belief, courage, and action.

As we reflected on Sami's words, it seemed to us that they apply not just to the life well-lived, but also the organization well-run. And therefore, especially among retailers in an age of frighteningly tough competition, are worthy of being the framework for self-examination.

And this is where it all comes full circle to Bobby Ukrop's message…

Because to survive in 2003 America, we would agree that a retail business and its executives have to have the courage to believe in something more than the bottom line - to be willing to combine vision and action into true leadership, and to communicate that to associates (and, by extension, to the consumer) in a way that inspires rather than denigrates them.
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