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Paying it forward pays dividends

Tuesday, July 1, 2014  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Joan Toth

When Donna Giordano — president of Ralphs, a division of Kroger — took a part-time job at King Soopers in the early ‘70s, there weren't a lot of women leaders in the industry to look up to.

But the management team at King Soopers was ahead of the curve: They recognized the importance of nurturing female talent. And because they did, Donna stayed in food retailing after graduating from college and made the industry her life’s work.

Donna is the first to say she’s didn’t get to be a banner president all by herself. She went from store manager to vice president of merchandising at King Soopers, where she was mentored by Russ Dispense, a visionary boss who saw past gender. She was promoted to president of Kroger’s QFC division in 2002 and named Ralphs president in 2011.

Related: "Lost leaders: Does your talent pipeline need nurturing?"

In a profile in the Network of Executive Women’s latest Annual Report, Donna talks about how Dispense, now president of King Soopers, sponsored her at a time when women in the c-suite were usually answering phones for a male executive.

"Russ developed and challenged me,” she said. "He threw projects at me that I didn’t think I could handle, but he had faith that I could — and I did. He taught me the value of having a sponsor and the huge difference it makes to someone’s career. It was a risk for him. I owe who I am today to him.”

Now Donna oversees 230 stores throughout Southern California and leads as she was led, developing talented people regardless of gender or background. "We don’t promote women because they are women,” she said. "We promote people because they are part of a diverse talent pool and are experienced.”

Like her former boss, Donna mentors and sponsors high-potential employees, a commitment she finds not just "personally satisfying” but an "absolute business strategy.”
When a supermarket operator — or anyone in the "pleasing consumers” business — is guided by diverse leadership, that business connects to shoppers in a more authentic way. A leadership team that reflects today’s consumers has greater insights, makes better decisions and knows how to innovate and market to diverse consumers.

How to get there

But a diverse leadership team doesn’t just happen. As a part-time King Sooper’s employee, Donna was one of the few women who felt confident enough — and supported enough — to enter a management program. But how many young women — on either side of the checkout counter — see the grocery business as a good path to leadership today?

It’s a question that persists when women hit middle management. A recent global survey by McKinsey & Co. found that female executives are much less certain than their male peers that they’ll reach the c-suite.

There’s a real and significant gender gap in the grocery industry’s leadership, and that’s bad for retention, morale, productivity — and business overall.

Before she earned her degree, Donna learned that a company’s leadership style and corporate culture play a huge role in a woman’s career confidence. That’s still true, according to McKinsey’s "Moving Mind-sets on Gender Diversity.”

Women who are most confident they’ll reach their c-suite career goals were more likely to tell McKinsey that their companies’ leadership and culture support gender diversity. These women are motivated because they feel they are just as likely as men to reach the top at their companies.

Unfortunately, men and women don’t always agree on the barriers that confront women. If men don’t see a problem, they won’t be part of the solution, and diversity efforts will fail. Worse, they may feel initiatives aimed at closing the gender gap are aimed at them. More than half of the men surveyed by McKinsey (54 percent) said "having too many gender-diversity measures or initiatives to promote women leaders is unfair to men.”


The good news is that the business case for women’s leadership is understood: Three-quarters of the men surveyed believe that gender-diverse leadership teams generate better company performance.

All we need now are leaders who will translate this belief into action and pay it forward.

Joan Toth is president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women. This article first appeared in Progressive Grocer.

Views expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and sponsors.

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