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5 questions with Albertsons EVP Susan Morris

Friday, August 5, 2016  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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Susan Morris congratulates 94-year-old Elleen Cornelius after she was granted her wish to ride in an 18-wheeler at the Albertsons Companies Denver Distribution Center.

Susan Morris, executive vice president, East operations for Albertsons, began her grocery career working in the retailer’s Denver division while still in high school. During more than 30 years in the grocery business, she has grown as a leader through positions of increasing responsibility, including store director, corporate grocery sales director, vice president of bakery and operations and vice president of customer satisfaction.

We recently asked her five questions about women’s leadership in the grocery industry and how Albertsons is working toward gender parity.

How would you rate the industry’s progress in advancing women to leadership roles?

Morris: Every industry has work to do, but the grocery industry is definitely moving in the right direction. I’m seeing more and more women filling director and vice president roles. I know it’s a result of leaders being more “gender blind” when filling new positions, but it’s also a result of women raising their hands to take on bigger roles. Companies that focus on identifying and developing their full spectrum of talent will win more often, regardless of the industry.

In your experience, what career barriers have proven to be most stubborn for women —  and how is Albertson’s tackling them?

Morris: The issue of leaving the workforce to raise a family with the intent of re-entering later is one of the most challenging barriers. It’s a choice any parent has to make, and it has very real implications long term — not only on future employability, but also on retirement, earning potential and so on.

As a retailer with the majority of our workforce in the stores, Albertsons is fortunate. We’ve always had a variety of part-time and full-time jobs available that meet the needs of ever-changing family schedules. Part-time jobs can be great options for people wanting to re-enter the workforce. The experience gained in a part-time job can be invaluable in the long run, just as the skills that one gains from staying home and raising a family can be, too. It’s incumbent upon us as leaders to recognize that skills don’t solely come from being in the workforce.

What can grocery retailers do to keep high-potential women in the pipeline?

Morris: Kevin Spacey has a great quote about leadership, where he says, “If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.” I take my responsibility to send the elevator back down seriously. If every woman in a leadership position took the time to cultivate and mentor just one aspiring, talented person every year, the impact to the grocery industry would be significant. We also need to encourage peer mentoring within our leadership teams. We all bring different strengths to the table, and as leaders it’s our responsibility to call out strong talent when we see it and help our peers learn to cultivate it.

At Albertsons, we want to make sure the opportunity for advancement is available for anyone with the drive and talent to pursue it. We are developing an internal university program to strengthen our leadership development and are taking steps to reinvigorate our mentoring program. We also recently launched our Women’s Inspiration and Inclusion Network to foster support, collaboration and mentorship among the women in our corporate office.

Many women’s careers stall at mid-level roles. What advice do you have for companies and for women who want to rise above the middle?

Morris: From a company perspective, studies have shown that women comprise more than 60 percent of all retail shopping trips, so it simply makes good business sense to have a strong female presence at every level of the company. It’s not going to happen without the company understanding what their needs are and employees raising their hands.

Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo Inc., once said, “Every morning you’ve got to wake up with a healthy fear that the world is changing, and a conviction that, to win, you have to change faster and be more agile than anyone else.” That philosophy is key for any person in business — you have to wake up hungry every day and have conviction to achieve your own goals. For anyone to rise above the middle, the most important thing is to define those goals, and then tell people that you want it. Become a student of the people around you. Ask questions. Ask for help. Ask where people got started and what they’ve done to learn the business. You’d be surprised at how much career advice can show up in the course of those simple conversations.

I also encourage people to raise their hand for new opportunities, even if it means taking steps in directions you hadn’t planned. In my own experience, I knew when I was working on the grocery sales team early in my career that I wanted to run my own division one day, and that meant leaving the office and going back to the stores to work my way up through the ranks. Some people probably saw it as a step backward, but it was an important piece to my moving forward and achieving — and ultimately exceeding — my goals.

What advice do you have for women whose career goals are taking a back seat to work/life concerns?

Morris: Trust your instincts. Don’t let anyone define your ceiling or the right balance of work and private life for you. Define happiness for yourself and don’t compromise, whatever it may be. Raise your hand and seize opportunity when it’s right for you. And don’t forget to have fun along the way. We spend a good chunk of our adult lives working, either in the office or on behalf of our families, so do something that challenges and fulfills you every day. You deserve nothing less.

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