For the past few months, I have been consulting with an international grocery chain to develop and implement a fully integrated women’s leadership strategy. Our recent work focuses on the front line of retail, the store manager.
Part of the work was creating engagement groups for male middle and regional managers to become more aware of gender differences, not just in the workplace but in the entire store experience. Today, the manager of a single grocery store may manage hundreds of people and have multimillion dollar P&L responsibility. We also know the majority of regional and store managers are men. As talented as these store managers are, few have been well trained in consumer insights or gender awareness, including how women think, act and shop.
Ask your male store managers three simple questions:
1. When was the last time you created the weekly grocery list for your household?
2. How many times did you go grocery shopping during the past two weeks? (Picking up groceries on the way home from work doesn’t count.)
3. When was the last time you prepared seven consecutive meals for your family?
Bonus question: When was the last time you shopped at 5:30 p.m. with two demanding children wrapped around your legs and a baby crying in the shopping cart?
Participants in our male engagement group read a Harvard Business Review article on the new female economy. It's a great eye-opener to help men start to think differently. One of the regional managers in the group entirely embraced the article. He read it and went into one of his busiest stores at 6 p.m. on a Thursday night. He confidently walked up to a very busy mother of three and starting offering suggestions on easy-to-assemble dinners and ready-to-go meals in that week’s flyer.
She looked at him like he was from Mars. She was in a hurry and was picking up cereal, school snacks, a prescription, a frozen pizza and a bag of lettuce. She looked him and said, "If you really want to help, go bring me a box of Cheerios.” He did as she requested and she actually smiled and thanked him. His lesson: don't assume you know anything about women, even if you have read and studied. If you want to know, ask first and genuinely listen.
It’s that simple and it’s that hard.
To acquire further insight, I reached out to longtime friend of NEW, Sharon Orlopp, retired global chief diversity officer of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and president of Orlopp Enterprise, an inclusion consulting firm. Realizing how "crazy busy" store managers are, I asked her for a few tips store managers can do to become more gender aware.
She offered these insights: "It’s all about being inclusive on a daily basis. This means creating an environment where everyone feels welcomed, valued and respected. Not just employees, but customers as well. It’s about creating a sense of belonging.”
Three key leadership behaviors that drive inclusion are:
1. Educate yourself. Establish a gender coach relationship with a woman who works with you. Ask her to provide feedback about your work behaviors and what you can do to be more aware and inclusive.
2. Listen generously. Hear feedback from your gender coach and from others. Active listening includes being empathetic and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes to truly understand.
3. Observe and act. Pay close attention to which employees speak in meetings and while touring the store. Ask questions of employees who are quiet; they may have the best business solution.
I'd add another for retailers: Talk to your shoppers. "You’d be amazed," Sharon told me. "Our store personnel are so busy, sometimes they may forget to stop and talk to our shoppers. Find out what’s really on their minds and how can we help them. Really knowing our customers goes back to the days of Sam Walton, but it is a lesson we need to teach and remind people of daily.
"This also goes beyond the customer. Observing and acting also requires you to speak up and speak out when you see or hear something that doesn’t feel right. If there are inappropriate jokes or comments or if someone uses a demeaning tone, make sure you address it immediately."
Ask yourself: Are your front line managers ready to be your ambassadors to the new economy?