There are many entities that claim to play major leadership roles in the food retailing industry. These include suppliers, consultants, associations and government agencies. But how many of these really are leaders, in the opinion of retailers?
A recent survey attempted to determine if it's possible to develop a profile of what retailers believe characterizes an industry leader. The answer: Yes and no.
It turned out that the profile depended on who was polled. Chain retailers expressed different views than independents.
The survey was sponsored by equipment maker Hobart Corp., Troy, Ohio, and executed by Chicago-based Technomic. A news story about the research can be found on Page 12.
Independents responding to the polling identified leaders as entities that provide assistance to the industry at large and have industry stature. In contrast, chain retailers took a more self-centered stance, defining leaders as organizations that provide direct assistance to them.
Why the divergence in outlooks? According to an analysis by Hobart and Technomic executives, chains are accustomed to getting one-on-one service and attention, and demand that of leaders. Independents, on the other hand, aren't used to such personal attention and don't expect it. Moreover, independents are less likely than chains to have access to partners that have vast industry experience, according to the interpretation. That would explain the independents' preference for leaders with industry stature.
Despite the differing views, the study found agreement on some key points. For instance, chains and independents both said that their major challenges are in the areas of technology, home meal replacement, food safety and labor.
But the difference of opinion on leadership is instructive to any organization that might consider itself a leader. It shows that despite the uniformity created by the sharing of industry best practices and the drive toward consolidation, there are still real differences in needs and outlooks between independents and chains. Accordingly, the basic rule for effective leaders is to know who is being led so you can customize your approach.
These leadership conclusions extend beyond entities to individuals. A recent SN article suggested that food retailing CEOs around the world are taking a new view of their leadership roles. They are less focused on the day-to-day details of company operations, preferring to delegate some of these tasks to others. The tradeoff is that they have more time to monitor outside developments, such as the consumer's changing perception of the company and the industry.
That pulls CEOs deeper into issues such as the environment, food safety and community affairs. It also forces CEOs to investigate and mull the needs of consumers, which aren't uniform.
Addressing the broad wishes of consumers on levels beyond merely products is a difficult exercise to justify when investors are keeping vigil for the latest news about bottom-line results. But it's a strategy that ensures a company will be in a position to deepen the relationship with its clientele.
All of this brings us back to the point that you can't be an effective leader until you understand the changing needs of those who rely on your leadership, keeping in mind the needs will be different for different subgroups. As they say in footwear retailing, one size does not fit all.