There are countless textbooks on business management dedicated to a simple question: What makes for leadership success?
That's a timely topic as SN unveils its 2010 Power 50 rankings, a list of the industry's most influential leaders. This industry's captains have been tested like never before during the downturn.
Consider three on the Power 50 list who are admired for their vision and decisiveness: Mike Duke, president and CEO, Wal-Mart Stores; David Dillon, chairman and CEO, Kroger Co.; and Craig Herkert, president and CEO, Supervalu.
Each faces a different set of hurdles but has achieved some measure of success so far. Are there lessons in their leadership approaches and philosophies? SN's Power 50 profiles provide clues.
Wal-Mart's Duke has been in his job for about a year and a half, precisely the period of the downturn. He is a veteran of the retail world, including Wal-Mart, admired for his recent moves to reposition the giant retailer for a slower-growth environment. Duke has recognized his top priority is to turn Wal-Mart into a truly global company, which includes enhancing the supply chain and spreading best practices.
His style of leadership is highly involved and passionate, as he explained at the recent shareholder's meeting.
“I love the details of retail,” he said, describing himself as a leader who likes to “manage by walking around.”
Supervalu's Herkert is another retail veteran relatively new to his current job, which he assumed a year ago. His task is formidable because Supervalu faces challenges on many levels. He has responded in a big way with tough decisions that have changed the executive ranks, organizational structure and overall strategies.
His moves were fostered by a high-energy personal style that values listening. “Leadership is about listening, knowing your customer, understanding your business and being accountable in the decision process,” he said.
Kroger's Dillon wins praise for taking courageous stands that turned out to be on target. Last year, while some in the industry saw encouraging economic signs, Dillon and Kroger determined consumers still lacked confidence. As a result, Kroger put more resources into developing sharper pricing, which hit the retailer's bottom line hard but boosted market share. That move put Kroger in a better position for an eventual economic rebound.
Dillon relayed to SN a humble view of his roots and of leadership in general: “I believe there is value in every job, and learning the value of a hard day's work is a lesson that has stayed with me throughout my career,” he said. “At Kroger, we encourage leaders to create an environment where feedback is welcome and where everyone's input is valued.”
Are there common denominators in the leadership outlooks of these executives? They don't fear tough decisions, and they stay closely connected to customers, associates and the overall mission. Their hardest task may be translating this into something that works every day across the organization. But so far these folks have figured it out. That's why watching them in action is more instructive than reading any management textbook.
And by the way, the same is true for many other leaders on the Power 50 list. Executives are positioning their organizations for economic rebound by making investments of all types.
That’s why you see Safeway implementing its price parity strategy, and Dollar General moving to further roll out the company’s consumer centric store prototype. It’s why Unified Grocers is adding borrowing capacity to support retailers who need to buy stores or remodel.
It’s also why retailers and suppliers alike are adapting to new consumer nutrition preferences and beginning to embrace the increasingly digital world that includes social media.
Companies are picking their spots and closing gaps in their strategies. And it’s all being driven by leaders who realize there’s a short window of time to accomplish these tasks if they’re going to benefit.