An Independent Voice: Putting people first

When independent grocers connect with their employees, everyone wins.

By Jane Olszeski Tortola

Many of the most successful supermarket retailers that I know have often insisted that they don’t view themselves as being in the food business as much as they are in the “people business.”

Accordingly, they are constantly striving to improve their organizations by better connecting with associates in ways that will encourage them to work more cohesively, take more ownership in their jobs and best serve the thousands of customers who patronize their stores each week.

Assisting family-owned businesses of all types and sizes to achieve organizational connectivity is Dr. John Eldred, co-founder of the Wharton School’s Family Business Program. He is also president of Ambler, Pa.-based Transition One Associates, a management consulting firm specializing in assisting business leaders to accomplish productive growth and change through coaching, family business facilitation, organizational design and more.

“First off, what’s most important,” says Eldred, “is for employees to have a clear picture of where their organization is going, along with having faith in the person steering the direction.”

Thus, Eldred outlines three components of connectivity which he believes lead to healthy growth and change: effective strategic communication, alignment and motivation.

Effective strategic communication

According to Eldred, a simple nine-question survey can be an effective tool in determining how connected employees feel to their work.

“This is not a happiness survey,” says the well-known family business expert. “It’s a simple survey to see if employees are ‘in the know.’”

Using a scale of one to seven, employees are asked to rate how much they agree or disagree with a series of statements, including some of the following:

  • My knowledge of the general direction of the company is clear.
  • If I were managing the organization, I would be following the same general direction.
  • I have a clear picture of the competitive challenges facing the business.

“Keep in mind that people don’t necessarily have to be happy at work—they need to be committed,” he adds. “When employees are committed, they’re willing to put off immediate gratification and deal with sometimes difficult situations in order to achieve a greater goal.”

Strategy, culture and structure

Eldred cautions that family businesses can often underestimate the importance of aligning their company’s strategy, culture and structure.

“Let’s consider the 50-store family owned company being led by a second-generation grandson,” he explains. “Realizing that the grandson is incapable of managing the stores alone, the board of directors recruits a talented executive who recommends decentralizing the company, thereby granting authority to managers to operate each individual store as if it were their own business. Corporate cooperates fully and provides all of the tools needed to decentralize—marketing, IT support, a budget and more.

The process works as long as the family is willing to fully adapt to the new management structure, he says. “While it’s simple to change an organizational chart on paper, it’s extremely difficult to change the emotional wiring that owners and employees have experienced for years.”

Providing motivation

Lastly, once employees are “in the know” and strategic alignment is in place, Eldred stresses that leaders must introduce a motivation program that rewards all associates for moving in the same direction.

“This can be accomplished in a number of ways,” he says.  “Phantom stock, employee stock ownership programs (ESOP) or gain-sharing programs are remarkable ways to provide strategic motivation.

He says that gain-sharing in particular can be extremely effective in that the structure encourages employee ideas to improve the overall numbers. “Every week or month, the numbers are shared with the employees and a dialogue takes place on how to continually improve,” he says. “At the same time, gain-sharing bonuses, which can for example be split 50% to the company and 50% to the associates, are awarded.”

“When properly managed and communicated, a strategic motivation program will encourage everyone to work smarter and better together.”

Jane Olszeski Tortola is a freelance writer who devoted over three decades of her career to working in a family owned supermarket company founded by her late father.  She is a graduate of The Ohio State University and is active in a number of food industry organizations. She can be reached at

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