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In the Trenches: Putting CEOs on the front line

Top-line executives need to put on an apron.

In my early days as a produce manager, my department was a training site. Specific employees were assigned to our store to be trained for future produce manager positions. That included executive staff, who were there to learn the fundamentals of operating a produce department.

The CEO, who was once a store manager, wanted the executive staff to learn the front line functions that took place out in the stores. He believed time spent on the sales floor stocking displays, talking to customers, watching people shop and learning from the employees would give them a better understanding before sending down directives and programs to the store work force.

Working in-store for one week would provide CEOs with a more worthwhile understanding of what goes on. He or she should put on an apron and engage with the employees, comprehend what they do, witness how hard they work and experience all the challenges that take place. The CEO should perform actual trimming, prepare product, lift boxes, stock displays, order product and learn all about the grind-it-out-days in the retail arena.

CEOs are highly responsible for the success or failure of an entire company; it’s undoubtedly a very demanding position. They have to oversee the sales, profit, financial controls, safety, marketing, operational functions, labor and especially the profit and loss results. Most of those sales and profits are primarily generated directly in-store and are connected to employees, specifically the lower-level personnel.

The workers out on the firing line are face-to-face with customers. They know what is needed to properly operate the stores, but don’t feel top management is interested in their opinions. That’s why it’s vital for CEOs to spend some time in-store, learning and collecting valued information contributed by the staff.

If all CEOs were to dedicate  just one week masquerading as the produce manager, perhaps he or she would better understand some of what it takes to efficiently operate the business, such as:

Labor — Discover how difficult it is trying to accomplish all the work with fewer people. This is a huge stress factor and morale killer.

Training — Having to use guesswork in many tasks, the CEO would quickly learn how valuable a training program is needed for employees.

Preparation — Trimming, crisping, packaging product and moving about in a cramped back room may reveal the need for improving the layout and equipment for better productivity and working conditions.

Stamina — The constant sequence of walking back and forth between display areas, the sales floor and the back room takes a lot of energy. Unloading pallets of product, lifting heavy boxes and bending up and down in performing tasks may point out the physical strength it takes to work in the stores.

Equipment — Trying to trim with dull knives and wash vegetables in the only sink that is shared with floor mops is unsafe. Pushing a work cart with bent squeaky wheels onto the sales floor startling customers could discourage their shopping. These issues may indicate a need to spend a few dollars for newer and safer tools.

Customers — Being on the sales floor is the best experience a CEO can obtain. Perhaps hearing complaints about high prices may give a clue that a demand on the overly inflated gross profit may be a prime reason.

Displays — Continually culling, rotating, cleaning and stocking displays will show the importance of generating sales. Working the sales floor should prove that it takes additional hands to maintain the product level for shoppers.

Signage — When customers have to ask the CEO prices of items because of missing or dilapidated signs, it may support the requests by produce managers for updated signage.

Working in-store is not a soft and easy role, as CEOs and upper management would affirm by actually doing it. If they volunteered to spend a few days as a hands-on executive assuming the functional experiences of the produce manager, it will hopefully connect with the operational realities.

(Ron Pelger is the owner of RonProCon, a produce industry advisory firm. He is also a produce industry merchandising director and a freelance writer. He can be contacted at 775/843-2394 or by e-mail at