Training At Wal-Mart & Beyond

One can view Wal-Mart’s announcement that it will provide enhanced training in produce to 70,000 associates as a kind of surrender to the primacy of people in the produce industry. Even Wal-Mart, a company built upon excellence in logistics, is acknowledging that in the produce industry, where product quality is so variable and so dependent on care and handling, it is impossible to optimize a produce operation without knowledgeable people.

Knowledgeable players are necessary for corporate success, and Wal-Mart will find that more than education and training is essential. Knowledge, however, is not the only criteria for success. Associates also need to be dedicated and committed to excellence. For the same reason product knowledge is important and requires specialized training, it is also difficult to supervise. After all, if the produce clerk is trained but his manager is not, how will the manager know if opportunities are being maximized or problems neglected?

Of course, this is not just Wal-Mart’s problem, nor the problem of retailers. Dealing with a product that is variable in supply, quality, price, and with market conditions changing by the minute is a dilemma for the entire trade. Unlike many other industries, the produce business absolutely depends on the quality of the people involved. Think about how few industries have anything similar to the moral responsibility ratings that the Blue Book offers. Think about how difficult it is to create a system that consistently generates morally responsible conduct. One realizes how utterly dependent every produce company is on deploying quality people.

The very essence of the professional quality crucial for the industry to advance is depicted in this month’s cover story, the iconic Produce Business 40 Under Forty list of young industry leaders. For eight years, we have chronicled the stories of the up-and-comers in the trade — both boosting their prospects and inspiring new entrants to strive for excellence. It is rewarding to see the degree to which these young leaders contribute to society and obtain greater authority and responsibility in the field.

Just prior to writing this column, this columnist wrote a piece for the Perishable Pundit about Wal-Mart’s new training policy and the Produce Traceability Initiative. As part of the piece, we published a key letter from Wal-Mart to suppliers. One of the signatories, Wal-Mart’s vice president of produce/floral, Dorn Wenninger, was a member of the 2008 40 Under Forty class when he was working for S. Katzman Produce in the Bronx.

The enormous importance of people is a double-edged sword for entrepreneurs looking to grow their businesses. Most of these businesses initially thrive because the entrepreneurs are so good. However, if the businesses continue to grow, they reach a point at which the question arises whether that entrepreneur can transition to a role of leading others.

The process of inspiring and managing others is a difficult one. The various lists of “best places to work” are often simply lists of business models that are rich enough to allow for generous policies. In other cases, they are closely held companies that may be satisfied with a less-than-optimal financial return, so the owners feel good about how they treat people and are admired as pillars of the community.

If one needs to make a competitive return on investment, however, and isn’t Google, with a giant moat of intellectual property, or GE, with the ability to buy billion dollar businesses (in other words, if you are a produce industry company), then how does one optimize the contributions of one’s team?

Perhaps the greatest gift one can give a team is to not put them in a situation in which they feel the choice is between taking care of business or enhancing their own abilities to contribute. We have seen many produce companies with strong growth potential implode because the people in line for the next generation of leadership were so tied to the sales desk or their current function that they never invested the time in executive development.

For a company, this situation is toxic. First, it is dangerous. If you can’t spare someone to attend the Cornell/United Executive Development program or one of PMA’s leadership programs, how are you positioned if the same person gets sick or quits? Being able to handle absences without failing to serve one’s customers is an essential attribute of a strong company. Second, investment in training is the only way. If you have a great onion salesperson but you think he has CEO potential, he will never develop that potential if he keeps doing the same thing.

A lot of companies talk the game and say they back up professional development, but when a motivated employee says he or she found a great program in China and wants to go for a month to gain expertise in global trade, watch the boss panic.

Of course, individuals are often their own worst enemies. Some think they are indispensable — or fear that they are not — and won’t go, no matter what options are presented. Perhaps they are lazy and hesitant to do the serious work required to learn things outside of their comfort zone. If they are superstars in their field, they suddenly find themselves not being a star at all as they confront new material in a context where nobody cares about their past achievements.

Companies and individuals must remember that the velocity of change is so enormous today that standing still is the same as falling behind. So a word of advice to this year’s 40 Under Forty honorees: This recognition is the beginning — not the end. Take it, leverage it, run with it, and make sure you view your career as a process of continuous improvement. It is the only way to get where you want to go and the only way to contribute all you can do.