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A convenient truth Featured

7:00pm EDT February 24, 2008

When running a business, it’s easy for you to make the job a lot harder than it needs to be. Just ask Mick Parker, president and CEO at Village Pantry LLC.

“My background, my upbringing and my personality fits in well in this convenience store business,” Parker says. “It’s not rocket science. We’re just selling beer, Twinkies and gasoline.”

With a chuckle, Parker says that there is a bit more to it than that when it comes to running a 1,400-employee, 170 location company like Village Pantry. (The company does not disclose annual revenue, but Dun & Bradstreet estimates it to be more than $120 million.) But Parker stands firm behind the notion that the essence of strong leadership does not need to be complicated.

“I don’t want a strategic plan that would take four binders on a shelf and never get read,” Parker says. “I want it simple and actionable.”

This kind of simplicity becomes even more critical in a business such as Village Pantry, where many of the employees earn $8 an hour and are using the job as a steppingstone to other positions in the future.

“You have to identify who your constituents are and make sure that your overall goals align with their needs,” Parker says. “For us, our mission is very simple. It’s to make Village Pantry a great place to work, shop and invest. When I presented this to the organization, it was very clear on the order. A lot of people will say customers come first. I’m a Southwest Airlines believer. They believe in the people first, and if your people are happy, your customers are happy. I’ve kind of adopted that belief.

“I spend quite a bit of time talking about making this organization a good place to work and trying to align them on that. I believe if your employees feel you are sincere and you are caring, and they believe that and then you demonstrate that, that’s part of being a role model. I think other things fall in line.”

The key to making this work, of course, is being a leader who your employees are willing to accept as a role model.

“The only thing that will convince them is delivering on what you say,” Parker says. “Consistency. You can say something, but until you walk the talk and deliver on what you’ve said, you’re probably suspect. I’ll never forget the first day I was here. I said, ‘I totally see where you’re coming from if you don’t believe me; it’s my job to earn your belief and earn your respect. We’ll do that through simplicity and consistency.’”

Parker says Village Pantry has been able to grow quickly because the map showing where he wants to take the company is an easy one to follow. When new acquisitions come into the picture, it doesn’t take much to get them on board with where the company is heading.

Here’s how he does it.

Share the love

Before you can get employees aligned to a mission or vision, they need to be aligned with each other. Often, the best way to do this is to get them together outside the workplace in a setting that allows people to temporarily set aside the roles they play on the job.

In December, Parker gathered many of his employees at a local sports bar.

They wore red and green, in large part because of the upcoming Christmas holiday. But there was another more official motive that Parker had in mind for getting employees dressed in the traditional holiday colors.

“As hokey as it may sound, we made everybody wear name tags,” Parker says. “Those of us who had red were new and green was old. The idea was to get people to understand who had been around for a while, who can help you and who is a good resource.”

If you want a successful company, you need a culture in which everybody feels like they are on the same team and working toward the same goal.

“Take personal responsibility for each other’s success,” Parker says. “I believe if you are personally attached to the people you work with, you’ll take responsibility for their success. Logically, you’re more concerned about your friend’s success than somebody you don’t know.”

When trying to drive change in your culture to reach these goals, you must be the agent of change and lead the way to transformation by engaging your leaders throughout the organization in this effort.

“Define it, implement it and then reinforce the culture,” Parker says. “Be good coaches and good trainers. Be good at providing feedback and rewarding success. The leadership group should develop and communicate the vision and then make sure that everybody is aligned.”

While it is up to the CEO to get things started, it won’t mean a thing without support from those other leaders in the company.

“If their boss doesn’t make them feel like they are a valuable person, it doesn’t make any difference what I do,” Parker says. “If I don’t make sure that the six folks that report to me feel that way, then they won’t have the six folks that work for them feel that way. It has to come from your boss first. It can be an empty promise when it comes from me and the layers in between don’t support it. You completely lose all credibility.”

Obviously, it takes more than just a manager telling an employee that he or she is valued for it to be worthwhile. The positive attitude must be ingrained in the culture and part of what the company’s mission and vision is all about.

It also must be reinforced with action. Show your employees that you have more than just words and catchphrases to offer them and to show them that you value their role in the company.

Parker went to work updating Village Pantry’s employee compensation plan by putting together more competitive pay packages that included bonus and incentive plans and scheduling regular performance evaluations.

He also sought to create better training programs to help employees grow within the company.

“I want an organization where people can grow and they can make contributions,” Parker says. “We believe in breadth, not necessarily depth.”

Be consistent

If you set out down the path to enact a new mission statement and align your employees toward a vision, don’t turn around the next week or the next month and launch an entirely new plan.

“I don’t want to be a flavor of the week,” Parker says. Parker faced a challenge in convincing his employees that his plan would be around for a while after Village Pantry employees had faced a number of different visions and strategies over the years.

“They’d had lots of different leadership,” Parker says. “Everybody was the flavor of the day, and there was no consistency. It’s very confusing to your employees. They don’t know whether what they are doing is right or wrong because it might change. There is another danger to it. Some people may not embrace change because they think if they wait it out long enough, it’s going to change anyway. That’s a real risk.”

Following through on what you say you’re going to do is the only way to convince employees that you’re being forthright with your words.

When you have a large company with employees working at many different locations, it is easy for the message that you give as the CEO to change by the time it has been passed from one person to another and then another.

This is where simplicity again becomes critical. “As you push messages down, there is a chance they can get convoluted,” Parker says. “When you whisper in somebody’s ear, by the time it gets to the last person, it’s something totally different. Our business can work that way. That’s why we try to keep our messages simple and consistent. I would encourage repetition. You have to say the same thing over and over and over again, and it will finally start sinking in. It’s not a one-shot deal. It’s simplicity and consistency.”

Use your tools

Parker says the most foolproof way of communicating with employees is to meet with each of them in person. Since that is often impossible, the next best thing is to make sure you bring in people you can trust to deliver the message on your behalf.

Getting that type of person takes more than just some undefined gut instinct.

“The danger is your gut is wrong,” Parker says. “Use the tools that you have available to you or if you don’t have those tools, explore if you need them. There’s lots of assessments available that can help you make a good decision. ... Do good due diligence.”

The hiring process is much different for management positions than it is for lower-level employees.

“In reality, the further down the organization you go, we’re probably trying to weed out the bad apples and trying to make sure we don’t make a bad hiring decision at the store level,” Parker says.

Do whatever you can to find other people who can offer you their thoughts on a person you may be thinking about hiring.

“I look for some target hires with people that have proven track records,” Parker says. “They were tried and true and proven, and I trusted them. Where I didn’t know, and I was making a key hire, I found people that could talk about them.”

Group interviews can also be helpful. “We have different personalities in the interview process,” Parker says. “We have some people that are very probing and can almost put you on the defensive. Then you have other people that are more soft and are more, ‘How do you feel?’ It’s really kind of interesting to look at the dynamics. A lot of it is just personalities.”

These dynamics can lead to interesting but fruitful post-interview discussions as to who is the best candidate for the job.

“It’s not necessarily a democracy, but we usually try to come to a group consensus,” Parker says.

As Village Pantry grows, Parker wants someone who has experience with quick development. As an example, he identified the head of Midwest store development for the legendary coffeehouse chain, Starbucks, to take a key position.

“A proven-track-record kind of guy,” Parker says. By getting the right people who buy in to your plan for the company, the consistency of message to your employees is ensured.

“You owe it to your employees that they know how to do what they are supposed to do to be successful,” Parker says. “Don’t make somebody feel bad for asking what is potentially in their mind a dumb question. This isn’t rocket science.”

HOW TO REACH: Village Pantry LLC, (317) 594-2100 or www.suncappart.com