The Care And Feeding Of Leaders

An industry insider shares his insights on how to achieve success in troubled times.

I won't surprise anyone when I say that 2011 has been a year of great change for everyone in the produce industry.

For us at L&M Cos., that change started at home with the implementation of a new company-wide system that really challenged our organization over the past 12 months. All of those internal complexities played out side by side with tremendous outside pressure brought about by market changes, political uncertainty and increasing economic turmoil.

Across the fresh produce supply chain, our colleagues were faced with some vexing problems: shifting consumer tastes, the talent shortage, supply chain inefficiencies and, of course, food safety issues, the last of which was underscored this year by the tragic listeria outbreak.

Yet at L&M, and in my role as a board member with the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), we've fought through all that and gotten better as a result, and now we're preparing for another year to come. Leaders at every level have risen to the occasion, recognizing that change is always with us, and with that there are also opportunities for growth. We know it isn't enough to solve the problems of today; we also have to plan for the successes of tomorrow.

To do that, we'll need more people who can identify obstacles and opportunities, and recognize that they're often two sides of the same coin. We'll need those who can see the ideal direction for their businesses; create a clear, customer-focused vision that their companies can get behind; and develop solid plans that are still flexible enough to bend when conditions change again. In 2012, we'll need more — as well as smarter and braver — leaders than ever before; if we're going to find them, there are at least three things we'll need to do.

Recognizing Potential

A person doesn't need a title to be a leader. You can find leadership skills at any level of an organization, if you look. People show their initiative in different forms, depending on their job and their level. But folks who are willing — and who have the ability and the courage — will step up if they know it's OK to do so. At L&M, we strive to encourage learning, experimentation and an open exchange of ideas, and that's paid off in a number of ways. Through regular, open dialogue, we strengthen the business and help our employees grow at the same time.

Once someone shows leadership potential, get them the tools and resources they need to get smarter, more confident and more connected to resources. Most good leaders spend a lot of time learning from other leaders, from their customers and from the competition. Future leaders need more opportunities for contact with people they may never have dealt with before. Industry networking activities and high-quality educational opportunities are probably the best and easiest ways to begin this process.

The best companies have a culture that rewards courage and inventiveness. Nobody can blaze new trails without occasionally heading off in the wrong direction. Creating business growth means conceiving and trying new ideas, and new ideas cut both ways. Some work incredibly well and some don't work at all — and we usually don't know which are which until we try them. So while it's sometimes hard to do, it's critical to give developing leaders every opportunity to learn, especially from their mistakes.

Let's all move forward, not with fear or uncertainty, but with the confidence and courage that comes from being prepared to manage through change.

John Oxford is president and CEO of L&M Cos. in Raleigh, N.C., and a member of the Produce Marketing Association board of directors.

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