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If we agree that people are the greatest asset of any business, why is it that most grocers tend to invest the least amount of money in those assets? When monthly or quarterly numbers aren't hit, we immediately start hacking away at those who make our stores a living, breathing reality: 200 hours from next week's cashier lineup, 40 hours from the bakery/deli, and 10 from produce -- and do we really need to schedule baggers before noon on weekdays? Those training classes we budgeted for next week? We'll have to get by without them.

That's exactly the wrong tactic. It's in challenging times such as battling a new competitor in town, or struggling to meet operating budgets, that we must rely on our people the most, says Chuck Coonradt, author and founder of the Park City, Utah-based firm Game of Work.

"It astonishes me," says Coonradt. "A storeowner will open a new supermarket and invest $4 million to $6 million on equipment and hardware, and scramble to hire 150 to 200 associates and pay them anywhere from $7.50 to $17 an hour, plus a 30 percent fringe base on top of the hourly wages. In addition, the owner will have dropped at least $50,000 on advertising and ad loss for the grand opening.

"At the same time, in the back of their minds they clearly understand that the most important relationship their associates will have on the job is with the person to whom they report. We know all of that," continues Coonradt, "yet, under those economics, we won't spend 50 cents on developing better leaders in our stores. I think that's bad math."

Such "bad math" inspired Coonradt to write his new book, "The Better People Leader."

"We have an almost frightening opportunity to drive better performance in our stores, if we would just invest in bringing to our store managers and department managers a set of skills that will allow them to create a better environment for the people we have working for us," he says. "Granted, we're going to be a 24/7 operation in most markets today. But we are duty bound to change the way people are treated when they work for us, or we'll be dealing with a painfully expensive scenario."

Coonradt is especially concerned that retail people management is a lost art. "Most of us are in this business today because of a person who provided mentoring, coaching, and inspiration," he notes. "I believe that our forefathers understood that people came first -- that it was the people who produced the numbers."

Now hundreds of family-owned supermarket operators face a common fear, of "not being able to keep their sons and daughters in the business -- and they're not keeping anyone else's kids either," he says. "This has never been, nor will it ever be, a business in which you can win by having a better planogram than the guy down the street. It's about creating an unparalleled experience not only for customers who shop at your stores, but also, and especially, for those who work in them."

Mentors needed

Also critical to the strength of an organization is its commitment to mentorship, but relationships can't be forced. "Mentors are chosen, not assigned," observes Coonradt.

The chosen mentor for him was Ferrell Lee Hunter, an executive v.p. at a company in Tennessee for which Coonradt worked. "Ferrell was just a 'hush puppy,'" remembers Coonradt. "In fact, he wore them every single day. One of the things I admired most about him was his cool head in hot situations. He dealt with egotistical, 'my way or the highway' people and had this incredible ability to get calmer the more agitated others became."

One day, as Coonradt tried to thank Ferrell, his mentor cut him short, saying, "You're giving me a lot of praise and gratitude for stuff I've already got. Don't give it back to me, give it away."

Thus, every day Coonradt strives to personally coach others as he himself was coached, and he encourages clients to do the same.

And the worst thing a manager can do is to talk about "labor" as if it were some monster, he adds. "That's crap. Those are people we're talking about. What we really need to be looking at is, how do we get those people to have such a good time working and winning in our stores that they're going to reflect that out to the customers?"