Every year, Progressive Grocer and the Network of Executive Women honor one woman who leads and builds her community. The Top Women in Grocery 2019 Trailblazer, Monica Garnes, has been blazing trails throughout her entire career at The Kroger Co., from the time she entered the management training program in 1995.
Garnes was often the first: the first African-American woman to be named district manager in 2007 for the Columbus, Ohio, division; the first African-American woman to be named a retail division VP (when she became VP of merchandising for Fry’s in 2013); and the first African-American ever to be named a division head as the president of Fry’s, her current position. She is also the first woman of color to be named a Top Women in Grocery Trailblazer.
As president of Fry’s, she oversees 123 stores and about 22,000 employees. PG recently chatted with Garnes, who shared her insights into what has helped her succeed and how she helps others to find their own success.
PG: What were some of the most valuable lessons you learned as you were moving up?
Monica Garnes: I can remember years ago, a district manager saying early in my career, when I was just learning the retail business, that if you’re in a room full of people that know more than you about the business, take the opportunity to listen and learn from them.
I think a lot of times, we’re quick to formulate responses and chime in, but you can learn so much about people, about what’s happening in the business, just by listening. Not only listening and learning about the business, but also listening to people and getting great ideas and hearing feedback and creating an environment where people feel that their voices can be heard. It allows people to open up in ways that you may not have even imagined.
[Garnes spoke about several of her mentors at Kroger, but especially CEO Rodney McMullen, who believed in her and pushed her to leave the Columbus division, where she had spent her first 18 years, to move to Fry’s in Arizona to become VP of merchandising. The move changed the trajectory of her career, which led to a position of VP of produce/floral merchandising and procurement at the corporate office in Cincinnati, before she returned to Fry’s as its president.]
PG: What advice do you have for someone who is given a stretch-project opportunity, but is a bit trepidatious about taking that big step?
Garnes: Don’t be afraid of a challenge. I think part of it is just having courage and belief in yourself. When I was first offered the position here at Fry’s [her first move to Fry’s as VP of merchandising, not her current position as president], I remember saying: “Thank you. I need to go home and think about it, talk it over with my family, and I’ll get back to you.” I remember at the time, the president kind of looked at me sideways, like, “OK.” When I was talking to my parents about it, because they lived in Columbus, the thing that resonates with me is my mom said: “Why are you hesitant? This is what you’ve been preparing for your entire career.” So I think it’s just having the courage and belief in yourself that you are prepared. You’re ready for the next challenge and embrace the challenge because there’s going to be more learnings along the way. I would tell people, find ways to say yes. When you say yes to these new challenges, you never know what the future holds and what other doors will open up.
PG: I think people often struggle with asking for guidance. What would be your advice to people either looking for guidance or people who are giving guidance?
Garnes: If you’re looking to mentor someone, or someone has asked you to be their mentor, open and honest feedback is very, very important. Then it’s the follow-up piece, when you’re hearing feedback on the person, taking the initiative as the mentor to reach out and say, “Hey, just wanted to share some great things I’m hearing, or some things that I’m hearing that may be an opportunity.” It’s that continual feedback that’s going to help them. Then it goes back to listening, because sometimes the mentees may have frustrations or just want to celebrate something that’s happened in their career, and giving them the opportunity to vent when need be, and then processing the information and providing them constructive advice back. And obviously celebrating with them as people grow in their careers.
Finding that mentor can be challenging. It can be intimidating. I think it’s facing the fear head-on to ask somebody that’s at a higher level than you are, able to be flexible about how and the ways to contact the mentor. Agree to a schedule and ask, “Hey, I know we can only get on the calendar x amount of times, but are you OK if I have a situation [where] I can reach out either via email or text message or just a quick phone call in the event that I have something that I need help with?”
PG: What has been some of the best advice you’ve been given, both in your career and life in general?
Garnes: I think that one of the things I always go back to — and my parents instilled this in me — is really living your own personal values. I always think about my values and how important it is that they align with The Kroger Co. values, when you think about honesty, integrity, respect and embracing inclusion and diversity. I think that if every day, you show up to work and you show up in personal relationships — not just professional — and you have your values you hold true, then people will respect that and know that you’re a believable person and an honest person.
I think it’s just about genuinely caring for people. It’s OK to care about the people that you work with and care about their success and wanting the best for them.
Also, being your authentic self. I think a lot of times, we may try and fit a model or role that we perceive is the right thing to do, but if you’re not true to yourself and find your passion — what you’re passionate about — you’re never going to have the success you’re meant to have. I try and be Monica every single day I come to work, so people know what to expect every single day, but I think the more you can be yourself, the more that you can find that passion for whatever it is you do. You will be a better leader. You will have more success in your career, and, I think, you’ll be a happier person.