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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

Bagging Groceries Taught Me Everything I Needed to Know About Being an Executive Part 11

Meme about management arrogance

“Such can be the addiction of power. It can be an irrationally egoistic and absurdly frivolous passion that engulfs even sensible people. In this, mastermind suffers from a psychosis of sorts and endeavors to substitute his own ambitions for the individual ambitions of millions of people.” Mark R. Levin, Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America

“You can't mastermind everything. You'll go crazy. Just show up and play.” Eric Clapton

Lesson 11: All organizations have “masterminds” who believe that they are running things because they are smarter and better. They usually aren’t. If someone doesn’t challenge them, the entire organization suffers.

My first “real” job was at Piggly Wiggly Southern®, a grocery store chain that was primarily based in Georgia in the early 80’s. This is the eleventh in a series of posts describing the Executive Leadership lessons I learned in that first job.

I was a full time employee and was promoted to “management” when I was named the Assistant Stock Manager at the Piggly Wiggly store in Martinez, GA. This came with what seemed like a big raise and much more responsibility. I was responsible for ordering inventory for the store, scheduling the stock crew, assisting the Perishables Manager, stocking the store one night a week and opening and closing the store several days a week. Suddenly I was responsible for the money!

Piggly Wiggly Southern was a relatively large enterprise in those days. As large organizations tend to do, they had put in place a “Management Training Program” that required all new entry level managers to go through an orientation at the Piggly Wiggly distribution center in Vidalia, Ga. I was excited and expected to go immediately! When I told my new manager, he burst into laughter and said, “Let me know when you actually go!”. When I asked him why he said “Because I haven’t been yet!”. I couldn’t believe it! He had been a manager for years, and the senior leadership of Piggly Wiggly had said that training was a top priority!

I felt a little of my innocence die….

Days turned to weeks, and weeks to months and I still hadn’t been sent to training. I learned the job by doing the job under the supervision of the local management team. Since I was responsible for inventory now, I noticed that we would occasionally receive large orders of things we didn’t order or need. When I asked the Stock Manager about it, he told me that sending excess inventory out was how the warehouse made a profit. I was shocked. “Shouldn’t the warehouse’s primary responsibility be to get the products the stores needed and wanted to them in the most effective way possible?” I asked. He laughed and told me I had some naïve ideas.

A bit later we received a huge display of fine china plates that Headquarters demanded be placed at the front of the store. Shockingly, our customers weren’t interested in purchasing fine china at Piggly Wiggly and the store manager was furious that his highly profitable front end space was being wasted. He ranted on about how disconnected “HQ was from actually running a store!”.

Later that year, developers were in the process of building a new shopping center directly above and behind the one we were in. Piggly Wiggly had the option to build a new store there, and our manager made repeated trips to HQ to convince them to build one! He was shot down by the “experts” in Vidalia who refused to listen to him describe the growth and demographics of our local community. Kroger® built a huge store there instead, and I heard that at one point it was one of the most successful stores in their system.

And so it went.

I was still a bit naïve and wanted to believe that the senior leaders in Vidalia were just operating on a higher plane than I was, and with more experience I would understand what they were doing!

After about a year in the management position, I was summoned to the Piggly Wiggly Southern distribution center in Vidalia for orientation. Ironically, my manager was also going for his training! I had an opportunity to see the actual warehouse (very impressive), the fleet of vehicles that transported groceries all over the southeastern Unites States (very impressive) and the huge frozen warehouses where all the perishable goods were stored (also impressive). Then I got a chance to hear the perspectives of the management team.


I had wanted to believe that they were the best and the brightest, masters in their individual fields of expertise. What I found were a group of individuals who were either politically connected or were the best at managing office politics. It was literally impossible to have a discussion with them about the business of Piggly Wiggly! I realized what they valued was conformance, not performance.

A couple of years after that visit, Piggly Wiggly Southern closed most of its stores.

Who is running your business? What do they value?


I find myself thinking a great deal about the notion of “fact based decisions”. In my field of expertise, my team is exploring new and innovative ways to harness data and use it to make fact based behavioral predication's. All the search engines and social media sites (Including Facebook and LinkedIn) use algorithms to determine if you are “trending”, and that determines who sees your activity. In the political space, that has gotten them in some trouble as political bias has replaced pure machine learning. But why would a scientist inject bias into anything? Facts are facts! Be courageous and let them take you where they take you!

I am also excited to use a Mark Levine quote in this post. I'm a big fan.


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