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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

Bagging Groceries Taught Me Everything I Needed to Know About Being an Executive Part 13

Executives need personal relationships to be successful

“Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.” Harold S. Geneen

“Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.” John C. Maxwell

Lesson 13. Leaders must be authentic. If you’re not authentic, your people won’t trust you and won’t be inspired to do their best.

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 thirteenth in a series of posts describing the Executive Leadership lessons I learned in that first job.

I had been promoted to Assistant Produce Manager and was sent to another store. I had really liked my prior job because if my performance statistics were good, I was completely left alone. The new job paid the same, but I would gain insight into another department which would be important if I wanted to be a store manager.

Bonus lesson! If you are happy doing what you are doing, you should probably keep doing it!

This was an important position because produce is an exceptionally profitable department for a grocery store. In older stores, the produce section was the last section you would pass through as you were leaving because fruits and vegetables were delicate, and the logic was that they should be the last things to go in the cart. In new stores the produce section is in the front so that you will choose high margin fresh beans before you have already put low margin canned beans in your cart. Clever!

The produce manager was an energetic and pleasant young lady who had reentered the workforce after taking off several years to raise her children. She was very knowledgeable, explained things to me and let me do my job. I can still remember how pleasant it was to open the store on Saturdays in the height of summer in Georgia. First I would smooth out crushed ice onto the display case, relishing in how pretty it looked and how good it felt contrasting the heat outside. Then I would carefully arrange all the produce on the ice until it looked fantastic and enticing.

While I liked my manager, there was an odd atmosphere among the management team. Everyone smiled and did their job, but there was an undercurrent of distrust and anxiety that I felt from the first day I started working there. And it all came from the Store Manager.

On the surface, he was the perfect manager with all the attributes you would look for. He had a pleasant smile and an easygoing personality, was a great public speaker and was always dressed like you expect the manager of a large store to dress. The problem was, to quote a friend of mine “there was no “there” there!” I heard another manager say that “when you scratched the surface, there was just more surface”.

I have used both quotes many times over the course of my rather long career as an executive.

I thought those were interesting observations, and as I became more familiar with him I understood exactly what they meant. Virtually every interaction with him was transactional in nature, and he took absolutely no interest in anyone as an actual human being with lives and activities outside of the store. Furthermore, none of us knew anything at all about him, which was amazing given the relatively small size of the town we lived in and the constant co-mingling of employees between the stores.

He wasn’t authentic, and people didn’t trust him because of that.

I had never heard the expression “empty suit” before, but I instinctively understood that term described him perfectly! Because he really didn’t know or care about anyone in the store, he was completely unable to relate to them or be relatable himself! Since he never established a personal relationship with anyone on his management team, everyone assumed that he could not be trusted. Furthermore, since no one on the management team was comfortable having a serious conversation with him, problems tended to simmer just below the surface and never got elevated for resolution.

The stores performance began to decline.

He reacted by saying and doing all the "right" things. He wanted an “honest conversation about how to make things better” and he “was always available if anyone ever needed to discuss anything with him”.

But no one believed him, and no one talked to him. Because no one knew him.

Everyone was working hard and doing the best they could, but without an authentic leader they were uninspired and felt no trust or loyalty. Without a personal connection to someone in the management team, he was completely blind to what was going on in the very store where he spent so much time.

Later in that year he was reassigned to a smaller store. Eventually he left.

Years later he showed up at a recruiting company where I worked looking for a job.

How sad.


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