Learning and Development Requires a Deliberate Approach

By Marty Parker

I’ve always had a keen interest in learning and development – to support both my personal interests and my professional growth. Most leaders I know are the same. And as leaders, it’s our responsibility to identify the skills, passion, and aptitude in people who could serve our organizations in leadership roles, and to support the learning and development needs of our team members.

When I sat down to talk with Sarah Davis, president at Loblaw Companies Limited, one of the topics that we discussed at length was the incredible focus that organization puts on learning and on the development of its teams.

The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
Loblaw puts a real premium on learning and development in the organization. Why is that such a fundamental part of the organizational culture, and what are some of the ways that you really promote learning internally?

Sarah Davis:
I would say that we have a pretty good track record of skilling and re-skilling, and I think we all need to accept and understand that the jobs of the past are going to be different in the future. And they’ve always been that way.

I know lots of people talk about new technology and how it’s going to kill jobs and all of that, and I think in some cases, yeah, that’s absolutely true. Even if you think of something as simple as a self-checkout in our stores, we sometimes have people who are concerned about that because it means that you won’t have a cashier. Well, for us, it’s about, yes, that’s true, but we can evolve to have a new type of role. And for us, that could be something as simple as now we have pickers in our stores who were picking groceries, which was a job that didn’t exist before. We have lots of digital jobs, we have lots of data jobs.  And so I really do think that it’s really important for our business to reinvent itself and not stay in the past. Our competitors never will. We’re always going to have new competitors, so we have to stay relevant as well.

A big part of that for us is to make sure that we know where the jobs are going, and we make sure that our colleagues and our employees are ready to make the change, that they have the skills required. In some cases we have examples where we’re actually teaching coding skills to store colleagues, so that if we know that there’s more jobs in data and analytics, then we make sure that we have the skills.

We had 2,000 colleagues participating in our internal skills program. And when you think about our executive pipeline, it offers a nice proof point. So all of the past 11 additions to our 12-person executive management team have come from within Loblaws. So we really do believe that we should promote from within if we can.

And we do believe in longevity, we have people who’ve worked in our business for like 40, even 50 years. We have people who are still working in our business. So I think in order to have that type of loyalty … It’s not common anymore. And I think you can only do it if you make sure that your colleagues have the right skills for the future.

Marty Parker:
What have you learned – both as someone who’s been on the leadership track up to President of the business, but also as an executive looking to support the next, or a new generation of leaders – about the importance of taking a deliberate approach to leadership development and succession planning?

Sarah Davis:
I think it has to be two pronged, it has to come from the organization, and it has to come from the person as well.

So as an organization, we need to understand the different ways that people progress in their careers…Some people need to be pushed. Traditionally, we would say women maybe need to be pushed, maybe don’t put their hands up as often as men, perhaps. I don’t think there’s always one type of woman or one type of man, but I think on the spectrum, sometimes that is true. I think as a management team, you have to understand the differences between different people and make sure the opportunities are there, and how you address them differently. I think that always involves having a good performance management culture, having a good succession planning structure.

And then I would encourage the individuals in our business to also be responsible for their own development. You can’t sit back and assume that your manager is going to do everything and develop you the way that they need to you to be developed. You have to make sure that you are taking that on as well. And I think you have to be adaptable. You have to be flexible. You have to be open-minded. Maybe sometimes you have to be a little braver than you have been as well. And all of those are elements of having a good development program for people.

Marty Parker:
How can we as leaders ensure that the kind of deliberate approach that you’re talking about, both in terms of succession planning and leadership development, is as inclusive as possible.

Sarah Davis:
So for a business like ours, when I think of diversity and inclusion – and even one of our culture principles, which is all about being authentic – it is that it has to be a place where everybody feels welcome. It’s a business imperative for us because we reflect all Canadians, we sell products to all Canadians. For us, our workforce has to reflect the business and the people that we serve, and so we want to be as inclusive as possible.

So we have taken steps to ensure diversity across our business. We want our stores and our store management to reflect the communities we have. We want our products to reflect the communities that we serve as well. And so we do have a very big diversity and inclusion program. It of course includes women, but it also includes visible minorities. It also includes physical abilities as well. And of course, sexual orientation as well. So I would say all types of diversity… it’s diversity of everything, diversity of where you come from, diversity of age, whether you’re young or you’re old, or you have tons of experience or little experience, it’s all that type of diversity, a place for everybody.

But we have also become metric-based in this place. I don’t like to say that we have targets because that sounds bad, but we definitely have goals in terms of what we want to achieve. We also have started to give a bit of a scorecard. So how are we actually doing on women in senior positions? How are we doing in terms of visible minorities in senior positions? So we are holding ourselves accountable to make sure that we do show people and we have that authenticity and that clearness and that clarity – this is how we’re doing, this is where we think we’re not doing well enough, this is what we’re focusing on.

So very much in that, I would say we’re are doing quite well. We have some women running big parts of our business. Aside from me, we have a woman running our control brands now. We have a woman running our biggest division based on revenue. We have a woman running T & T. So we have lots of good examples as well. Our board of directors has five female directors right now, and that represents 42 per cent of our board.

So we’re getting there, but you’re never done on this journey. So it is making, setting some goals, being open to displaying your results and making clear what you’re trying to achieve. That’s what we’re working on.