By Joe Scarlett
Nearly all the lessons I’ve learned about developing leaders came the hard way. And that’s why they sunk in. I started accruing much of this knowledge early on in my retail career.
In my mid-twenties, I was tasked with supervising checkout managers, as well as cash-handling sections of large discounts stores. I was full of energy, the youngest guy on the team and single. So leadership assigned me the broadest geography, which required the most driving. (The company would seldom spring for airfare.) My stores—about a dozen at the time—were spread from Buffalo to Baltimore.
When I had a dozen solid store managers life was good. But that was not always the case. If one of my managers quit, the replacement just might be me. I soon realized that my clearest path to success was to build bench strength so if we lost a manager for any reason we had a backup somewhere in the wings.
I refined my recruiting and interviewing skills mostly through trial and error. Then I learned to be a one-man training machine. Over time many of the folks I developed moved on to bigger roles both in our company in other organizations.
Creating a pipeline of new leadership talent
Today well-run organizations of all sizes have learned the same thing I did: Developing fresh leaders is just as valuable as managing existing leaders. Companies now invest heavily in all aspects of leadership development, because they know that in the long run talent could be the most critical competitive advantage.
Regular assessments are a key tool for fostering leadership talent at every level. It’s essential for senior executives, including the CEO, to ask tough questions to build a resilient team.
- Who are the “stars” and how are we preparing them for the future?
- Who are the “backbone” managers and are we providing them with solid support?
- Are we counseling our “problem” managers adequately?
- Do we have enough talent in the pipeline and is it the right talent?
Forward-thinking businesses know that resources spent on skill development will pay off in two important ways: stronger leaders and deeper loyalty to the organization. In fact, tailoring programs for your most promising individuals can deliver huge dividends.
Leadership training comes in many forms and usually works best as a complementary mix of programming. This could include individual skill classes (public speaking, organization, managing people), in-house group classes, new “challenge” projects and networking opportunities.
Our spin on leadership training: Tractor U
Building on this idea, our team started Tractor Supply University, fondly known as Tractor U. The leadership training content, much of it delivered by senior executives, continues to evolve. But the singular intention remains the same: a dedication to building a first-class leadership team. Tractor U teaching has led directly to high loyalty and very low turnover.
When you think about your own progression as a leader, ask yourself this: Who have I groomed to take my place? Your prospects for promotion grow when you make life easy by introducing your boss to your trained successor.
Luckily, I learned the value of talent early on. I worked relentlessly to select the best people for key corporate roles. I spent a huge portion of my time teaching in classrooms and coaching in stores far and wide. Why? Because I knew that leadership development was the very best investment of my time.
Joe Scarlett is the retired CEO of Tractor Supply Company
For more on leadership see joescarlett.com
Or write Joe at Joe@joescarlett.com