Grooming Grocery Leaders

The Food Industry Management program at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business is a leadership development program for aspiring food and consumer goods executives. Program director Cynthia McCloud spoke with Retail Leader about the unique program.

Retail Leader: There are a lot of executive education programs out there, put on by very prestigious business schools. What distinguishes the Food Industry Management (FIM) program?

Cynthia McCloud: I'll just start with the fact that it's been around for 58 years. It's been celebrated and supported by the food industry, both retailers and consumer packaged goods manufacturers, for all those years. And in fact, the scholarships and the actual education for the semester that the 35 students are here is actually paid for by the Western Association of Food Chains, and they've been supporting education for 96 years.

So we have the support of the industry who are sending their future leaders to our program, and their expectation is that we spend a semester with those students, or executives really, and help them transform and learn some of the skills that they wouldn't normally have learned in their day-to-day work and careers, and then come back out with some very strong skills, particularly around leadership.

And I would say some of the other schools will spend time in a particular area, I think a few schools spend time around category management and they have a specialty there, others will focus on supply chain management. USC works to build leadership skills. And many of what we would call soft skills in the academia world, that these leaders just don't get to practice until they get into very senior-level positions, and if they haven't had any training in those areas, then oftentimes they learn by fire, and oftentimes will fail before they have the tools they need. So we focus on leadership.

RL: Can you give me a portrait of the typical FIM student, in terms of what backgrounds do they have, what do they want to get out of the program, and what do they think it will help them accomplish in their careers?

McCloud: The average age for these students is around 38. They're typically in either a middle-management position, or they have just moved into a senior level position, like at a VP level. So they have a little bit of background in management; occasionally they will have had some experience in a couple of departments in their companies, but a large majority of them have been working in operations, either in stores or on the sales front line, because we have both retailers and manufacturers.

Usually about two-thirds of our class are from retailers in the food industry, and then the other third are from consumer packaged goods manufacturers. They come from many of the states around the western U.S., although we occasionally have people coming in from New York, coming in off the East Coast, and we usually have one or two international students.

They come in looking for some skills in departments that they have not been exposed to, so now they're being exposed to marketing, to strategy, to finance and accounting. We do a lot of work with them around communications, how you have a presence, how you stand up on a stage and tell your story, and then we do deep dives with them on leadership. They're looking for exposure to other parts of the company that they don't normally have exposure to. And then lastly, they are also looking for perspective from other students who work in different companies or who work in a different area of the business.

FIM program participants Mike Doss, left, and Lonny Reiber, with Kroger's King Soopers/City Markets and Fred Meyer divisions, respectively.

RL: There is a component of FIM that involves the creation of Capstone teams. What are those and how are they formed?

McCloud: The Capstone teams are created at the very beginning of the semester after two rounds of assessments. They take a Myers-Briggs [psychological] assessment, and then they also do an assessment called Birkman. We look at their profiles, we look at how they make decisions, we look at their usual state and also their needs state, and they're categorized based on these two assessments into introverts and extroverts, and people who are very task-focused and others who are very people-focused.

We create the teams based on those assessments, and then right away, we do a major brainstorming-day assessment, where we look at all the major initiatives in the industry that literally are going to affect us or transform us, one way or another. And the students pick one of those key initiatives that will be important to our industry in the next five to 10 years. Each group, each team, picks one, and we have six teams, and then they study, they research, they meet with the professors to understand how to look at these different issues in the industry.

RL: How do the teams share their insights?

McCloud: At the end of the semester, the six teams are prepared to present back to the executives who sent them to the program. There's usually about 200 senior executives sitting in the audience, along with a lot of family members and supporters. And the students go up on the stage, they present their research, and they effectively compete with each other, through this, we call it Education Day. The executives actually vote on the two presentations that were most clearly represented and most well delivered. Then we take the entire class to the WAFC conference and the two winning teams present their research to upwards to 2,000 executives. That is our opportunity for these executives to see what kind of leaders will be coming back into the market and leading our industry in the future.

RL: How do you work with industry to inform and refine the FIM program?

McCloud: We do a couple of different things, beginning with the recruiting process. We're working with companies to understand who those future leaders are, what are the qualifications to just get into this program from a university perspective, and also what are the skills that these companies would like us to focus on, whether it be conflict management or decision-making skills or power and influence.

So we start there when we're doing recruiting and we're having these dialogues for about four or five months, and then the students are selected. Then we do a couple of other things. We have an HR council that we meet with two times a year to dialogue about what are the things going on in their companies. What are the competencies that are missing in leaders today, and what are the requirements for how leaders will have to act and react in the market?

RL: There's also a program geared toward senior executives.

McCloud: We bring senior executives in for four days and they usually have eight sessions taught by USC professors.

They get usually a strategy course. We do a marketing course every year. They have decision-making as one course. They do a half-day in power and influence, which is one of the most powerful sessions because they actually do some of the learning through activities in class and have to make some of the decisions that maybe would be things that would affect them when they have to go back into the marketplace.

And then we also do a whole session around service leadership. We teach that through the use of a book called "The Servant," by James C. Hunter, and then we have them act out and do activities in class that demonstrate how that could be put into action and how they would use that in the market. These are typically executives who are a little bit higher-level. Most of them are in management roles, so they're directors and vice presidents and they can't move away from the business for four months. They come in for four days of very intense activity.