Q-and-A: FMI CEO Leslie G. Sarasin on the state of women's leadership in food retail - SmartBrief

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Q-and-A: FMI CEO Leslie G. Sarasin on the state of women’s leadership in food retail

6 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

FMI President and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin

Promoting and retaining female leaders is important in any industry, and food retail is no different. SmartBrief talked with Food Marketing Institute President and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin about the importance of engaging female leaders, and what food retailers are doing to promote and empower leaders within their organizations

Why do you think women are important to leadership in general?
As we seek leadership that is better equipped to meet the challenges of this age — one that is more collaboratively driven, oriented toward forming potent partnerships and strong on supportive networking — the nurturing, relationally-oriented strengths of women are critical now more than ever. In addition, as the younger generations include more working women than ever before, it is essential that they have role models available to them to assist with their leadership development. Those role models should be effective women leaders.

Why do you think female leadership is important to the food retail industry in particular?
For years, women have been the primary customer of the food retailer. We women have been the primary grocery shopper, the homemaker, the one deciding what was for dinner and what went into the grocery cart. Even though that is changing and 40% of men now claim to be responsible for the household grocery shopping, we have a long history of serving in that role. This historical perspective is valuable and as our industry adapts to trends in technology, convenience and health and wellness, the leadership of women will be ever more important.

Where do you think the food retail industry, or food industry as a whole, is with recognizing women as leaders? What can be improved upon and how can companies take steps towards this?
There has been progress made in recognizing women as leaders in our industry. As an example, on an annual basis, Progressive Grocer dedicates an issue to the Top Women in Grocery in which the publication showcases women throughout our industry who are stand-outs. This recognition of the women who help shape and grow the food retail industry is important and I’ve had the honor to not only receive this recognition myself but also to present awards to some of the winners.

Let me tell you, when you hear what these women who are store managers, rising stars in companies or senior executives are achieving in their careers, it’s very impressive. And there are other similar programs within the industry. While this regular recognition is important, we can do more to foster and support the development of women leaders in our industry.

This is a subject that comes up fairly regularly in my conversations with food retail CEO’s because they very much want to do all they can to help prepare women in their companies for larger leadership roles. We are beginning to see the results of some of that interest in and focus on women leadership development as women are named to increasingly higher-level positions. Like many such efforts, it is an evolution rather than a revolution so it takes time.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience as a woman in a leadership role?
It’s a bit difficult for me to talk about my experience as a woman in a leadership role because I’ve never really thought about my role that way. I try to be the best leader I know how to be because it’s the right thing for me to do, not because that’s what I should do as a woman. I don’t presume that as a woman I have more challenges than all male leaders have and, in fact, I’ve been fortunate in my career to have had wonderful male mentors who always provided tremendous encouragement and opportunities for my continued growth as a leader.

I’m also a mom, wife and daughter, all of which require significant time commitments to do those jobs justice. I think the same could be said about leaders who are also in the roles of dad, husband and son. Certainly doing those jobs well requires similar time commitments. I try to make sure the teams I work with know how much value I place on all the hats I wear, as well as all the hats they wear, so that together we can strive to have successful lives, whether we’re talking about our professional lives or our personal lives.

What is FMI doing to help promote female leadership in the industry?
First and foremost, we at FMI try to serve as an example for the industry. It is not an accident that in FMI’s senior leadership team, there are a number of women occupying key positions, including in leading our government relations, food safety, communications, health and wellness, education and member services departments. We also try to incorporate promotion of female leadership topics in to our programs.

For example, this year, we were pleased to have the Network of Executive Women participate in FMI Connect 2014, our annual trade show, as both an exhibitor and presenter. NEW shared findings from its “Women 2020” report in a highly attended session on “Leveraging Women’s Leadership to Unlock the Potential of Your Workforce.” It’s providing a platform for the sharing of resources and opportunities like this that FMI can help women become an even stronger force in our industry.

What are some things food retail companies specifically should keep top of mind when it comes to promoting female leadership?
I think food retailers — and companies in general — looking to promote female leadership have an immense opportunity to capitalize on women’s natural abilities. To do that, as NEW’s “Women 2020” report suggests, might mean their companies have to be willing to undergo change so they are better suited to attract and retain women leaders. But I would suggest that doing so might also mean they become better suited to attract and retain all leaders in general.


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