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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Degrees of separation

    Losing a key employee is tough, but owners can limit the damage by reacting intelligently.

    The departure of any associate can present numerous challenges for the family-owned supermarket, but when that person happens to be a key manager in the organization, the ramifications are often more severe. Whether the exit was encouraged or came as a complete surprise, storeowners can exploit any high-level departure as an opportunity to rally the troops, showcase their own leadership skills, and improve their relationships with the rest of the team.

    To accomplish this takes proper communication and a positive attitude, according to Vince Crew, founder of Naples, Fla.-based REACH Development, which provides succession planning and counseling services to family-owned businesses and nonprofit organizations. Crew says storeowners can minimize the downside of losing a key associate by following several simple steps and avoiding a few pitfalls.

    Stiff upper lip

    "First and foremost," says Crew, "don't pretend that the departure didn't happen, and that the person won't be missed by the organization and its customers. And certainly don't badmouth the person who left. When possible, meet face to face with the remaining associates and let them know that you wish the departing manager well. This is a time to be upbeat and positive, and it's also a time to re-emphasize the values on which the company has been built."

    As is the case for many privately held companies, key managers become a critical link not only within the operation, but also within the family. "There's an emotional and psychological attachment to deal with, because family is the business, and business is the family," explains Crew. "When key people leave, it's sometimes felt that they're abandoning the family and taking with them not only themselves, but internal knowledge and even efforts to brand your company. Sometimes they're likely to take other associates with them."

    Given that this feels more like a defection -- a breach in the family-oriented relationship structure -- how can a storeowner avoid taking the departure personally?

    "It's not possible," suggests Crew. "When it's your business, and you're the one that has to pay the mortgage, meet payroll, and, in some instances, pledge your own house to the bank, it becomes very personal. While it's not like experiencing the loss of a loved one or family member, the loss of a key associate can be very painful, and a grieving process often takes place."

    However, Crew strongly recommends maintaining a stiff upper lip. "Regardless of how disappointed we are about the departure, we cannot afford to have that show to our people. Remember that employees can smell fear. If the storeowner is a true leader, he or she will see this as an opportunity to speak to the values, direction, and mission of the organization to which the departing manager no longer felt aligned. That owner would waste no time wallowing in self-pity or a 'woe is me' attitude, and would deal with the separation for the betterment of the business and its team members."

    Finding a replacement

    When it's time to name a replacement, Crew suggests that storeowners remember their ABCs: Always Be Cultivating. "The success of any organization comes from filling the gaps appropriately and putting into place managers who can hit the ground running." However, he adds, "When there's no qualified candidate within the organization, then it's time to look outside of the company."

    How much time should the storeowner allow for the search? "It takes as long as it takes," notes Crew. "The last thing you want to do is make a quick hire based solely on a resume. In my opinion, resumes only reveal job experience, history, and technological skills. They in no way indicate whether a person will understand the company's culture and whether they'll adapt to how things run and work beyond the employee handbook. Only in proper interviewing and in taking your time can you determine if the candidate is truly a fit for your store."

    While Crew is aware that some companies involve hourly associates and department managers in the selection process of a new leader, he says he's not an advocate of the practice. "I'm old-fashioned, and don't think that employees should choose their boss. It's like allowing a friend to choose whom you're going to marry. The storeowner must choose the key manager, and if it's the right person, the employees will take to them."

    He's also not a fan of exit interviews. "I don't buy into them, and find most of them to be a waste of time," says Crew. "If they've left your company, why should you care about their opinions? They're kind of like an ex-spouse who's out of your life. You should no longer have an interest in pleasing them."

    Moreover, Crew believes that the storeowner can learn more from the people who stay with the organization than from those who go. "Listen to those who are working every day to grow the organization and please your customers, and you'll get better feedback," he notes.

    Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].

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