I won’t surprise anyone when I say that 2011 has been a year of great change for everyone in the produce industry.
For us at L&M, that change started at home with the implementation of a new company-wide system that really challenged and stressed our organization over the last 12 months.
All of those internal complexities played out side by side with tremendous outside pressure brought about by market changes, political uncertainty and increasing economic turmoil.
Across the fresh produce supply chain our colleagues were faced with some very vexing problems — shifting consumer tastes, the talent shortage, supply chain inefficiencies, and, of course, food safety issues underscored this year by the tragic listeria outbreak.
Change and challenge were waiting around every corner, behind every decision, and just outside the view of every plan.
Yet at L&M, and in my role as a board member with Produce Marketing Association, we have fought through all that, gotten better as a result and now we’re preparing for another year to come.
Why? Because leaders at every level have risen to the occasion, recognizing that change is always with us, and with that there are also opportunities for growth.
We know it isn’t enough to solve the problems of today.
We also have to plan for the successes of tomorrow.
To do that, we’ll need more people who can identify obstacles and opportunities ... and recognize that they’re two sides of the same coin.
We’ll need those who can see the ideal direction for their businesses, create a clear, customer-focused vision that their companies can get behind, and develop solid plans that are still flexible enough to bend when conditions change again.
In 2012 we’ll need more — smarter and braver — leaders than ever before, and if we’re going to find them, there are at least three things we are going to have to do.
- We have to bring them forward. I’ve often said a person doesn’t need a title to be a leader.
You can find leadership skills at any level of an organization if you look.
People show their initiative in different forms depending on their job and their level. But folks who are willing — and who have the ability and the courage — will step up if they know it’s OK to do so.
At L&M, we strive to encourage learning, experimentation, and an open exchange of ideas, and that’s paid off in a number of ways. Through regular, open dialogue we strengthen the business and help our employees grow at the same time.
- We have to give them tools. Once people show leadership potential, get them the tools and resources they need to get smarter, more confident and more connected to resources.
Most good leaders spend a lot of time learning from other leaders, from their customers, and from the competition.
Future leaders need more opportunities for contact with people they may never have dealt with before.
Industry networking activities and high-quality educational opportunities are probably the best and easiest way to begin this process.
- We have to let them lead. I believe the best companies have a culture that rewards courage and inventiveness. Nobody can blaze new trails without occasionally heading off in the wrong direction.
Creating business growth means conceiving and trying new ideas, and new ideas cut both ways.
Some work incredibly well and some don’t work at all ... and we usually don’t know until we try them.
So while it’s sometimes hard to do, I’ve come to understand that it’s critical to give your developing leaders every opportunity to learn, especially from their mistakes.
In short, I’m proud of our industry and what we’ve done together in the last 12 months.
And I’m really looking forward to the challenges and opportunities of the year to come.
Let’s all move forward, not with fear or uncertainty, but with the confidence and courage that comes from being prepared to manage through change.
John Oxford is president and chief executive officer of L&M Cos., Raleigh, N.C., and a member of the Produce Marketing Association board of directors.
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