It Doesn’t Have to Be Lonely at the Top

Mentoring word cluster

When I became general manager of Outpost Natural Foods in 1986, I had already been working at the co-op for seven years doing ordering, receiving, merchandising, marketing, managing, and assisting the general manager (GM) with board work. So naturally that made me the prime candidate for the GM job, since I was already skilled in operations, right?

I sure had hoped the answer to that question would be “yes,” as I felt only somewhat prepared for the bigger job ahead. But as the weeks and months passed, I anxiously wondered when someone was going to discover how I really felt about the job: I felt as though I was “faking it” through each day.

From faking it to making it

At this point, enter in the board’s wisdom. I was lucky enough back in the day to have board members who were vested in my success as general manager, and so they found a business person in the community to coach me and help build my business acumen. I refer to this relationship as Mentor1.0: “the board looking out for the development of the general manager.” While my mentor didn’t know the co-op structure or retail grocery very well, he was able to assess my skills and abilities and advise me in how I could improve and become more skilled for the job. This worked pretty well for me and helped me understand what a higher level of managing really meant.

After Mentor1.0 finished his gig with me, I was still struggling to understand some of the nuances of retail operations and getting the co-op back to profitability following our store relocation. Enter in Mentor2.0: “an experienced peer in the co-op sector who wants to pass along their experience to others.” Many readers may be familiar with his name, Howard Bowers, since today there is a co-op educational fund set up in his memory. 

Howard invited me and our management team down to his store in Chicago and spent the day with us helping grow our knowledge in labor management, margin control, and building profitability. Seeing an experienced peer in action was amazing to me and I soaked up as much information as I could. We kept in touch over the years, and he continued to help me evaluate what I knew and what I needed to know to as general manager of a growing organization.

While there were other peers, coaches, workshops and mentors for me throughout my now thirty-two years as general manager, I want to point out the third type of relationship of my choosing, Mentor3.0: “the person selected by the general manager to teach them accelerated skill sets.” In my case I really needed to learn more about strategic planning and how to build a multi-year plan that included growth strategies, goals and measurements, and inspiration to lead my co-op towards that future vision.

Mentoring can make a difference

I tell my story not only because I’ve now taken on a new role of coach and mentor with CDS Consulting Services, but because I’m not alone in my experience. Many newer and some tenured general managers are either at the Mentor1.0 situation, where the board is intervening, or Mentor2.0, where they are looking for help from other general managers. Every general manager deserves to reach Mentor3.0, where the knowledge desired is part of their plan for their personal and professional development. Mentoring can make a difference.

Mentoring or coaching is a relationship between two individuals: one person who has knowledge and experience to give, the other who needs knowledge, information, or skillsets in various areas of the job, in order to succeed. A mentor or coach (and I use the terms interchangeably) is someone who understands the job and all of the challenges built into that role. A mentor can also be a confidant, someone who can listen and discuss issues a general manger may not be able to discuss with anyone else at their co-op. Overall, a mentor relationship is one where both parties are invested in the learning and development of the person seeking out that coaching relationship. 

A few examples of mentoring topics that I’ve covered in my work with CDS and in some peer relationships I have as a general manager include:

  Assessment of skillsets including financial management and planning, problem solving, negotiation, collaboration, project management, managing growth, facilitation skills, leading a team, learning from challenges, and many other topics:

  Agenda planning and running meetings

  Accountability, both how to hold direct reports accountable 

and how to be accountable to the board

  Time management, assessing and prioritizing
the workload, and getting things done

  Building confidence

  Board relationships and reporting 

  Union relationships and win-win bargaining

Any of those topics would work for a general manager who is newer in their role or for a more tenured general manager. On the tenured end of the spectrum, more time may be spent taking a deeper dive into trouble-shooting specific topics or challenging circumstances, building next level skillsets of strategic planning or report writing, or effectively managing a variety of relationships.

The time it takes to invest in a mentor or coaching relationship will vary. Starting with a skill assessment, potentially a site visit, and ongoing support of growing skills and abilities could take from 18–25 hours of regular support over a multi-month period of time. A deeper dive into a single topic could be as little as 5–10 hours in a much shorter period of time. The great thing about setting up a mentor relationship is that it is customizable to the general manager’s needs, keeping room for the discoverable—which I like to refer to as, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

The experience I’ve had with the mentors and coaches in my life have led me to this point: I get really energized seeing my peers build confidence, build stronger relationships, and aim high to succeed. Is a mentor relationship right for you? •

“My time working with a GM mentor has been extremely valuable as a new general manager. I’m able to draw on the experience they have to help me develop my own skills and knowledge of the job. A mentor has helped me keep the big picture management in mind and not get stuck in the weeds. Perhaps even most importantly, a GM mentor provides an objective perspective on how I am doing, from constructive critiques to honest praise about the things I do well that I might overlook. All of this adds to my self-confidence that I can do this challenging job, and to have some patience and compassionate for myself.” 

—Miles Uchida, general manager, Food Front Co-op (Portland, Oregon)