Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle Q. When do I advise someone not to be a produce manager?
A. When they aren’t ready.
The topic came up recently at a family gathering. I have a 20-something niece that works for a local chain. She just shifted from her assistant bakery manager position to the produce department. That wasn’t a surprise. She’s a fast learner and hard worker. She’ll do well, I thought.
The surprise came when I asked what her role was.
“I’m the assistant produce manager.” She said.
I never make judgments when a manager goes from one department to another. Some skills transfer well from one area to another. And I have seen many people at various levels (with little experience in an appointed role) take on the challenge and succeed.
Given time, that is. Her next statement was more of a shocker: “I’m on a fast-track. They want me to be a produce manager within a few months.”
“You tell them that that won’t work,” I said. “You might be able to learn the ropes without experience in a backup role but before a person becomes a department manager they need to work in produce for years before they’re ready.”
She looked confused.
“How many years? I’m learning a lot every day.”
“Depends on the person,” I answered. “For some people it may only take two years, others take much longer. You have to understand so many aspects of the job: ordering, merchandising, product knowledge, labor planning, training, budgets. The list goes on, and it requires much more experience than just a few months.”
There’s good reason to avoid pushing someone too quickly.
Popular comedian Jeff Dunham explained it well in his autobiography, “All By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed and Me.” After years of working his way up and performing at lesser venues, Dunham was promised a shot at the big time, “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” in late 1988. But Dunham was abruptly cut from the schedule, hours before show time. He was told that his act just wasn’t ready yet.
The show’s co-producer Jim McCawley shared this piece of advice with the now world-famous performer. He consoled Dunham by saying “It’s better to be five years late than one day early.”
What is true for a high-level entertainer also is true for someone whose more ordinary aspiration may be to manage a produce department: If you aren’t completely ready when you step on that stage, it’s going to be blatantly obvious and failure is likely. It could very well mean you will not get a second chance.
“Two years minimum?” my niece asked.
“Or longer,” I reminded her. “Remember: Better five years late than one day early.”
Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions.
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