The Produce Aisle with Armand Lobato ( Photo by Pamela Riemenschneider )

Can you think of one good leadership trait?

One comes instantly to my mind: Management by walking around. I once worked with a CEO who loved to slip out of the main office, away from the quiet of headquarters, where the thick carpet and frosted windows seemingly insulated the home office from the grocery chain activity. 

He would wander through stores at any time of day between meetings. No entourage, just him. We never knew if the CEO would stop in at a random store to buy lunch. And after a while, nobody was surprised if he suddenly surfaced, poking through boxes in some meat cutting room or stopped to chat with a produce clerk setting up a wet rack.

That’s my kind of leader.

This came to mind recently as I exchanged e-mails with a Toronto-based executive who described himself as “not your stereotypical director of produce.” This produce leader said he spends a minimum of one hour in a nearby store before heading into the office each day. 

Talk about hands-on.

In fact, my produce director mentor did the same thing. Perhaps not every day, but at least two or three times a week, Mike would stop in a store, usually in the early hours of the morning.

Mike always began the week with a Monday meeting at our warehouse that included the buyers and his retail produce specialists. Before the meeting he walked the warehouse. What was he looking for? Several points of interest to Mike were the same things he reviewed as a buyer: Shipper labels, receiving dates, quality of produce in the pick slots as well as product on the receiving dock.

Our director didn’t dwell on anything for long. Often he might zero in on hot-button items, focusing on seasonal fare or any produce that might be especially volatile. Along the way he greeted everyone from forklift drivers to lumpers.

In the stores, Mike did the same thing with stockers and customers. If he didn’t recognize a produce clerk he went out of his way on his store visit to introduce himself, hand the stocker his business card and encourage the clerk to let him know if there was ever anything he could do. If he saw anything amiss he brought it to the produce manager’s attention. One call was usually all it took to correct an issue.

How many produce directors do that?

But Mike wasn’t just a goodwill ambassador when he visited stores. Remembering the shipper labels and quality he saw earlier in the week, his eye could follow the produce as it funneled through the supply chain in subsequent visits. 

And like the CEO, you never knew when he might drop by any store.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 40 years’ experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail him at