Dan Gillotte is the General Manager of Wheatsville Co-op in Austin, Texas. The store was voted ‘Best Neighborhood Grocery’ by the Austin Chronicle’s Readers Poll for six years in a row from 2007-2012. In this interview Dan shares his experiences in core management skills: working through people, accountability, and creating a positive working environment.
Thinking back on your experiences over the years, what story stands out as your greatest accomplishment in managing people?
The thing that comes to mind is about renovating the current store a few years ago. It was an immense project. When we were finished there were many people that were delighted by the new store, but it was such a long and arduous process to get there. We had renovated on site and stayed open the whole time. There were cranes in the parking lot and it was loud and dusty and nasty. We had been through so much, and when we had the party to celebrate it was so satisfying to have people, some of whom were owners of Wheatsville since I was a child, come up and say thank you.
There were also staff members who were proud of the space that we were now working in. It was extremely satisfying. And I was also proud of my management team. I had personal satisfaction because I was the project driver. I conceived it, designed the floor plan, and chose the contractors. I had a lot of help of course, but the choices that I made led to some satisfaction in the end.
So I think I did a good job of bringing people along through the process and getting people to understand why we needed to make a change. Customers were already somewhat satisfied with the store the way it was, and so we had to work through visioning on why we wanted to make it different. For example, how we would make it better, and how to get rid of the parts that made it inefficient. The structure didn’t allow us to live up to our potential or even ensure that we would still be around in the future. We could get left behind because there are other excellent grocers in the area.
We started describing the change in ways that excited people and got them enthusiastic. We made sure that they had time to talk about how they wanted to see a new store. We invited people to come and discuss the new things that they might like, and the parts that they wanted to remain as-is. So when I wrote the vision for the architect, I included all of that. It was one of the first times that I got really clear on having guiding stars to hang a project around. The whole point of the project was to make it easier to shop and easier to work. Having this guide was really helpful because any change we thought about had to meet one or both of those criteria. It was extremely clarifying.
What was the stand-out moment of the project?
When I tell stories about that time the story that I come back to a lot is the way that our management team was really struggling for a while. My team was struggling because the project was taking longer than we had planned, it was getting to be a hot summer, and we were all just tired of the project. We were on raw nerves and getting annoyed with each other. We have this sort of assumption here that we are like a family and we can just snap at each other and it’s no big deal, but it wasn’t working out well in this case. We had a person here named Maggie Bayless. She works for Zing Train, which is a division of the Zingerman’s community of businesses. They started as a deli in Michigan and now they do training as well. They have some amazing organizational culture tools about how to run a business. We invited her down to work on some things with us, and I was venting about how tough it was, and I thought she would pat me on the head and make me feel better. Instead she said it was time to dig deeper, and that made me a little bit mad in a way, but I trusted her. And she explained that the managers needed to find ways to be kind to each other instead of being like a grumpy family. So we built up a well of kindness to support each other and then support everyone else. It was transformational.
The idea that it is not OK to be a raw nerve with your coworkers or your customers stands out. In my case, I deal with staff much more than customers, and I realized that I couldn’t be cranky. Which is not to say that you can’t vent ever, but you are more thoughtful. Sometimes we have a tendency to pick on people, and our lesson from that whole experience is that people need support. It’s our job to support each other and support the staff.
Now every year I tell this story in the summer time, because our fourth quarter is the spring quarter. We are at our wits end around April, so it’s important to tell that story to re-energize.
What have you done to motivate your staff? What specifically has worked?
One example comes from many years ago. We were at a real low point, and things were really difficult between staff and management. People were unhappy with some decisions we had made. There was some rancor going on, and I went away to a conference thinking that I would come back and say to everyone that the negativity is bullshit and I’m gonna kick anyone’s ass who keeps doing it. My attitude was, I’m gonna kick ass to make people positive.
So I went to the conference and I heard other co-op people talking about their stores, and I got up and said that I thought it was nonsense, and gave examples from our store. One woman stood up and said, “well, that wouldn’t happen at our store”. That little moment sort of spoke to me, and showed me how my own negativity was spawning the negativity in others.
So I came back to the store and instead of bringing the negativity, I talked to our management team and encouraged us to all take a more positive approach. We had a conversation about how we could make things better for our staff. We realized that we could set a different tone. Being honest was part of it. I told everyone what I had been thinking about kicking ass, and it helped us get to a sort of epiphany about our attitude.
We then built a managers’ code of conduct, which was a statement about how we behave as managers. Now, all new managers read it, sign it, and commit to it. It’s about treating people, with respect, assuming the best, holding people accountable fairly, etc.
So we actually had meetings with staff, and read the code of conduct to them, and made an oath. It’s such a part of the culture now it’s actually become an after thought, but that moment in time was transformational. We had felt like it was a risky maneuver, and we felt like we would be judged on these things that we were promising, but we were being judged anyway. In the end the staff saw that we had committed openly to these principles. It was a deliberate opening up.
On a related note, there was a time when our staff satisfaction results were going down. The consultant we brought in at the time pulled out one of the themes of our results, and made us aware that management owns staff satisfaction at Wheatsville. She said later that she remembered us all leaning in towards each other saying, “how are we gonna fix this”. She said she really appreciated our attitude. We get good feedback from consultants because they feel that we do the work that we have committed to do.
You must sometimes encounter challenging staff members. How have you handled your biggest challenges?
We had a lot of trouble with staff when we weren’t living up to our own ideals, but since we put in the code of conduct and became a more kind and generous workplace it’s gotten better.
Probably the best thing that we’ve done is get clear on expectations, so when we have a difficult staff person they know that they haven’t taken the opportunities to improve. We haven’t had a termination in the past two or three years where the person didn’t know it was coming or didn’t choose to leave on their own.
Farther back in the past, I would take those staff problems on myself for not being the best manager and not saying what needed to be said.
How about a staff member that was having trouble but then improved?
I had one manager who was a high achiever, but she was really stressed to a maximum frequently, to the point that she wasn’t available for people. She got to the point where she was not responsive, and it wasn’t even really in her character to do that, but the stress was too much.
So about two years ago in a review I said you need to work on this, and I talked to her in weekly meetings, but it wasn’t successful. Then we came to another review, and realized that it was up to me to get her support, and I found a way to get her some mentoring on time management, communication, Poker Face, and some other stuff. It was pivotal. She’s still on board and is performing well. We don’t normally do that, but it was right for the moment.
We also had a success story where someone was not doing well, and they were blaming everything on the system, but when we started the open book management approach, and everyone became accountable, it became clear to that person that they were just not doing what they needed to do. They saw that they didn’t like what they were doing, and they moved on and found something that was better for them. The open book management approach helped the person see “wow, it’s not the system, it’s me”.
In your co-op you can have great products, but if the service is poor then it will affect your business. How do you embed a customer service mindset in your staff?
About six or seven years ago I had been reading the Jim Collins book “Good to Great”, and had taken to heart the idea of embracing what you can win. We have an extremely competitive grocery market in Austin. We have markets selling amazing things, doing amazing things. We can’t be the biggest or cheapest, but I realized that we could win on being the friendliest store in town. So I said to myself we are hoping to be the friendliest store in town, but saying that out loud was embarrassing at first, because at that time we were NOT the friendliest. It was like saying we are going to be on the moon.
But we developed training and systems, we went through our store looking for customer-unfriendly policies that had emerged, and we developed a program called “make-it-right”. So the front line staff now have approval to do what it takes to make a customer happy, and that makes it a better place to work for staff. Staff can make decisions on how to make customers happy without having to go looking for a manager’s approval.
We are on the customers’ side. We really want them to be happy. Since we are a co-op most of our shoppers are owners, so of course we want them to be happy.
But what worked is taking action and putting the stake in the ground to say definitively that we want to be the friendliest store in town. Sometimes now when I have a stupid idea my staff will say, “is that friendly?”. It works to make us accountable to our customers and our staff.
Now the friendly approach is extended to everyone we come into contact with, vendors, people on the street near our store. We want to create a bubble of friendliness in Austin.
The grocery and food business moves fast, and things change. How do you get things done and make things happen over time?
Setting a vision for what we are trying to do and always thinking ahead. We do a fair amount of planning, even ten years ahead. It helps us to remember what our goals are. So for example to grow the deli we need to ensure that the pizza program is going, because that is what drives the growth. We can’t just hang around talking about it.
But more than that, we have a regular weekly meetings. They are about 30-60 minutes. We have a system of keeping track of things week to week. Since we have gotten more disciplined on follow through we tend to get things done a lot better and faster. We now find that when we are dawdling on projects it is because we haven’t held each other accountable in our weekly meetings.
What has been your greatest accomplishment in getting something done?
Starting Open Book Management at Wheatsville is a good example. I had read about it, we had been talking about it, and we could have talked about it for another five years. I took the decision to bring it on board, so we just got started. We had trainers come in, and within the first week of starting the Open Book Management program we were having our first meeting on that theme, and we have been doing it ever since. Now every department has their own forecasting meeting whether I am here or not. It got started in the course of two days.
If we hadn’t just gotten started we would still be talking about it. We let people know that it could be modified as we went along, and that it’s not about being perfect, it’s about starting something. It’s better to start and get moving than to try to get everything perfect before starting.
What motivates you each day to follow the right path?
My career and my personal life are inextricably intertwined, so I will start with business, but it’s not really about business only. A while ago we realized that we weren’t just asking staff to be better employees, but we were asking staff to be better people. And after thinking about it, we articulated that in meetings, and it felt really good to say it out loud. I am a better person at home because we have that conversation at home. It’s about being honest about your feelings and where you are at.
Sometimes I go home, and me and Rosie aren’t in good moods, and there is a temptation to be a jerk, but now I resist that temptation, and in a few minutes we are feeling better.
But why? Why try?
Well, so why do atheists do the right thing when there is no fear of God? It’s more virtuous to do good when you are not afraid, and just because it is the right thing to do. I have a strong sense that people should be kind to each other. All that stuff we learned in school, the Golden Rule, America is great because we accomplish great things together, and all of that. I actually believe it. I cry at the patriotic School House Rock songs. Working together is worth it.
What role models do you have? How have they influenced you?
This may be corny, but Rosie, my wife, taught me something. When we were younger and together she had a reputation amongst some people for being bitchy and mean. So she decided that she wouldn’t have that reputation anymore. She worked on smiling more, being friendlier, and if you talk now to anyone new who knows her, they think it’s absurd that anyone would think she is mean. So from her I learned that just choosing a new behavior can have a huge impact.
I think a lot of times people think they are just pin balls that bounce from experience to experience, but we have control over our attitude. We get to decide how we are going to be.
Often people have negative experiences that shape how they don’t want to be. It’s like the experience had such a highly negative impact that we strive for the exact opposite. Do you have any experience like that?
For certain, the reason why I am so patriotic and almost corny about it is because of my Dad. He taught me those ideals of the American way. And my mom, I have always been amazed at what she accomplished with four kids. I think about these thanksgiving dinners that she put on, and she did it all for tons of people. It looked great, it tasted great, and everything was cheerful.
But my parents also used to get into these intense verbal fights, and then go through what seemed like months not talking to each other. They were pretty hard on each other, and that kind of affected me. That was a building block for me. Seeing people treat each other poorly, it framed things for me. I didn’t want to be like that.
At work I have seen people feel like, “Why don’t people trust me’, or “why don’t people respect me?”. It was because they weren’t trustworthy or worthy of respect. There are real assholes out there, and people will treat you like one if you are one. You have to work at being respected and trusted. I have to do that at home and at work.
What are you most proud of?
Two components. I am proud of the relationship that I have with Rosie, and the team that we have become. I think that we generally work like the perfect ideal of the vision for the USA. We work for the betterment of our little society and community. We don’t undermine each other, and we move our mutual and individual wants and needs forward. I am really proud of the team that we are.
And that team that we are was able to go through all of the challenges of adopting our daughter, Jojo. We were never quite sure what was going to happen. We were in it to make it happen, but the whims of the state could have changed that at any time. We had in our minds that we are a family, and there was never any doubt in anyone’s mind about what we were.
So I am really proud of what I have personally accomplished and what Wheatsville has accomplished. It was not my life’s plan to be a grocer, and yet the satisfaction that I get out of working, I just feel really lucky to be here. What we have created at Wheatsville and in the co-op world, I just feel good about my contribution.
When I think about an artist’s body of work, you can see threads and trends. Now I can see that in my work life. I can see how the things I did made things happen. It didn’t happen by accident. We made it happen, and I did some things to lay the ground work. Maybe that sounds egotistical, but I can see what I created. People walk into a place and think it just happened. It doesn’t work that way.
All drawings ©2013 Joan Reilly