Nearly every business leader and HR executive can agree that one of the most important assets to a company or organization is its leadership. From the front lines to the boardroom, our leaders keep us up and running through massive growth or economic downturns.

For the food industry, leaders can do the most good or most harm when it comes to keeping food safe and profits growing. No technology or regulation will help keep our food supplies and bottom line healthy if a company fails to foster and retain good leaders (see “Ten Characteristics of a Great Leader,”). However, we also know how tough it is to prevent our best and brightest leaders from seeking other opportunities should they become stagnant or frustrated in their jobs. It’s equally difficult to identify future leaders using a conventional interview process.

Fortunately for TruFoodMfg, that hasn’t been a problem. Over the past 10 years, we have grown our employee base from 20 to more than 600. And in the last 5 years, during the height of our growth, we’ve managed to retain 95 percent of our leaders.

We retain leaders by creating loyalty through an open and honest work environment with a clear and progressive path to advancement and professional growth. Specifically, here are some steps we’ve taken to help develop and retain leaders:  

1. Start with the Handshake
We identify future leaders by building trust and an open line of communication from the very beginning, starting with the phone screen and job interview.

Ten Characteristics of a Great Leader

As we work to hire new leaders and promote leaders from within, we generally look for a common set of leadership traits and characteristics. These are important because it’s easier to train people to be better leaders than to create new ones.

Employees and new applicants who have these traits will grow more quickly as leaders and advance faster within their ranks.  

1.    Empathy – This is often overlooked as an essential leadership trait, but it is incredibly important to be able to put yourself in the emotional shoes of your employees, to imagine their feelings and to understand what makes them tick. This helps us make decisions for the greatest good.  

2.    Positive Attitude – Enthusiasm is contagious. You can almost immediately identify your future leaders who are positive about their jobs and their role in the company. And you can see their attitudes catch on and ripple through their departments.

3.    Open and Honest Communication – True leaders will give employees the information they need to make informed decisions in their jobs. By withholding information, we only breed distrust. This doesn’t mean sharing confidential information, but rather making sure employees understand what’s going on in the business so they can make the most informed decisions in their daily work.

4.    Integrity – If your employees don’t trust you, if they don’t think you’re working in their best interest, they won’t follow you. Trust is key in every part of the workforce.

5.    Emotional Intelligence – This is the ability to absorb and process information to make rational decisions. A lot of employees and leaders let their emotions get the better of them. And their negative emotions impact and spread to others. It’s about staying cool and keeping a level head in any situation.      

6.    The Ability to Inspire – Workers gravitate to leaders who inspire greatness instead of intimidating or threatening them in their jobs. A leader who inspires will be rewarded with loyalty from employees who will go that extra mile.  

7.    Tenacity – This is an important trait to help you and your employees work through problems. Instead of making excuses, leaders look for solutions and resources to help overcome adversity.

8.    Creativity – We look for leaders who can think outside the box and come up with creative solutions to problems. Those leaders inspire their employees to do the same. This is about identifying leaders who tell you “I already did it” versus asking “What do I need to do?”

9.    Intelligence – Obviously, it’s important to hire smart people. But it’s also important to identify people who know how to solve problems and define new solutions.

10.    Intuition and Instinct – There is no road map to being a leader. You can attend ten different leadership courses that will teach you ten different ways to handle an issue. But sometimes it comes down to intuition and instinct.

We follow a uniquely candid and casual interview process because we want candidates to be their true selves. We tell candidates to not worry about answering a question correctly, just answer it. And we encourage them to relax and ask any questions that come to mind. This approach enables us to know early on if they have leadership skills or traits that can be developed. These characteristics might otherwise remain hidden if they’re worried about the interview.  

In return, we are very open and honest about the job, our expectations and what’s needed to be successful with the company. A lot of companies clamp down during the interview process, causing candidates to misrepresent themselves or hide their best qualities. We like to get everything on the table for a relaxing, engaging and revealing conversation.

2. Show the Path to Success
One of the first things we do at new-hire orientation is to demonstrate the opportunity for growth within the organization. We introduce company leaders and share their history of advancement, proving that the new employees can also succeed with a plan that is understandable and achievable. It’s about creating a vision of opportunity, which helps them realize that there are no ceilings to prevent them from growing with the company and having the company grow with them.

3. Turn Feedback into Action
We have created an environment where leaders can contribute ideas and solutions to problems. This is done in the form of quarterly leadership communication meetings, regular HR roundtable discussions and recurrent continuous improvement exercises in which leaders at all levels come together to troubleshoot organizational issues ranging from consumer complaints to enhancing work-safe practices.   

The idea here is that no policy or practice gets put into place without feedback and buy-in from leaders. We find that employees are excited to support new initiatives that they themselves have been a part of creating.  

Nurturing an environment in which leaders at all levels feel and see that their voices are being heard helps create a sense of investment in the overall success of the company.  

4. Maintain Constant Coaching
A lot of companies choose to provide managers with feedback during annual performance reviews. We prefer a weekly cadence. We meet with our managers every week to discuss how they’re progressing against their performance plans. Rather than talk about what happened earlier in the year, we discuss what happened just days ago while the topic is fresh. We talk about interactions with employees or other management, or how they dealt with a certain issue or situation.

This constant state of leadership assessment helps managers make real-time improvements and request additional guidance if needed. Feedback is best provided and received in this way, rather than waiting for that 1-year assessment that determines advancement and pay increases or promotions.

With weekly meetings, senior management also has an opportunity to serve in a mentoring capacity, making them more approachable to ask questions or discuss issues. We also use training programs to ensure employees and managers alike are up to date on the latest processes and policies.  

5. Foster Transparency
One of the most effective steps we’ve taken to maintain leaders is developing a culture of openness. We strive to keep a clear and open line of communication on everything from financial performance to customer service and satisfaction. We believe that keeping employees in the dark translates into doubt and suspicion.

Many of our employees are surprised by our level of openness and staff involvement in topics that employees at other companies don’t have access to. The shared level of knowledge across the entire company keeps everyone more engaged. Our leaders—and our employees—feel like they’re part of a movement, not part of a machine.

6. Don’t Overthink the Millennials
So much has been written about how to attract and develop millennials. But at the end of the day, no matter their generation, all employees want an open and honest work environment with a clear path to success.

With so much of the food industry operating out of plants, it’s nearly impossible to provide that cool work environment with work-at-home arrangements, team-building events, sleep pods or ping-pong tables supposedly key in holding on to millennials.

But you can keep an open line of communication. Show respect at all levels. Value their feedback and help them understand how to advance with the company. This comprehensive approach will be valued by true leaders of all ages who develop a sense of investment in and long-term commitment to the company.     

The author thanks Alchemy Systems for contributing its expertise on training.

Dan Stephenson, M.B.A., is the human resources director of TruFoodMfg based in Pittsburgh, PA.