February 2024
Strong leadership breeds success: Are you ready to step up? By Stan Pohmer

Being prepared to adapt to the changing environment will help position your IGC for growth.

At retail garden centers, change is constant; it’s an integral component of your business’s DNA. But the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated and intensified the scope, depth and rapidity of the changes we faced — some government-mandated, others necessitated by the cultural and societal changes experienced by the impact of work changes and consumer spending changes. During the pandemic, the only options we had were to change to stay in business or else simply stagnate.

We were fortunate that leaders in our industry made the needed changes, and consumers responded well. Post-pandemic, however, consumers have become extremely hard for retailers (and the rest of the supply chain) to read. In the months leading up to the 2023 Christmas selling season, consumer spending was trending downward, with consumers focused almost exclusively on basic and essential categories.

But then in November and December, consumers opened their wallets and, as I write this in December before the final holiday sales numbers are in, it appears that sales well exceeded expectations.

In December 2023, Wall Street analysts asked Walmart’s CEO what he was forecasting for sales in 2024. His response was that he couldn’t make a credible forecast because he didn’t know which customer would show up — the one with the confidence to spend or the one influenced by all the negative externalities, obstacles and barriers, such as partisan politics, continued fear of inflation, concern over international wars and hot spots and U.S. involvement, and fiscal policies that will impact their lives today and in the future.

Bottom line: He knew changes will have to be made to address consumer behavior; he just had little idea what those behaviors will be. In other words, the strategic vision, the end goal identified by the leader, is fixed; how to achieve that goal is not, based on the often very fluid environment that exists as you start implementation of your tactics.

Management Versus Leadership

Some time ago, I read that great managers look inward — inside the company and the individuals in it. They focus on operational execution and the differences in styles, goals, needs and motivations of their employees, guiding them toward the right ways to release each person’s unique talents into performance.

Great leaders, on the other hand, look outward — out at the competition, out at the environment his/her company will have to make changes and direction in. Then, they press home their advantage where the resistance is weakest. They must be visionaries, strategic thinkers and activators.

Chances are you unconsciously used a combination of both leadership and managerial skills in the past few years, with more emphasis on managing the situation at hand. But as you look forward to positioning your company to take advantage of the renewed growth potential we want, leadership will be more critical.

It’s been said that leaders are born, but management can be taught; you either were a born leader or not. Unfortunately, this is reinforced in all the business grad schools, with most focused solely on the development of management skills and the application of management theory. There aren’t too many courses taught on leadership.

I disagree with this thinking. I believe that both leadership and management can be learned and taught.

Principles of Leadership

You’ve heard it before: “When things get tough, call in the Marines!” Why? Because they are the best prepared — both from a leadership and a situational awareness management and execution standpoint — with the best odds of success. U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) officers are taught to be leaders because it’s recognized that operational execution is only one (albeit important) part of their reason for success.

There are 11 Leadership Principles that are taught in the USMC for officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) that make a lot of sense for business leaders, too:

  1. Know yourself and seek improvement.
  2. Be technically and tactically proficient.
  3. Know your Marines and look out for their welfare.
  4. Keep your Marines informed.
  5. Set the example.
  6. Ensure the task is understood, supervised and completed.
  7. Train your Marines as a team.
  8. Make sound and timely decisions.
  9. Develop a sense of responsibility among your subordinates.
  10. Employ your command in accordance with its capabilities.
  11. Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions.

Think any of these just might be applicable to the leaders in your business?

As I mentioned earlier, leadership is important, but managing the situation you’re presented with is also critical, and the USMC training doesn’t stop with leadership. While the Marines aren’t running a business per se, they must react to situations not always of their own creation and then adapt their responses situationally, much like you do in your company.

Noted business author David H. Freedman recognized the management strengths of Marine officers and studied this in depth, resulting in his book “Corp Business: The 30 Management Principles of the USMC.” Many of these principles have direct application to any business.

Some of my favorites are:

  • Aim for the 70% solution. You’ll never have all the parts and pieces figured out, so assess as much of the situation as possible, then be decisive; you can always adapt as you execute.
  • Use the Rule of Three. Prioritize; it’s difficult to maintain focus and execute well on more than three things at a time.
  • Build authority-on-demand into the hierarchy. Maintain the management pyramid, but empower at the lowest levels.
  • Distribute competence. Educate, train and cross-train in job responsibilities to give you flexibility and improved effectiveness.
  • Keep plans simple and flexible. The more complex the plan is, the more rigid and married to the plan you become, aking it difficult to adjust when you need to.

The stories about the rigorous training that Marines go through are legendary. The goal of this intense training, however, is not to make life miserable for the individuals, but to allow them to practice their leadership and management skills so that, when they are called upon to act, these learned behaviors are instinctive. They are prepared for virtually any situation and can adapt to the changing environment better than their competition can.

While I’m not suggesting that you turn your business into a Marine boot camp or manage your teams like they are raw recruits, there’s a lot to learn from both their leadership and management training and practices — things that you as a business owner can adopt and use to both your personal and professional development. One thing you can’t argue with are the achievements and successes of the Marine Corps, and much of that is the result of their principles and training. This is why former active-duty Marine Corps officers are among the most sought-after and successful business leaders.

Keep It Simple

I was a senior executive at Target some years ago when it was rapidly growing through both new store construction and acquisition of distressed regional chains. CEO Bob Ulrich instilled a new culture to help the headquarters and store teams manage the challenges of this rapid expansion and manage the growth. Nicknamed “Fast, Fun and Friendly,” it emphasized how we would all treat our guests and teammates in a fun and fast-paced environment, while creating a sense of urgency in all of our actions and activities.

Bob led by example and emphasized two key elements of what became integral to the corporate DNA and demonstrated the work ethic he expected everyone at headquarters to approach everything they did, communicated in two simple phrases: Speed Is Life and Ready, Fire, Aim. Both guideposts pointed to not over-planning things, but getting ahead of the competition after the launch, once you had a better idea of any challenges and more current situations. These can be equated to the USMC principles of the 70% solution, situational awareness and keeping plans simple and flexible.

The USMC and Target have both proven, time and again, that strong leadership breeds success. Our industry needs more leaders to help make us more successful. Ready to step up? Semper Fi!

For an enhanced reading experience, view this article in our digital edition.

Stan Pohmer

Stan Pohmer is president of Pohmer Consulting Group in Minnetonka, Minnesota. He can be reached at [email protected].