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Joanne Bennett-McNally created connections with her employees by listening to them and won their hearts in the process

It was my honour to take part in selecting this year’s Grocer Gold Store Manager of the Year, mostly because it gave me the opportunity to meet the remarkable and capable Joanne Bennett-McNally. As my fellow judges correctly pointed out, there was no shortage of store managers going above and beyond to meet the unique challenges this year presented. But while that made for one of the more crowded competitions in the four years I’ve been participating in this award, Joanne clearly distinguished herself.

Joanne’s story reinforces the value of an empathetic approach to leadership and how a commitment to forging connections to both customers and employees can help overcome even the most dire challenges.

As many of you know, I started my career with Tesco (as did Joanne, but that didn’t influence my judging, honest). And I can tell you from experience, large grocery stores like the Morrisons Widnes location are like battleships. They require platoons of employees to operate, and they change direction slowly, with tonnes of effort. Because of this, most store managers are true captains, combining a top-down leadership style with excellent delegation skills to run the tightest ship they can.

Click here to find out why Joanne Bennett-McNally won and watch our live interview on demand

These managers also tend to be process-focused. If a store has four problem areas – financial, operational, customer service and employee morale – they’ll focus on what they can fix with a system. New software for inventory issues. Stricter budgetary controls to shore up the P&L. And when challenges arise, they’ll lean on their systemic approach to navigate them.

Joanne took a different tack. Faced with the biggest challenge the industry has ever encountered, she reacted by “asking more, listening more and responding more”. She focused on the one problem area that a fancy new system couldn’t address – employee morale – and transformed her store into a workplace that took care of its team, which in turn took care of its customers. She created connections with her employees by listening to them and responding to their needs and won their hearts in the process.

She did all this while dealing with all-too-common Covid-related personal hurdles: she was restricted from seeing her elderly parents, and her kids’ school closed. But even as she had to pull back to care for her family, her commitment to her store and her team never wavered. To Morrisons’ credit, it supported Joanne through this tough time by offering flexible and reduced hours, reaffirming its investment in people.

As judges, we got the chance to reaffirm the value of empathetic leadership and authentic connections by making Joanne the first female winner of Store Manager of the Year. No one could be more deserving.

While meeting Joanne prompted me to reflect on the best way to manage a grocery store, watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix made me think about a new way to run a grocery business. Buried in this cautionary tale about the evils of social media is an approach to managing KPIs I think we can emulate… but that’s a story for my next column.