The Shelby Report and The Grocery Group have introduced a new series entitled People to Watch that focuses on current and future leadership in the grocery industry. In this installment, The Grocery Group Founder and CEO Cindy Sorensen interviews Marie Otto, assistant category manager for deli occasions, Kroger. Sorensen’s questions are in bold.
Tell me a little bit about you and what you like to do with your time away from the office.
My passions are well balanced between work and home. When I am not working, my husband, Michael, and I are usually exploring the outdoors or historical/educational venues with our children. We have a large family: Darian (24), Aubrey (9), Benjamin (7), Colette (3) and Elizabeth (1). We recently relocated and are enjoying our new home city of Cincinnati.
Provide a brief description of Kroger.
Kroger is America’s largest grocery retailer. We have nearly a half-million associates, 2,800 stores and serve 9 million customers daily. We are working to end hunger and waste in our communities by 2025 and were named sixth on Fortune magazine’s “Change the World 2018” list. The company was started by Barney Kroger in 1883, and we have never lost his original vision to provide our customers with the best experience at the best price. What began with a horse-drawn carriage has evolved to home delivery as we continue to innovate to better serve our customers’ needs.
What is your role at Kroger? What are your responsibilities?
I recently was promoted to the role of assistant category manager for deli occasions. This is a supportive role managing several categories, including Starbucks, holiday meals, in-store made party trays, online ordering, hot soup bar, salad bars, fountain beverages and cold Chef on the Run. My primary role is to analyze data and provide strategic direction while leveraging relationships between cross-functional teams in our organization and with our many partners.
What was your career path to this position?
I started as a courtesy clerk almost 15 years ago at Ralphs, which is the Kroger banner in California. What began as a part-time job has turned into a passion. I moved up through multiple roles to general merchandise department head and then front-end manager. I transferred to Fry’s in Arizona and continued to progress through the front end and then into management. I transferred to Kroger in Louisville, Kentucky, and, eventually, became a meat coordinator. Four years ago, I became a store manager, managing four stores, including a Marketplace. In May of this year, I was promoted to my current role at Kroger’s General Office in Cincinnati, Ohio.
What do you see as the greatest opportunities for workforce and leadership development within the grocery industry?
I think one of the greatest opportunities is to have the foresight to predict and prepare for the future needs of our customers. This challenge compounds as we work to develop leaders for specialized roles in advance of the need for those roles. By identifying and giving focused training prior to the opportunity, future leaders are better prepared to accelerate quickly.
In what ways does Kroger focus on developing future leadership?
Kroger has an extensive development program for all levels within the organization. From new hire to executive development and everything in between, Kroger nurtures and helps leaders grow. We have strong successor planning where leaders are identified, and plans are put in place to help them develop toward future roles. We have mentorship programs, associate resource groups that host learning events and internal courses that teach soft skills, like how to lead through others and organizing for success, in addition to the hard skills, like how to run a register and bag groceries.
Do you personally play a role in helping to develop/coach/mentor future leadership in the industry either internally or externally?
Yes, internally. As both a meat coordinator and a store manager, I had the awesome responsibility to identify and develop many current and future leaders in our stores. As a meat coordinator, I developed and taught multiple courses on leadership and forward thinking in addition to best practices. As a store manager, I was able to invest in my store leaders daily. I am proud to have had the opportunity to make a difference both for individuals that I have mentored as well as for the organization.
Did you utilize or participate in any mentoring/coaching experiences as you developed your career?
Yes. I have had some amazing mentors over the years, people who shared their learnings and insights, who guided me when I needed help seeing the next step. One experience, a women’s leadership development group at Fry’s, was instrumental in preparing me to move into management and really laid the foundation for every role that was to come. They say that if you give a woman a fish, she can eat for a day, but if you teach that woman how to fish, she can eat for the rest of her life. The women in that program taught me to believe in myself, how to present myself professionally and how to continue to push myself toward reaching my goals.
What advice do you have for college students and young professionals looking at the grocery industry as one where they can build a career?
Our industry will change as the world changes. Where and how you shop will change. Safe food that is sustainably grown and sourced will always be in demand. The grocery industry is a world within a world: manufacturing; merchandising; operations on a corporate, district and store level; human resources, marketing, real estate, etc. There are so many opportunities to advance and grow, you never have to feel bored or stuck.
What pieces of advice did you receive as you built your career to this point that you found most helpful?
I struggle with a desire for perfection and to fully control the outcome of the projects for the areas that I am responsible. A mentor taught me:
- It is OK to make mistakes but learn quickly.
- If you aren’t making mistakes, then you aren’t going fast enough.
While mistakes are still undesirable, and I will always pursue perfection, his advice freed me to look up, past the details, to see the vision and pursue success through a wider lens.
What else would you like the readers of The Shelby Report to know about you, your employer and/or other relevant industry information and insights?
If you have a passion for people and a desire to truly make a difference in our world, the opportunities at Kroger are endless. We have amazing people in every store and every building. It never ceases to amaze me that in every city and state that I have worked I have had the opportunity to make deep connections with some incredible people.