“Executive leaders need to recognize that burnout’s real and that no one is going to approach you saying they’re burned out. They may feel it’s a sign of weakness and keep it to themselves. Leaders need to ask about it proactively. Dig in to what’s happening and how people feel.” – Joe Jeffries, CEO, Westlake Ace

With the holiday season swinging into high gear, a number of variables are at play this year, from inflation to staffing issues to shifting consumer demands. Many retailers are scrambling to rebalance inventory levels and adjust their projections to align with changing shopping habits. As one new study shows, rising costs are affecting holiday shopping decisions, with 73% of Americans saying they’re paying closer attention to how much they’re spending on gifts this year versus last year.

Despite this, consumers remain eager to shop — and the brick-and-mortar store remains a draw. Recent research reinforces just how important the in-store experience is: After a positive experience, 82% of shoppers return and 64% spend more each time they visit.

All of this means that it’s crunch time for retailers.

Of course, ask any retail leader and they’ll tell you it’s been crunch time for more than two years running now. Looking back over this incredibly challenging period, it’s heartening to see how they have stepped up to the challenge. They’ve implemented new business practices, learning, and perfecting on the fly as external conditions have continued to throw new curve balls their way. They’ve juggled staffing gaps and supply chain disruptions to keep customers happy and loyal under uniquely difficult circumstances.

Now, they’re facing yet another critically important task: keeping their team members engaged — and keeping everyone from burning out.

We’ve talked about hiring and selection strategies for the busy holiday months, but that’s only the beginning of the story. We also need to make sure leaders are prepared to retain their new team members and take care of those who are tenured and have been loyal to the company through all of the recent ups and downs. And your leaders can’t do that effectively if they’re feeling burned out themselves.

We recently caught up with Mike Van Lente, Executive Leader of Global Learning & Development at Whole Foods Market, and Joe Jeffries, CEO at Westlake Ace, to explore the risks of burnout, what can be done to prevent it, and how leaders can prevent burnout with their direct reports and front-line staff.

Are Your Retail Leaders At Risk of Burnout?

The short answer is, yes.

Retail leaders have been stretched way beyond the boundaries of their comfort zones, and their coaching and leadership skills have been put to the test. Every day is a balancing act of managing for accountability and leading with compassion. They are acutely aware that, even if the stores and DCs remain short-staffed, standards have to be met. But leading both the operations and the human side of the business effectively requires resiliency, emotional intelligence, and, for many, a new level of interpersonal skill.

Multiunit leaders, in particular, have been stretched the most.

With responsibility for leading those who manage the customer-facing employees, district and regional leaders have the largest scope of influence within the organization, and on any given day, it’s a lot of pressure. They have to influence and model the expectations and behaviors of the company so that it cascades down to their store leaders and department teams, and from there to the front-line workers.

They must also report up and seek support and guidance from their bosses and corporate to ensure the vision and initiatives are translated into a language their teams can understand and commit to at a local level.

That’s all during a normal year. Over the past several decidedly not-so-normal years, these multiunit leaders have also been the glue holding the teams together in a learn-as-we-go-and-grow environment. It’s not surprising they’re at high risk of burnout. But burnout is not inevitable.

Your multiunit leaders are counting on the organization to pay it forward by supporting them and providing the learning and development and upskilling they need to survive in this ever-changing environment. Investing in them is important, and they need to feel that they’re being invested in.

What does this mean in practice?

Allow them the opportunity to grow and be vulnerable in trying on new skills in safe learning environment.

Give them the venue to share their challenges and best practices with their peers who are dealing with the same challenges.

Whether it’s in training workshops, group share or peer ideation sessions, or via group or individual coaching, human interaction is critical. It can be virtual or in person, but the time to practice skills and model what is expected in a safe learning — not proving — environment is key.

Preventing Retail Burnout: The Link Between Development and Engagement

Amid high turnover and persistent staffing shortages, it’s not unusual to hear executives say, Why should I invest in them if they are not going to stay? 

That is old world thinking.

Today, you need to invest to retain and grow your talent. Creating opportunities for learning and advancement is fundamental to building self-confidence and keeping people engaged. And that’s fundamental to your business. If your employees aren’t engaged, it will directly affect the customer experience.

“We know from our annual engagement survey that our team members’ overall engagement is linked with their perception of growth opportunities and the quality of the training they receive,” says Whole Foods Market’s Van Lente. “We also often hear team members say they joined Whole Foods Market as a part-time gig, and 20 years later they have made a successful career with us.”

Now is a good time to evaluate the development opportunities you’re offering people at all levels of the organization. Often, there’s a disproportionate amount happening for the few — high-potentials or select populations.

There needs to be a mindset shift to invest in all. High-potentials still need training so they don’t slip into complacency, but not at the exclusion of others, particularly the front line, which is often the most diverse workforce, and the most overlooked when it comes to development opportunities, according to a recent Gallup and Amazon study.

For Whole Foods Market team members, it starts at the very beginning: with onboarding. While the pandemic and social distancing forced the company to streamline onboarding and move it mostly online, Van Lente says they’ve now launched a new program, and it’s firmly rooted in mission and values.

“It brings back more connections to what makes Whole Foods Market unique, including our strong focus on purpose, quality and creating win/win relationships for all of our stakeholders.” He adds that two of the program’s modules, Culture Connections and Career Connections, “are designed to give our newest members continued exposure over their first 90-days to the limitless possibilities for achieving purpose and growing in their careers.”

The company is also giving them the tools they need to pursue those career goals, including through Career Development Leadership Programs for each of the core leader positions in the store.

“These programs are designed to develop aspiring leaders to prepare for their next leadership role before having to step into that role,” Van Lente explains. “This pre-role development gives team members the confidence to go for the promotions. It also helps Whole Foods build a strong bench of leaders that are ready as positions become available.”

Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late: Retail Leadership Strategies to Prevent Burnout

Development goes a long way toward demonstrating that you care about and have a vested interest in your people. When they feel you’re prioritizing their growth, it helps build their commitment and passion for the work.

Even so, the high-pressure whirlwind of retail can push anyone to their limits. And if you wait around for someone to tell you they’re at the end of their rope, it’s going to be too late.

“Executive leaders need to recognize that burnout’s real and that no one is going to approach you saying they’re burned out,” says Westlake Ace’s Jeffries. “They may feel it’s a sign of weakness and keep it to themselves. Leaders need to ask about it proactively. Dig in to what’s happening and how people feel.”

Whole Foods Market has launched a unique mentorship program that pairs aspiring team members with a leader that can help them define and achieve their goals. According to Van Lente, it’s already making a difference.

“We have seen early correlations that team members engaged in the Cultivate Mentorship report higher levels of ‘intent to stay’ from our weekly engagement pulse survey tool.”

It’s important to remember that associates run the gamut in terms of what personally motivates them.

Understanding those motivations is key to being able to inspire and encourage each person and meet them where they are. It also gives the leader the insight and information they need in order to flex to the leadership role that’s needed for that person.

Particularly in crunch times, even the best retail leaders can get stuck in “management” mode, focusing their attention on making sure their teams know the rules, understand the processes, and are grinding it out and getting things done. That’s certainly an important part of a leader’s job. It’s also only one aspect of running a successful retail business.

To keep people from burning out or disengaging, leaders also have to know when to shift from this “teacher” role to that of coach or mentor or champion, depending on the person and the situation. It doesn’t mean ignoring what needs to get done; it means accomplishing the work while also making sure people are feeling energized and able to contribute their best.

At Westlake Ace, Jeffries sees it as the business returning to a new normal. “We are actively asking about vacation time and when the field leaders are taking it,” he says. “It’s critical for them to refresh. At corporate, we have implemented a flexible schedule. If you need time, you take it. We trust you to make those decisions. The business will be here and will be fine. You need to take care of yourself and pause for the cause. Our culture remains healthy because of our proactive approach to this subject.”


About Mary Beth Garcia

ary Beth has worked with a variety of retail and hospitality clients as a strategic partner, delivering leadership, communications, retail programs, consulting, and executive coaching for such diverse companies as Academy Sports and Outdoors, Altar’d State, Amazon Fresh, Advanced Auto Parts, Bvlgari, Cardinal Health, Compass Group, Darden, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Foot Locker Group, Haggar Clothing, King Ranch, LVMH, Michaels, Saks Department Store Group, SMCP, Southeastern Grocers, TBC, TJX Companies, Ulta Beauty, and Whole Foods Market. Prior to her consulting work, Mary Beth spent more than 20 years in retail management and operations for companies such as Macys, g.Briggs, The Bombay Company, and Sunglass Hut International, holding numerous leadership positions in sales, store, district, and regional management and corporate communications, training, and operations. Based in Miami, FL, Mary Beth served on the Executive Advisory Board for the University of Florida’s Retail Education and Research Department from 2003-2014. She holds an A.A. Degree in Retail Management and Fashion Merchandising from Bauder College.