retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Like me, you may remember times back in school when you were not completely ready for a test and the fates magically interfered. There would be an unexpected snow storm or a teacher would call in sick and suddenly we had a reprieve. It was temporary, was rarely used properly, but boy, we enjoyed it.

A reprieve is what faces us in industry today. Despite my huge bias (and long hours spent on) the now-delayed Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Future Connect conference – which was postponed last week because of concerns about the swine flu – I understand that most of the world didn’t see this as a life-changing moment. Too bad.

The delay in the event isn’t a reprieve. (Despite what one MNB letter writer suggested yesterday, this event was ready to go and the value would have been surprisingly strong.) Rather, the reprieve is the sudden lack of urgency on the problem of future leadership. Simply put, swine flu and the weak economy are not making the problem of future leadership go away. Just like that test at school, the reason for Future Connect is still coming.

Future Connect was planned to combat a very significant problem in two different ways. The problem is this: the enormous Baby Boom generation is still moving at warp speed toward the end of its working life, even if 401ks are now affectionately known as 201ks. The problem is documented throughout the economy and in nearly every industrialized nation.

Making matters worse, the enormous size of this generation - my generation – means that Boomers have a stranglehold on management positions. In the food industry that extends from the executive suite down to store level in many companies. So when Boomers start retiring in record numbers (we do everything in record numbers) the management drain will be incredible.

Future Connect aimed to address this two ways: First, to get younger people in the industry excited and educated about their jobs, possibly making them more willing to stay longer. But second, and more importantly, to help today’s managers understand the diversity and complexity of the younger generations they need to attract and retain.

And that takes me back to our discussion in this space last week about E.F. Hutton, a brokerage firm that is indelibly placed in some of our minds and completely unknown in others. (Oh, the power of a great advertisement strikes again.) We have to remind ourselves constantly that the experiences that shape our lives are very different from those that shape our co-workers, our underlings and even our bosses. Those differences impact our communication, our listening style, our work style…well, pretty much everything.

Like it or not, we live in the age of Twitter, texting and Facebook; American Idol and the Jonas Brothers; Al-Qaeda and Hugo Chavez; and broken American car companies, banks and more. Yes, the young generation produced two idiots jamming pizza cheese up their noses on YouTube, but it has already produced people like Mark Zuckerberg who created Facebook while in college and now has 200 million passionate followers. (Boomers should remember - we produced disco and streaking along with Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Yo-Yo Ma.)

We live in a time where lots of people speak different languages and when job hopping is no longer seen as negative. In short, it’s an era of complexity. You can get mad at it or learn to deal; I’m hoping you choose the latter.

So yes, Future Connect was delayed because of the swine flu (an absolutely correct call, by the way.) But the clock is still ticking on Boomer retirements, which means the problem - and the need for action - still linger. Are you going to start studying or pull the covers back over your head?

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com .

KC's View:
I don't often comment on Michael’s columns, but permit me a moment of personal privilege…

I was interviewing someone yesterday for a different project who made a point relevant to this issue. He was telling me about a retailing company that specializes in catering to young, urban consumers…and that has a board of directors made up primarily of white males with an average age of 68. The board has people with financial and operational expertise, but nobody who really understands the cultural imperatives of the company’s target demographic. Y’think this is an isolated instance?

From the board room to the stock room, there are a lot of companies in this industry drastically in need of a leadership transfusion. At the risk of being accused of political correctness, it always was my sense that FMI’s Future Connect was a good starting point for the industry to deal with this critical reality…an issue, by the way, that we’ve been talking about on MNB for almost eight years, and that Michael Sansolo has been addressing for as long as a decade.

I hope that at least in some form, Future Connect gets rescheduled. I believe that consideration of the issues upon which it was going to be focused cannot be delayed.