retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Panel discussions - of the sort that take place at conferences all the time, and that Michael Sansolo and I often find ourselves moderating - are funny things.

As moderators, we hope to both educate and entertain, to facilitate conversations that will shine some light on the subject at hand. It is important for panelists to feel comfortable and spontaneous, and yet that can be difficult; often they are sitting on stage in front of peers, or competitors, or employers, or future potential employers, and it can be hard not to think of all those things when talking.

It is wonderful thing, then, to get a moment of sheer naked honesty.

That’s what happened yesterday, at Western Michigan University’s annual Food Marketing Conference.

Michael Sansolo was moderating an Executive Forum, discussing the challenges facing retailers and suppliers in a time of constant disruption and breakneck change. The session was a good one, with the various panelists talking about the importance of customizing the bricks-and-mortar experience in order to compete with e-commerce, of allowing consumers to shop on their own terms, of nurturing communities and identifying the differentiating shopping habits of Generation Z, who soon will supplant millennials as the age group of the moment.

Michael then shifted the conversation to lessons that the panel could offer to the students in the audience that would help them to be both happier and more effective in their careers. And that’s when it happened.

Carmela Cugini, vice president of US e-commerce for Walmart/Jet, talked about the fact that a change that she has seen take place in corporate cultures. At Jet, for example, it was important to offer paternal benefits to employees, which was not on Walmart’s list of benefits that it planned to offer. But the argument was made, and now all fathers at Walmart have the ability to take time off after the birth of a child. That’s progress.

But progress can take different forms. Cugini, who spent her career at PepsiCo before she joined Jet, said, “I’m gay,” acknowledging that it was the first time she’d ever made such a statement in a panel discussion. But that before she went to Jet, Cugini said, she never felt able to talk about a long-term relationship she was in. It was only when she made a change in her career, she said, that she felt she could be transparent about who she is. “I could bring my authentic self to work,” she said.

That was her lesson to the students - that being their authentic selves could not only be a key to personal happiness, but also could provide to their companies the kind of intellectual and emotional diversity that actually make them better.

It seemed so simple, so direct, so obvious. And yet, such an Eye-Opener.
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