When Joanne Brown first starting working for German grocery chain Aldi in the UK in her 20s, she brought with her skills and experience in teaching, marketing and resource management. It’s proved to be a winning combination for the executive who now leads a team of more than 500 people in Queensland and New South Wales.
As an Aldi store operations director, Brown’s days are spent coaching, supporting and leading her team of 10 area managers, who in turn are responsible for multiple Aldi stores and hundreds of employees. Fostering trust and providing feedback are key ingredients to Brown’s leadership approach, as is being willing to celebrate her team’s wins and achievements.
As Aldi continues to cement its place in Australia’s competitive grocery sector (and beyond), SmartCompany sat down with Brown to find out why emotional intelligence is so important in her job and the best piece of leadership advice she’s ever received.
When did you join Aldi and what were you doing previously?
My career at Aldi started in the UK in 2001. I joined the Aldi team as a trainee area manager when I was 26, and already had a few years of work experience in my back pocket. Before Aldi, I had worked as a primary school teacher and had also completed a marketing graduate scheme with a global automotive brand. Before that, I studied environmental resource management at university.
How would you describe your journey with Aldi to date?
Altogether, I’ve been with Aldi for almost 10 years. After successfully completing the trainee area manager program, I worked as an area manager for almost three years, where I was responsible for up to five stores in the UK. Then I was promoted to logistics director, which was a brilliant opportunity for me to learn about things like transport and warehousing management, but most importantly to learn about people and leadership.
After a great two-and-a-half years as logistics director, I took a career break and concentrated on my family for a few years. While I was taking care of my son and daughter, our family took a leap of faith and emigrated to the Australian sun in 2007. Happily settled Down Under, I re-joined the Aldi team as logistics manager and was quickly promoted to store operations director, which is my current role. I wanted to work at Aldi again because I knew the work would be challenging but fun, and the company would offer great career progression opportunities.
You always get what you put in here. If you want to better yourself, there are lots of opportunities to develop your skills and grow, from high-quality leadership training to one-on-one coaching and even international secondment opportunities.
If you could give your younger self one piece of career advice, what would it be?
It’s all about the people you work with and helping them grow and succeed. If you help your team and trust in them, then you’ll have a reliable group of people doing their best to achieve a mutual goal — in the case of Aldi, it’s about offering our customers a unique shopping experience.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
As store operations director, I’m responsible for 10 area managers who are in charge of four to five stores each or are currently in training. This amounts to 38 stores and over 500 people in an area that starts south of Brisbane in Logan and reaches to Coffs Harbour in New South Wales.
A big part of my job revolves around supporting my team of area managers. My days are filled with coaching, addressing issues as they arise and driving career development. Aldi has a great commitment to invest in people’s ongoing career development so this is a key part of my job.
I also work closely with Aldi’s logistics, property and buying departments. It is a real team environment among departments and I really enjoy how we collaborate to bring about great results.
You currently lead a team that operates across two states. How do you navigate the inevitable challenges involved with managing a large workforce over a large geographical area?
I’m always focused on supporting my team of area managers and strive to be very open and solutions-oriented. I try to ask the right questions and wherever possible I coach my team to find the answers themselves instead of telling them how to solve a problem. This approach creates stronger and more independent leaders and you get to witness some really great lightbulb moments in your day-to-day working life.
I find this approach really helpful as I see how my team gains experience and confidence to address tasks, as well as to ask for support when needed. This generates trust between my team and I, which makes it easier to manage over 500 people spread between two states.
How do you think the role of a leader changes as a business like Aldi grows?
Any leadership role changes throughout time and according to the business’ needs. However, the key is to build a strong team — one that everyone feels part of and they’re proud of as it continues to grow.
For example, every team I work with, I always make sure I communicate the objective of each part of the process and explain how all these pieces integrate with the overall business. This makes each person feel, and truly be, part of the Aldi team and commit to a common goal. In the end, this results in happier employees and increased productivity.
What do you think makes a good leader?
In my experience, and from what I’ve seen within my team, I think that what makes not only a successful area manager but also a good leader are results orientation and high levels of emotional intelligence.
A leadership role is all about the people and having a drive to see them grow and succeed. You also need to be able to read people well and really enjoy getting the best out of your team and empowering others to grow. You should also have a clear vision and a clear idea of how you can make your team work together to achieve that goal. It’s all about establishing really clear expectations and boundaries, motivating people and celebrating milestones.
How do you foster emotional intelligence, both within your team and your own leadership skills?
The best part of my job is to witness the growth of my team. That’s why I come to work. As store operations director, I also aspire to come up with new ways of working that make a meaningful difference to our employees and make their jobs more enjoyable and fulfilling. If I can make someone’s working life a more positive and successful experience, I can feel proud at the end of my working day.
This is the type of thinking I like to pass onto my team; one that makes everyone feel happy to come to work and empowered to achieve their best. When this way of thinking permeates to every team member, people are there to back one another up. They encourage each other to do a better job and feel supported, which reflects in our products, stores and customer experience.
How do you channel this when having difficult conversations with your team, or managing situations where emotions may be running high?
When you build a strong team, there is always trust and respect for both providing and receiving feedback. This creates a positive environment where everyone’s opinion is highly valued. There is also a clear understanding of the goals we all want to achieve as individuals and as a team, focusing on our customers and providing them with a great shopping experience.
Aldi puts a lot of emphasis on fostering a great workplace culture, which makes it easier to create a positive environment from corporate, suppliers, stores and everyone in between.
What’s the best piece of leadership advice that someone’s given you throughout your career?
Actually, I have been quite lucky and have worked with some really inspiring leaders. I have learned a lot from every leader I have worked with but I would say I have learned the most from leaders who are very different to me and whose leadership style is different to mine. These leaders have challenged me to look at problems from new angles — angles I would not have previously considered — and I believe I’m much stronger for that.
One thing I learned early in my career, from some advice I was given, is that holding back with constructive criticism is actually harmful to the employee. As a leader, one of our most important responsibilities is to give honest feedback even if it feels confronting. This is one of the best gifts leaders can offer to their employees because it helps them get better quicker — that has to be a good thing!
Often the mark of a successful leader is the ability to develop and nurture other leaders within their team. What’s your approach to this?
I’d describe myself as a very inclusive and positive leader. My number one priority is to be supportive to my area mangers and to be open to each other. If there’s something wrong, we need to be able to talk about it and find a solution together.
I believe that trust in your team makes for confident people who’ll thrive to continue to learn and to achieve their best.
What are your top three leadership tips?
1. Have a vision of how you want things to be and see how you can motivate people to achieve this goal together. Paint a picture of what success will look like so your team can see that vision and get there together.
2. Celebrate! It’s really inspiring to watch your team grow and get better, so celebrate people’s achievements.
3. Acknowledge that mistakes are part of the learning experience. We all make mistakes, regardless of our position. The key is to communicate, find solutions and most importantly to work out how to avoid the same road bumps again.