Expert Advice of the Month: You’re in charge. It’s important to listen!


Portrait of Deborah Craven President of Longos for the Cover of Canadian Grocer magazine

Deb Craven is the first non-family member to be president of Ontario grocery chain Longo’s. She came to Longo’s five years ago—where she is now president since June 2023—after a stint in Calgary as senior vice-president of finance for two of Canadian Tire Corp.’s biggest brands: Sport Chek and Mark’s. She recently gave a presentation on how Longo’s management lifted employee engagement.

“Listening is a core competency. People don’t do it very well.”

Those blunt words were at the core of Deb Craven’s recent presentation on Longo’s “listening” project, in which the 39-store southern Ontario grocery chain conducted meetings with its various departments to find out what employees really felt about their jobs—and what could be improved.

Craven made the remarks at the Retail Council of Canada’s HR conference, held in April.

When Craven, a grocery industry outsider, arrived at Longo’s, one of her first challenges was changing the employee engagement numbers. They had stalled.

For years, Longo’s had made it a habit of measuring employee engagement through a survey sent out to all 6,000 of the company’s employees. The percentage of Longo’s employees that were engaged—a measure of employee morale and job satisfaction—had been 68 percent in 2020, 69 percent in 2021, and then 67 percent in 2022 and 2023. “We were stuck,” Craven said.

Liz Volk, the grocery chain’s chief human resources officer, pointed out to Craven that those were just numbers—without much context. There was a need to dig deeper into the stalled numbers and find out what was holding employees back. Volk proposed “listening sessions” with the staff and Craven agreed.

To get useful information, it was decided to focus on specific departments of the firm for each session. The distribution centre staff, which had “been through the ringer,” Craven says, after a recent massive expansion, were chosen for an early listening session. The engagement numbers had actually gone down in the warehouse.

Craven and Volk agreed to “engage with them and listen to them. Let’s not assume we know what the problem is.”

The virtual platform Microsoft Teams was chosen for the first session, Craven said. This was a mistake. “It was a long hour. A lot of crickets. The lesson was: don’t start a new initiative where you hope to get feedback on Teams!”

Subsequently, live sessions were tried. “Holding the sessions in person is well worth the investment.” Employees were arranged at tables of four, with a leader from each table reporting to the larger group. That arrangement provided anonymity, Craven said.

Listening sessions have been extended to most departments at Longo’s, including marketing, merchandising, HR, supply chain, and others. “We’ve seen significant improvement in the engagement survey we just completed with our DC team.”

Craven, as a new president in an unfamiliar industry, said that the sessions gave her confidence.

The upper management, of course, had presuppositions about what was holding the employees back from full engagement. “We thought it was salary/compensation,” Craven said. “But it wasn’t.”

For any retailers thinking of trying their own listening sessions to see what can be improved, Craven had some tips for senior leaders. “Leave pauses [when people are speaking]. Don’t fill in those pauses with your interpretation of what you’ve heard. Have a good poker face. Prepare for a lot of emotions. Have someone as a scribe so you can focus on the conversations.”