'Eye to the Future'
Thanks to a series of innovative new programs and initiatives being spearheaded by Russ Jackson and his team, HR is clearly making its presence felt at Safeway.
By David Shadovitz
A touch of nostalgia is at least part of the reason Russ Jackson is where he is today.
Roughly seven years ago, Jackson received a call from an executive recruiter, who told him about an opening for the top HR post at Safeway. Though Jackson was more than happy in his role as the top HR leader at Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., this particular opportunity piqued his interest.
As a student at San Jose State University, where he eventually went on to earn a bachelor of science degree in business, Jackson paid his way through college working at a grocery store, bagging groceries, stocking shelves, loading trucks and working the cash register.
No, it wasn't a Safeway store. But Jackson fondly recalled that experience and decided, this time, to follow up on the opportunity.
No doubt he's glad he did, describing his tenure as senior vice president of HR at Safeway as something he finds challenging but immensely rewarding.
Safeway, meanwhile, is reaping benefits, too.
Since joining the grocery chain, Jackson -- one of this year's HR Honor Roll winners -- has played a key role in positioning Safeway for the future, putting in place an impressive array of innovative initiatives in areas ranging from leadership development to healthcare and wellness.
"Everything we do is with an eye to the future," says Jackson, who held senior-level positions in customer services, marketing, general management and, most recently, HR during his 27 years at PG&E.
To be successful as an organization, he says, "we know we have to continue to attract, retain and develop the right people," particularly at the leadership level.
With that in mind, Jackson launched in June 2010 an initiative aimed at recruiting and developing former junior military officers to run many of Safeway's 1,700 stores in the United States and Canada. (Safeway, headquartered in Pleasanton, Calif., employs roughly 170,000 people today.)
The JMO program represented a huge departure from the way the firm filled those positions in the past.
Before, Jackson says, most store managers came from within and already had retail expertise. In contrast, he says, the JMO program focuses on hiring "people who are proven leaders with no background in retail."
To get the program off the ground, Jackson and his team identified three of the company's 10 divisions (i.e. geographical areas) as good candidates for a pilot. Their hope was that word of the initiative would spread organically, which is precisely what happened.
"We began to get calls from division presidents, asking why they weren't selected for the pilot," Jackson says.
Since its introduction, the program has quickly gained traction. Five JMOs participated in the inaugural class; three months later, the second class had 30 participants. Today, three classes are held each year with between 18 and 25 JMOs in each class.
Building on the initiative's success, Jackson followed by launching programs aimed at recruiting noncommissioned officers for first-assistant positions under the store managers and general ex-military personnel and their spouses for other jobs ranging from retail-department manager and transportation manager to courtesy clerk and cashier.
Jackson estimates that Safeway is now on track to surpass its goal of hiring more than 1,000 ex-military personnel by the end of 2012.
Jackson, 55, has also been instrumental in strengthening Safeway's leadership-development efforts.
Last year, the company launched its Advancing Leader program, which provides high-potential and high-performing directors and district managers with vice-president-level experiences and instruction. Combining classroom learning and action learning, the initiative exposes these leaders to a wide range of capabilities, including building an "enterprisewide" mind-set, innovating and creating value for the organization, applying a "strength-based" approach to personal-leadership development and mastering coaching conversations.
Classes, limited to 25 people per session, include personal 360-degree feedback and small group workshops that are led by more senior Safeway executives and run over the course of a year. Through the program's action-learning component, participants are challenged to stretch beyond their current roles.
Building on the initiative's success, Jackson and his team earlier this year introduced an Emerging Leader program, specifically aimed at managers at both the corporate or retail levels. The goal of the program is to give these leaders a better grasp of the fundamentals so they could "take on more responsibility going forward."
Jackson and his team have also made a huge impact on helping to shape a corporate culture that's aligned with the business' goals and objectives.
Soon after arriving at Safeway, he began work on revamping the company's competency model, narrowing 18 competencies down to four -- Attitude, Courage, Communication and Critical Thinking -- so people could get their arms around it.
Today, the model (known as ACT) has been integrated into all of the company's leadership-development and performance-management processes.
It's through that lens, Jackson says, that all employees and new hires are now selected, evaluated and developed.
Jackson also took substantial steps to strengthen his own team -- which now numbers roughly 650 -- to ensure that it's focused on "where Safeway needed to go."
As a part of that effort, all of the company's 450 exempt HR employees were given an opportunity to pursue PHR and SPHR accreditation. Of those eligible, roughly 48 percent have participated.
A Culture of Wellness
Particularly in areas such as healthcare and wellness, Jackson and his team have made great strides to strengthen the company's efforts to promote healthier behaviors. (Employee health and wellness have long been high priorities for Safeway Chairman and CEO Steven A. Burd, who has actively pursued changes in public healthcare policies.)
Employees at all levels, from hourly retail workers to senior executives, are encouraged to participate in programs ranging from undergoing biometric testing (through which they're able to reduce their healthcare premiums) to participating in contests aimed at improving the fitness of employees and their families.
"Under Russ' leadership, Safeway has significantly furthered its goal to help employees and their families make smarter healthcare decisions ... ," says Larree Renda, an executive president at Safeway.
Jackson points out that it definitely helps having a CEO who starts off his corporate presentations talking about healthcare issues.
As a result of these initiatives and others, Safeway has an annual healthcare-cost increase that's substantially lower than the national average, he says.
To be sure, Jackson and team have a lot more work to do, whether it's in areas such as health and wellness, leadership development or on other fronts. But, that said, there seems to be little question that their efforts are clearly making a difference.
Not that this is much of a surprise to Jim Randolph, a retired senior executive at PG&E who worked closely with Jackson there.
"Some people are a jack of all trades and master of none," Randolph says. "But in the case of Russ, he's always been a jack of all trades and a master of everything."