Industry Spotlight: W. Elliott Stephenson, PhD, Vice President – Employee Development and Engagement, Ben E. Keith Foods, Fort Worth, TX
Dr. W. Elliott Stephenson knows a thing or two about what it takes to thrive in the foodservice distribution industry. In his role as Vice President – Employee Development and Engagement, Elliott leads the strategic development and execution of programs and services in talent management, employee engagement, organizational culture, diversity and inclusion, and workforce development.
Elliott started working with Ben E. Keith as a management consultant before becoming an employee. According to Elliott, Ben E. Keith has a family-run organization's welcoming atmosphere despite being a large company. Elliott was attracted to Ben E. Keith’s commitment and support for its employees, the general feeling that everyone at the company is doing their best, and the company’s drive to continually get better.
“This is a demanding field. Our operations are 24/7; there is no ‘end of the day’ in foodservice distribution. Restaurants and other customers depend upon our food and supplies to survive. And some of our positions have a difficult physical aspect to them. So we have to be supportive of the quality of life for our employees, not just when they are on the clock,” Elliott admits through a chuckle.
To be successful at his job designing training and development programs for Ben E. Keith employees, Elliott believes that he has to know, understand, and appreciate all positions up and down the corporate ladder. That way, the programs can meet employees where they are now and prepare them for the next step in their careers. He quotes a common phrase about employee turnover, “People don’t leave companies; they leave bad supervisors.” Elliott suggests companies looking for better employee retention should look at better supervisor coaching programs. He cautions that this may not be found in the latest trendy methodology or book because that training may not be universally applicable. Instead, Elliott advises, you have to have the patience to observe what is happening in your employee’s world and create programs around that.
In an industry that never sleeps, Elliott has to be creative and respectful of employees' busy schedules. His department provides training in various formats in a typical year, including onsite programs, programs at the main office, weekend sessions, and training through local colleges or professional organizations.
And during the pandemic? “Recalibration was the word in 2020,” he says, chuckling some more. “The need for training became more heightened, but how do you do that with social distancing guidelines and remote personnel?” Technology was the answer, and after adapting their programs, they were back up and running with training over the telephone, via Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and in smaller groups. He said Ben E. Keith put quite a bit of effort into restructuring training into smaller bites that worked better for these formats and that the company may incorporate these new techniques in concert with their previous methods.
And Elliott’s commitment to attracting, retaining, and developing talent goes beyond his work at Ben E. Keith. As a member of the IFDA Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Elliott is committed to providing tools and resources to help the industry attract and retain a more diverse workforce. “We are very fortunate to have Dr. Stephenson serve on the IFDA Diversity and Inclusion Committee,” said Andrea Streat, IFDA liaison to the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. “He is a generous contributor and does so with great humility. His leadership, support, and mentorship to me, the committee, and our industry are invaluable!”
According to Elliott, companies need to take a guided approach to their diversity and inclusion initiatives. First, he says, each company needs to define what diversity means to them. Are you looking for more diversity in age, gender, or ethnicity? Or something else? Next, does your company need a change in ideology? Perhaps companies need to aspire to be open to ideas, no matter where they come from within their staff. Elliott also recommends that the industry needs to expand their definition of the type of experience they look for in potential candidates and instead look at how an individual could contribute to the company and industry at large. And lastly, we all need to make sure that foodservice distributors are more visible. Potential employees (of any background) will find the industry desirable if they see us as open-minded, stable employers with growth and advancement opportunities.
Professionals like Dr. W. Elliott Stephenson are cultivating tomorrow's workforce, and for that, he deserves a round of applause.