Be a humble teacher and proud learner. I had the chance to spend time with women and men who shared their histories and knowledge and experiences with me. I also had the chance…not just to listen, but to ask a lot of questions and share a lot of opinions. I was and still am wildly curious. Not whimsical, and not an interrogator…but someone who has a huge appetite for learning. For me, part of that learning was building skill around feedback and leaning into others. I learned about the idea of finding “solid supporters”. These are colleagues (a couple at least, and handful if you’re really lucky) at a wide range of levels across a company who you consider to be most trusted and truthful. They’re the people who, when you’re getting a standing ovation for your work will pull you aside and say “ah, not that much”. They’re also the people that, when things are going particularly sour, will pull you aside and say, “it’s not that bad, let’s find a solution”. I was and am blessed with some great people who I consider to be solid supporters. As a leader, I also have the obligation to pass that on, and lift others up in that same unassuming way, to share my truth with them about them. That’s what I mean by “be a humble teacher and proud learner.”
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewingMeg Ham.
As president of Food Lion since 2014, Meg oversees all aspects of Food Lion’s operations, including performance, merchandising, pricing, customer service, marketing and strategy. In this role, she serves as a member of Ahold Delhaize USA’s leadership team. A 30-year member of the Delhaize America family of supermarkets, Meg has built a career as a food retailer with a strong focus on the value of service to customers and associates.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up enjoying being part of a large family in Central New York — an Irish Catholic family — and I am fourth out of five girls in my immediate family. I was also a competitive swimmer for over 15 years which trained my mind, my habits and my body. My earliest role models were my mom, who was the head of our household, and my grandmother who put four children through college, despite raising them during the Great Depression.
I’m also a proud alumna of Cornell University. During spring break of my senior year, when nearly everyone in my class was at the beach enjoying their break, I had an interview at Hannaford in Portland, Maine.
I was immediately captivated by the potential experience. I am a person who loves to learn and in the Hannaford role, I would have to work my way through every department in the store. To me, it sounded exciting…an opportunity to really learn a business inside out. And something else really appealed to me as I interviewed with them. I liked how they interacted with each other. They seemed to like each other, and they were very good at what they did. That culture appealed to me and I felt like I would fit. So, I accepted the job offer. And, here I am, more than 30 years later, continuing to learn and be valued and value others.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, I can look back on the experience now and smile, but it certainly wasn’t funny to me at the time. I started that job at Hannaford the week before the 4th of July — working in the front-end of the store as my first department. If you’ve ever been in a grocery store near the 4th of July, you can picture how crazy it is. The customer lines are long, everyone is busy and frantic to get their shopping done and get on their way. And to make it even worse, there was a Grateful Dead concert taking place right down the road. So all the concert goers stopping in the store made it even more crowded than usual.
I was trained — but very quickly — and had to just jump in because the store was so busy. I wasn’t sure what I was doing at the register. I made mistakes; I was slow. I was embarrassed.
I survived, that’s the good news. But I also learned that I never wanted to be put into that position again. It also taught me that as a leader, we owe it to our teams to give everyone the ability to feel competent in their role, and if we haven’t done that, then we have failed as leaders.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am incredibly grateful to the department managers who trained me, shared insights with me and generously gave their time and talents to me. They gave me awesome gifts and I’m extremely grateful. I’m also grateful to one of my early bosses who saw more in me than I saw in myself. He pushed me out of my comfort zone. We were so different, and we learned to leverage each other’s strengths. This was a great experience that taught me the value of tapping into the diversity that each of us bring. When you tap into different approaches and perspectives, the results are always better.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
For me, it’s less about stress, and more about centering my mind and focusing as I’m preparing for big meetings. There isn’t really anything that helps me with that more than lacing up my sneakers and going for a run. It helps clear my head and enables me to focus. I’m also a crossfitter, so I suppose you could say that exercise helps me with stress.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It is proven that businesses with diverse teams perform better. In my own experience, I appreciate diversity of thought, backgrounds and experiences. Ideas and plans are enriched by different thinking and perspectives.Those perspectives are shaped by who you are and your lived experience, whether it is through the lens of race, gender, religion, socio-economic status or the environment you grew up in, or the variety of other aspects that shape all of us into who we are. When you bring the richness of all of that to the table, performance is better, and outcomes are better. And diversity without inclusion doesn’t get you very far at all.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I’m not sure that I have the answer to this question at the societal level, but I have chosen to work to ensure that our Food Lion community is inclusive and diverse and that it represents the diversity of the communities we serve.
At Food Lion, we say, “we are the towns and cities we serve.” For us, this is not an exaggeration, but it is truly something we mean and feel. We serve our neighbors in our towns and cities — the towns and cities where we live and work, and so it’s important that we are inclusive within Food Lion as well.
We have, and continue to, listen to our associates and enable them to have their voices heard.
We engage our associate-led Business Resource Groups who help give us guidance to ensure that we’re serving our communities well. For instance, both our African-American BRG and our Hispanic/Latino BRG have made recommendations that drove decision-making into our product assortment to ensure that we’re serving our diverse neighbors appropriately.
We’ve had a partnership with CIAA for more than 20 years, which is about much more than writing a sponsorship check. We support scholarships for students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities that help to further their education. We hire those students into our manager trainee programs and into leadership positions within our organization. We are working to ensure that above all, we back up our words with actions.
And, throughout the recent civil unrest and consciousness around racial inequities, our BRGs have led a number of courageous conversations within our organization to help us explore these issues.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
A leader I worked with for a long time always said, “leaders set context, create demand and follow through with accountability.” I believe that to be true. My job, as an executive, is to look up and out, seeing not only where we are today, but creating the vision for where we’re going, and then creating enrollment and ownership on our journey to get there together.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Yes, there is a myth that you can just tell people what to do and it gets done. This isn’t true. An executive needs to enroll and engage their people in making the vision become reality. If you just tell someone what to do they will do it once, but it doesn’t become part of their culture and their drive. It’s that drive — being part of something bigger — that creates winning organizations.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Since I have never been a male executive, I’m not sure I can truly answer this question.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I have been close to this role for 20 years. By that, I mean that I was reporting in to this role and observing the presidents of Food Lion for 20 years. So, the facets of the job itself were not a surprise to me. I would say that one thing that has become even more clear to me over time is the power of enrollment. We get results by empowering others, listening to their feedback, creating possibility and then unleashing them to achieve it. If you share the vision so everyone knows where you’re trying to go, and they want to go there, too, that emotional attachment to the goals will drive them forward. This continues to be reinforced to me time and time again.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
If you need to control every detail, this is not the job for you. If you take everything personally and emotionally, this is not the job for you. But, if you’re willing to carry on your shoulders driving a positive experience for 77,000 associates and 9 million customers, good. For this role, you need high drive and stamina and you need to thrive on urgency, complexity and problem-solving. Someone who sees complexity and obstacles as inspiring, not exhausting, will succeed in this role.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Share all of yourself. Be true to yourself and be true to your team. Meet them where they are. We all have different personalities and different ways of working. Recognize that, and conform to your team’s needs and styles, don’t require that they conform to yours.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
One of the things that I am certainly proud of is the Food Lion Feeds’ initiative that we launched in 2014 to feed our hungry neighbors. The premise is simple. We believe no one should have to choose between dinner and rent or gas and groceries. We’ve made a commitment to helping to make a difference in our towns and cities. No one in the towns and cities we serve should be faced with these impossible choices and I believe we’re helping to eliminate the choices and address hunger in our communities.
We’ve also helped to nourish our own associates’ families and set them up for success. People have found a home at Food Lion that enables them to send their kids to college and to pay their bills during tough times. Food Lion’s success enables us to take care of our communities, our families and our neighbors. In the 1,029 neighborhoods we serve, we’ve helped to make life a little easier, and provided our neighbors with an authentic smile when they walk through our doors.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Be a humble teacher and proud learner. I had the chance to spend time with women and men who shared their histories and knowledge and experiences with me. I also had the chance…not just to listen, but to ask a lot of questions and share a lot of opinions. I was and still am wildly curious. Not whimsical, and not an interrogator…but someone who has a huge appetite for learning.
For me, part of that learning was building skill around feedback and leaning into others. I learned about the idea of finding “solid supporters”. These are colleagues (a couple at least, and handful if you’re really lucky) at a wide range of levels across a company who you consider to be most trusted and truthful. They’re the people who, when you’re getting a standing ovation for your work will pull you aside and say “ah, not that much”. They’re also the people that, when things are going particularly sour, will pull you aside and say, “it’s not that bad, let’s find a solution”. I was and am blessed with some great people who I consider to be solid supporters. As a leader, I also have the obligation to pass that on, and lift others up in that same unassuming way, to share my truth with them about them. That’s what I mean by “be a humble teacher and proud learner.”
It’s OK to get your hands dirty and embrace the STEM part of your DNA. I’ve always been interested in how things work, how things got built, what would happen if they were deconstructed into their individual parts, how things can be made better. I am absolutely not afraid of getting my hands dirty and getting myself waist-deep in work and really understand how and why things connect and what’s most important.
Throughout my education, I gravitated to studies that allowed for that kind of creative investigation. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math were all part of my DNA. I loved the chance to analyze and learn and challenge ideas. This type of work fed my energy then, and continues to feed my energy today.
That’s one of the reasons I chose to work for the company I did right out of college. The supermarket company Hannaford offered the training opportunity to learn every aspect of the business — from the ground up. I learned everything from how to wax the floor to making sausage, from cutting meat to balancing the safe. I liked the idea of knowing how the business worked. It has served me well….
Early in my career, this energy was recognized, and I was asked, with a handful of colleagues to take on some truly pioneering work. In short, at the time there was kind of a black hole associated with how supermarket retailers were considering some decision making that had tremendous consequences on the business. Lots of tactics, lots of manual spreadsheets, and lots of “that’s how we’ve always done it” thinking. This opportunity stretched me in ways that I truly consider extraordinary. The adrenaline that comes with the chance to be a pioneer is something that leaders should experience.
That was nearly three decades ago. The systems and processes that were designed back then are still in use and are still considered strategic and differentiating. I wish for others to be pulled or tapped or encouraged to take part in similar experiences. They build knowledge. They build confidence. They build belief that solutions that aren’t out there can be created from scratch.
There’s a fine art to disrupting, interrupting, and not getting interrupted. I grew up in a family of strong women. In order to get your seat at the table, in order to be heard, you learned early on to know how and when to speak up. You knew how to find your space to sit in the car. You knew how to throw an occasional elbow to let your sisters know that they were on your turf…literally and figuratively.
So much of that applies to the workforce today. There’s a real art to being able to make sure that your voice resonates when it matters. That your intention and your desired impact are clear. That others experience your words, your perspective, and your leadership presence.
Some women are great at that. Some men are too. Some women need some help. Some men do too.
I don’t think that this topic is all about attitude and approach. I think there’s some basic skill-building required here for leaders to be able to operate at peak performance. If I notice that someone balks at getting their voice into the room and leaves with the “I wish I had the chance to speak”, I feel comfortable pulling them aside and telling that they need to practice some constructive interruption.
If I notice someone being talked over, I encourage them to remain steadfast in stating their message and not let someone else’s personal or professional style override their message. I also enjoy asking the question “who has a different opinion here” to encourage some diversity of thought. Calm conversation can sometimes speak to compliance rather than commitment. I believe in deliberate discussion and purposeful debate in shaping the best decisions.
Don’t minimize your accomplishments. Stand up for your confidence, your competence, and your capability.
Be absolutely “all in” — but master the art of focus. With everything we have going on in our day-to-day worlds, the idea of wearing and changing and managing a bunch of different hats is kind of crazy. How should I behave in this setting? What is my role in this group of people? What are people expecting of me today that is different than what others might expect from me tomorrow. It’s a lot.
I learned long ago that in order to be fully present in all of the different aspects and blessings of my life, I needed to master the art of focus…of actually being able to compartmentalize my focus and zoom in on the moment.
Early on I found myself sitting at my son’s lacrosse game wondering what I was missing at work. I was at the office wondering how the field trip was going and feeling guilty that I wasn’t there. It didn’t matter where I was — I was always feeling guilty about not being where I wasn’t!! I think this is true of many women.
I decided that in order to be all-in, I needed to learn how to unplug from one conversation or challenge or train of thought completely, then plug into what was right in front of me at the moment. It took conscious work to be able to close down one in order to be totally in on the other. But this allows me to be purposeful in my conversations and actions. I’m all in — and not worried about being all over the place. I’ve also learned that my colleagues have seen this and have actually created their own disciplines in order to respect mine -which allows for all of us to be all in where-ever we are. They appreciate it, and I’m better for it.
The most important lesson of all is simply to care. I believe everyone wants to do a good job and wants to be trusted. In order to do so, they need the capability and integrity to do what they say they will do. But more than that, I have found that when one has a sense for a greater good and is not just out for her or himself, care shows up, and that’s when we are at our best — either as a family, as a team or as an organization. Care brings accountability. Care shows humility. Care is personal. Care brings about a greater good.
I understood this early in life, yet it took some practice to be able to show and articulate this care in the business world. I had to learn how to integrate it in our accountabilities and how to show that where there is detail, there is care. When we are all focused on the greater good, we are at our best.
This was illuminated for me in a very significant way when Food Lion brought its Food Lion Feeds efforts to life. We have always taken pride in being a vibrant part of the communities we serve. We were often the “go-to” organization for all kinds of general neighborhood support and outreach.
When we decided to really focus on food insecurity across our market areas, we quickly discovered how much work we had to do and how much we didn’t really know. We knew we really needed to learn a lot and learn it quickly. So, we did that. We listened instead of imposed. We got neck-deep in the real issues instead of simply writing a check. We focused on meals and mouths to feed versus meaningless metrics and money spent. We took great care, we brought a unique empathy to the cause, and we discovered our greater good.
To date, Food Lion Feeds has provided more than 500 million meals to people throughout the footprint and is committed to providing one million more by 2025. The is not a program for us. This is core part of why we exist — our greater good.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Well, I’ve mentioned how proud I am of Food Lion Feeds. I’d like to start a movement that engages everyone across our communities in the fight to feed our hungry neighbors.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is: “If it is to be, it is up to me.”These 10 words were on a mass card in the cupboard that I opened to get cereal to make my breakfast every morning, so I saw it daily from the time I was six or seven until I left home for college. It became my mantra. I’m the fourth of five girls and I grew up believing there was nothing girls couldn’t do. Sports, science, a male-dominated career field — we could do it. But if it is to be, it is up to me. I own my own destiny. I own my own future. At work, if something isn’t going as planned my reflex is to ask myself, “what can I do differently? What am I doing to impede the progress?” It isn’t to question someone else. Self-accountability has always been important to me, whether it was in raising my children, or now.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.