How lifelong learning creates an engaged and loyal workforce

Lifelong learning keeps your people engaged and ready for the next step in their career with you. Hear how Joe Tischbern, Director of Talent Development and Engagement at Smart & Final, has used his own experience to inspire the next generation. Find out his secret to high retention and career loyalty, and discover how Joe built a homegrown leadership training program from scratch.

Joe Tischburn lifelong learning

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Top tips for lifelong learning and keeping people engaged

Don’t have time to listen now? Here are some top tips from Joe:

  1. Foster a culture that creates loyalty: Empower people to create their own family culture. Authentic, supportive relationships lead to employee loyalty.
  2. Listen to your customers to identify new learning: Compare customer and associate feedback to target your learning. Great associate experiences lead to great customer interactions.
  3. Lead with your purpose: A clear purpose helps you stand out. Lead with the ‘why’ in L&D and keep people engaged and working together.
  4. Use your experience to inspire others: Harness your organization’s talent to inspire the next generation of leaders.

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1. Foster a culture that creates lifelong careers

Smart & Final started life in one LA grocery store almost 150 years ago. Despite growing to over 250 stores and 11,000 associates, they’ve managed to stay true to their roots. Each store feels empowered to create their own family culture. Experienced store managers set the tone. They support colleagues in their development at the organization.

Joe’s 29-year career shows that this culture enables people to grow with the company. Starting as a cashier when he was at college, Joe quickly became a store manager. He moved into HR, and completed his Masters before taking on his latest role. This experience made him loyal and gave him a passion for developing others.

“Companywide, we’re a big family. Those relationships are what keep people…I had a young man that worked with me back in 2000. He told me he’d never be a store manager. I supported him going to college, with his schedule, and I put him in charge of a department. And he grew into one of our best store managers…When we invest in people’s education, they’re more likely to stay with us.”

2. Listen to your customers to identify new learning

Experiences are at the heart of retail success. But how do you know what’s happening in the store? And how can you learn from and make these experiences even better?

Mystery shopper feedback can provide some insight but it isn’t always authentic. Instead Smart & Final listen to the voice of the customer. Gathering feedback after customer visits gives them much more detail. But they don’t stop there. They also compare this customer feedback with associate surveys. This allows them to be more targeted in their learning. By focusing on great associate experiences, they can create great customer interactions.

“We compare results between associate experiences and customer experiences, and see where those links are. It’s led to some really pointed conversations. Rather than making all our decisions globally, they’re much more pinpointed to the store itself. Because now we have these two pieces of data that can really help us to work with individual store managers.”

3. Lead with your purpose

A clear purpose helps you stand out in a competitive retail environment. This purpose needs to informs everything you do. But it takes centre stage in learning and development.

For Joe, it’s essential that his people understand the ‘why’. Why you have that unique business model. Why your stores have a particular culture. It’s not just about explaining your history. It’s about giving your people a foundation that they can translate to their store and team’s purpose.

“We consider ourselves a partner. People come and shop in our stores for their business, restaurant, food truck, club, football team, churches and organizations. Our ‘why’ is that we’re partnering with them to make them successful, which helps us be successful. That culture of partnership is one of the things that’s made us a family. Because we interact with each other the same way as we interact with our customers.”

4. Use your experience to inspire others

Great leaders inspire others to action. Smart & Final’s homegrown leaders are now inspiring the next generation.

Joe used his own experiences of management development to create a leadership program from scratch. The focus was broad – from StrengthsFinder to emotional intelligence. But the key was inspiring people through personal experiences of leading at Smart & Final. Providing practical approaches that learners can apply with their team. From small beginnings, he’s seen big results.

“We started with one leadership development program. Everyone was excited about sharing their career path and what their department does. We had a lot of willing leaders…And this 12-week program for 12 people has become seven different programs. And we’ve seen multiple promotions.”

A quick recap

With over 250 stores and 11,000 associates, Smart & Final has maintained a family culture. Joe is a living example of how this culture creates career long loyalty. He has four strategies for encouraging lifelong learning that keeps people engaged. Foster a family culture of support and development. Listen to the voice of your customers to identify new learning. Lead with the ‘why’ and keep people engaged in your purpose. Use your experience to inspire the next generation of leaders.

Want to find out more? Check out the full podcast.

About Joe

Over a 29-year career at Smart & Final, Joe has worked at every level of the organization. From cashier to director, he uses his experience to deliver leadership and development to their 11,000 associates.

You can find out more and get connected with Joe on LinkedIn.

On Joe’s reading list

Find out which books have sparked Joe’s career inspiration.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey

For Joe, it’s important to be able to manage your life before you can manage others. This book is essential preparation if you’re leading others.

StandOut: The Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment from the Leader of the Strengths Revolution, Marcus Buckingham

Appreciating your own strengths is important. This book taught Joe that he doesn’t need to change who he is. The focus is the result, but there’s no right way to achieve it.

Looking for more reading tips? Check out our book blog.

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We’d love to hear your thoughts on our podcast, so feel free to get in touch on Twitter @learningatlarge with any questions or queries. You can also email Simon, our podcast host, at As always, don’t forget to subscribe to Learning at Large in your favorite podcast app and leave us a 5-star rating if you enjoyed it. Thank you for joining us, and see you next time.

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