Customer Stories, Leadership

Lessons in successful (and sustainable) change management

Posted on: February 27, 2024By: Paige Magarrey

To get locations doing the right thing quickly and consistently, retailers need to get really good at driving behavioral change at scale. Particularly with the rise of AI, sustainable change management is essential to adopting and capitalizing on these emerging technologies effectively. 

Enter Giant Eagle. The U.S.-based, family-owned business spans grocery, pharmacy, fuel and convenience stores, with over 34,000 team members spanning the northeast and midwest regions. So when it came time to undertake a digital transformation, there was a critical need for a sustainable, scalable approach. 

Nrf2024 Christine Tutssel Janis Leigh discussing Change Management

At NRF 2024, Axonify CRO Christine Tutssel sat down with Janis Leigh, Giant Eagle’s EVP and Chief People Officer, for the full story behind the champion network and influencer strategy that drove the company-wide adoption of Axonify’s microlearning platform.

The challenge: deliver meaningful learning and communications

Leigh’s team was challenged by Giant Eagle’s board to find a new way to bring learning and communication to team members that would improve retention and engagement, and better reflect the way modern frontline workers learn and connect. 

“We heard from our store leaders that we really needed to think things differently,” explained Leigh. 

“When we were touring through stores, the process of learning was still having to get off the floor for 30 minutes into the training room, looking up courses. It would still be that formula of three days of orientation where you’re locked in the training room and you’re watching videos and you’re signing off paperwork, and then we sit you in front of a computer and we put you through a day’s worth, if not more, of computer-based training. Who wants to sit in front of a computer, especially in retail? So that was really the turning point.”

Why? First, this traditional approach to training was leading to new hire attrition at an alarming rate. 

“Not only were they dropping off in the first three days, but they were also dropping off in 30 days, 60 days and 90 days,” said Leigh. “We were at the point where for every 10 team members you were hiring, you were only retaining three or four. And so that’s where the challenge was—and that’s where the expense was.”

But also, there was a communication disconnect that worried Leigh. “These 34,000 team members, they don’t have laptops, they don’t have email addresses. So they rely on the good old bulletin board by the time clock and every piece of retail space or real estate space. That’s how we communicated for the most part, other than having the managers during meetings and huddles. So there was a communication challenge as well.”

And for Leigh, it wasn’t just about finding a new tool. It was about finding a new way to modernize the organization’s approach to enabling its frontline.

“It wasn’t just about checking the box, it was about how we really bring in that learning and talk to our team members in a better way.”

Janis Leigh, EVP and Chief People Officer, Giant Eagle

Speaking the language of retail operators

A shift from traditional communication and onboarding methods to microlearning and enablement in the flow of work is no small feat. Giant Eagle’s change management strategy needed buy-in across the organization—particularly from their operators. They looked for ways to foster interest in what felt like an HR-driven tool. 

“We looked at the tool and initially, it was HR-driven. We were excited about the microlearning, the gamification, all those great things, but that wasn’t enough,” said Leigh. 

“We really had to take a step back and think with our operators, what’s in it for you? Why are we doing this? And it really boils down to operational excellence. You are able to engage with the team members in a different way. It really allows us to do cross-training because there are different learning journeys that you can take for the different team members.”

In other words, Leigh and her team got their leaders to think about Axonify as a business tool, not an HR initiative. To make that happen, they partnered with operators for the rollout, but they also built additional trust and credibility with them by hiring an operationally-focused leader into the L&D team. 

“We needed someone from an L&D perspective who had that credibility with the operators. We had an open role for leading learning and development at the time that we were working on the implementation, and rather than go look for someone with more of an HR background, we went to the operators to find someone,” said Leigh. 

“They spoke the language of our retail operators and they could really bring us along in helping people understand why this is a great tool and why it’s a business tool. That was a turning point for us and making sure that we could really speak the language of the business and help them in that way.”

Fostering buy-in through influencers within the organization 

Another way Leigh and her team built a sustainable change management strategy was by getting executives engaged and working together. 

“We actually had our CEO drop a few recording messages out to the team members and it was exciting. We started to have leaders come to us and ask to roll out communications through Axonify. That was really important,” she said. 

They took a similar strategy at the floor level, identifying influencers within each store and elevating them as champions for the platform. “We had the leaders help us identify and we rallied those champions together to really help in the implementation. It was definitely a way to bring everyone in and the team members to be really involved.”

Part of that influencer strategy was showing the value of the tool, which meant building out strong learning paths and communications that got users excited. 

“We were really focused on the material and the learning journeys that we were building out, that they were relevant to the business, that the content was there, and we started to really reshape it and make sure that they could see that operational excellence,” said Leigh. 

Sustainable change management isn’t one-and-done

One of the most important things leaders need to understand about successful change management and digital transformation? “There’s no such thing as big-bang implementation,” said Leigh. It’s a process. And to make the change sustainable, Leigh and her team are constantly looking at what’s working and what’s not. 

“It’s not just said and done,” she said. “We look at metrics and we listen to our store leaders and we start to evolve things and help them change it.”

The business value of sustainable change management—and modern learning

One of the reasons that Giant Eagle revolutionized their onboarding in the first place was to foster better new hire retention—and the results speak for themselves. While their retention rate was in the 30-40% range before this change, in the first year after implementing Axonify, that retention rate jumped up to 80%.

“You really could see it. And we were getting a lot of anecdotal stories as well as seeing it in the numbers. What was happening is people were really excited, leaders were excited about the fact that they had these team members who were joining us, these early team members who were literally on day one going onto the floor and engaging with their teams and it was really that hook to have them keep coming back. So it was a really exciting trend that we saw very early on,” said Leigh. 

“We were bringing team members into the platform and on their learning journeys where they could see what was in it for them, which helped them keep coming back.”

Watch the full change management conversation between Christine Tutssel, CRO of Axonify, and Janis Leigh, EVP and Chief People Officer of Giant Eagle. 

Paige Magarrey

Paige Magarrey is a writer, editor and content marketer obsessed with telling epic and informative stories about the frontline experience.