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Mike Van Lente
Talent Development Leader

Where Are You Growing?

Monday, April 22, 2024

Mike Van Lente reveals Whole Foods Market’s plan for upskilling, certification, and mobility.

A career, unlike a role that is just a job, is a long-term professional journey. It’s a pathway of various roles, experiences, and education that people follow to fulfill their personal goals. Most people consider working in retail to be just a job, but Whole Foods Market wants to change that perception.

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“As Whole Foods Market thinks about investing in our organization and in our team members, we always look for ways that talent can move up with us,” says Mike Van Lente, executive leader of L&D. He explains that whether it is a specialized role (such as a butcher), an in-store management position, or operational leadership, “there’s a path for every passion.”

Pipeline of specialized talent

As Van Lente thinks about workforce challenges for the next five years, he believes that hiring and retaining frontline talent will become increasingly difficult. To overcome that obstacle, his team’s talent strategy centers around specialized career growth pathways.

In particular, the grocery retailer of natural and organic foods is offering apprentice programs for employees who want to dive deeper into a specific product area. Currently, there are three programs: an apprentice butcher, a Certified Cheese Professional, and an apprentice bakery decorator.

The L&D team develops the apprentice programs internally, ensuring the learning content supports Whole Foods Market’s quality standards and, when applicable, external certifications.

For instance, the certified cheese professional has a rigorous exam and certification administered by the American Cheese Society. To prepare participants, designers use the exam and insights from internal subject matter experts to build learning materials and activities. The nearly yearlong program includes classroom, online, and hands-on learning, the latter of which can include supplier visits such as a trip to visit a dairy farm in Wisconsin.

When employees pass the exam, they personally hold the credential and can take it with them if they leave the organization.

“It's a win-win,” Van Lente states. “The customers get the benefit of highly skilled professionals that they work with, and we’re creating career growth pathways for our team members that they might not have thought about before or can get elsewhere.”

Similarly, to create Whole Foods’ bespoke butcher apprentice program, learning designers worked with internal SMEs—who have been on-staff butchers for years and, in some cases, worked for governing or educational bodies such as trade schools or community colleges.

For the company, it was important to develop a proprietary butcher apprenticeship that incorporated its quality standards. “We want to make sure that we’re developing a butcher who can deliver a quality product that meets the standards and expectations of Whole Foods Market,” Van Lente notes.

In 2023, the organization graduated 91 butchers and 32 certified cheese professionals. Moving forward, the L&D team hopes to add two apprentice programs per year in different specialties. For example, this year, the team is committed to launching an apprenticeship for pizzaioli (pizza makers) and produce professionals.

“Produce is a calling card for Whole Foods Market. Our produce standards are so deep that we want to bring that level of professional, elevated skill,” adds Van Lente.

Apprenticeship programs are available to both current and new employees. If a team member working in customer service wants to explore an opportunity, they can apply to the program, working with management for a review of qualifications and endorsement. Then, due to limited space, each candidate goes through an interview and review process.

Program openings are based on staffing needs for that specialization (such as whether the company needs a certain number of butchers in a geographic area), so the retailer also seeks outside candidates. Recruiters highlight apprenticeships in job announcements and pre-employment communications. Internally, team members learn about the programs during orientation, via newsletters, and on back-of-house posters with QR codes that link to information and videos.

“The goal is to attract and retain talent—internal and external. Someone may come to us as a part-time cashier gig but then realize they could become a butcher,” Van Lente explains. “The approach that’s unique to Whole Foods Market is that our people get to earn while they learn.”

Mike Van Lente

Store-centric, homegrown leadership

“We’re always thinking about how to develop our next generation of leaders. Many of our senior leaders today at Whole Foods Market started their careers in the store working as frontline hourly team members,” Van Lente states.

The company offers general development opportunities as well as programs focused on developing each level of leadership working inside its stores, from assistants to the store team manager.

“As a store-centric organization, we have preparatory programs and roles to help aspiring team members attain the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to get promoted into the next level,” he says.

To build the various programs, the L&D team uses the company’s leadership principles as a guiding light. Van Lente explains that team members practice the principles—such as Think Big, Empower People, Earn Trust, and Seek Win-Win Strategies and Solutions—every day, whether working with customers, discussing ideas for new projects, or deciding the best approach to solving a problem.

The leadership principles help frame new skills for those seeking upward mobility. For example, a first-time manager may be nervous about the supervisory aspect of the position. Applying the principles to training, such as how to have performance conversations or how to coach a struggling team member, enables the manager to feel secure in their capabilities.

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In addition, the L&D team has curated a set of success skills by studying its most effective leaders in different roles. Combined with the leadership principles, success skills create a success profile that designers can use to develop training modules, courseware, and support tools.

As part of its career development initiatives, later this year, Whole Foods Market will offer access to training from third-party suppliers to all stores and facilities, which will help build team members’ foundational skills, including English language learning, high school completion, and technology fundamentals.

“We want our career development and leadership programs to give team members the capabilities and confidence to be able to step into leadership roles. The goal is to prepare them to be ready when an opportunity presents itself, rather than throwing them into a role and then training them. That's not a great experience for anyone,” Van Lente says.

In 2023, nearly 2,000 team members participated in the company’s various career and leadership programs. He believes that the “specialized career and leadership development pathways we’re building and supporting create a competitive advantage for Whole Foods Market in attracting and retaining talent.”

A story of career progression

All retailers are operating in an environment with constant volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Therefore, the company’s workforce, Van Lente notes, needs to be agile and adaptable to succeed in that environment—and that means team members need to be continuously learning.

Talent development needs may ebb and flow in response to the environment. So, Whole Foods Market focuses on career progression, and the L&D team uses the mantra “Where are you growing?” to guide the many programs and opportunities it rolls out.

“We try to tell stories about how other team members are learning and growing with us,” Van Lente says, adding that “someone may start as a part-time cashier but fall in love with the bakery department. It’s a spark. We just have to show them the numerous pathways available to them, that a career is possible.”

Van Lente shares that his own career in TD has a similar storyline. After getting a degree in journalism and working for a time in television news, a friend asked him to take on a short-term gig at Pier1. Based on his background in TV news production, Pier1 asked him to help develop training videos. He quickly saw that he could bring his skills for communication to the TD field and found that he had a passion for “helping a company succeed through the contributions of talented people.”

As he leads the L&D function at Whole Foods Market, Van Lente tries to marry his ideas of purpose, passion, and pathways. He reminds people to “be open to the doors that are open to you. You never know where they’re going to lead. It might be a whole career.”

Read more from Talent Development Leader.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

1 Comment
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Ryann - Good article and content! We must think differently if we want change to take place.
We must also keep an open-mind, stay curious, develop new-skills (Kudos Whole Foods). and approach difficult tasks.
It you want what they have, do what they do.
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