Shopko Leader Builds Talent Network to Fuel Expansion

Dave Pearson positions human resources as the driver behind Shopko’s growth spurt—a talent development overhaul that sparks a revitalized sense of purpose

Dave Pearson and Shopko Stores go way back. After his college graduation, Pearson joined the department store chain’s revolving management program. He quickly learned the ins and outs of running the entire store before moving up to the regional team level, which entrusted him with thirty-five stores in three states. Yet Pearson knew he could handle more.

He leapt into a corporate position as a manager for employee relations, and soon thereafter he was named director of employee relations. Pearson’s exemplary series of promotions reached another high point in 2014, when he took on his current role as vice president of human resources—a position that has opened new doors for him and the Wisconsin-based company.

Dave Pearson, Shopko
Dave Pearson, Shopko

“I am someone who enjoys solving problems and understanding how the business works so I can make better decisions,” says Pearson, who prioritizes the knowledge transfer to his team. “I found it natural to teach and motivate others to perform. I was also comfortable having difficult conversations with employees to address issues quickly. These attributes helped me gain the confidence and trust of my leaders, as well as the people I worked with.”

Nowadays, Pearson’s responsibilities run the gamut, from keeping track of the progress at new stores to planning and developing solutions that support the organization, which operates 344 stores in twenty-four states throughout the central, western, and Pacific Northwest regions. “My role is to run a department that serves the needs of the organization,” he says. “I always ask what more can we do.”

Pearson meets with senior leaders to understand what is happening in the business and where his team can add value through support. Pearson says he ensures that his team members have the best working environment possible to grow in their careers, which he hopes allows the team to walk out everyday knowing the value they bring to Shopko.

For example, Pearson was instrumental in developing a centralized employee relations department. During his tenure on Shopko’s regional team, he met with the then-head of human resources who had just created an employee relations call center supporting Pamida stores, which Shopko owned and operated separately. She wanted Pearson to manage the new department and eventually roll it out to support all of Shopko.

“Up until this time, managers in all locations had the ability to make decisions on all employee relations issues,” Pearson says. “This led to inconsistency in applying policies and how teammates were treated from location to location, resulting in numerous issues.” Pearson didn’t back down from the challenge. He worked with the newly formed team to develop investigation and documentation practices while continuing to educate them on store operations, policies, and procedures. And like all great progress, it took time.

In a few years, the team honed the craft of employee relations for Shopko, developed and updated policies, and pinpointed how the department adds value to the organization, according to Pearson. “In short, they have become an indispensable unit for Shopko, and the work they do touches every teammate,” he says. “They are a key business partner for every leader in the organization and are sought out for their feedback and advice rather than viewed as required for compliance.”

The experience equipped him for his current tasks as head of human resources, one of which is succession planning. “As we began to look at existing turnover, our time to fill, and our percent of external hires, I was not happy with our track record,” says Pearson, who’s passionate about preparing leaders for the next phase in their career growth. “To be successful, we needed to improve in all areas to properly support the business.”

Working with his team, Pearson started breaking the various components apart to ensure a plan was in place that would address all staffing challenges. “We started focusing on our internal talent and updated all training checklists and developed a supervisor leadership-training program for our high potentials,” he says. “We also developed a store management trainee program targeted at new college graduates and created a talent network to track everything.”

Shopko also enlisted Denison Consulting to conduct a cultural survey, which revealed that many of the company’s teammates did not feel like they were being developed and did not see any upward mobility. That forced a change in the way things were done.

“We changed the supervisor program from one focused only on high-potentials to a program targeted on leadership skills for employees in the stores and in our Store Support Center,” Pearson says. “We created four leadership buckets (My Leadership, My Communication, My Team, My Results) and developed twenty-two courses to develop key leadership skills.”

The training is blended learning that includes self-paced, computer-based training, workshops conducted via webinar or in person, and post-training worksheets for managers and teammates to reinforce learning on the job. The program, “Leadership Is the Difference,” was made available to every employee and turned the store management trainee program inward. “We realized we had over 1,500 supervisors in our stores, along with countless teammates who work while going to college,” Pearson says. “We have begun an aggressive communication campaign to tap this huge resource of talent. Our goal is to have thirty to forty trainees every quarter in this program.”

Shopko also uses a talent review process to identify high- or growth-potential teammates and ensures those teammates are part of the succession plan. Teammates and managers use individual development plans to help teammates prepare for their next role. The talent network helps teammates know when opportunities to advance are available.

As Shopko continues to grow, it’s up to Pearson to help find the best people for the jobs available. In 2015, Shopko opened more than fifty hometown stores and plans to open more than 200 stores over the next two years, moving into states where it currently has little to no presence. Pearson will serve as the human resources leader to put the right resources in place to support that growth.

“Our aggressive growth creates a number of challenges to find and develop talent that is mobile, as well as develop a structure to support the opening of these locations,” Pearson says. “As we have moved through 2015, we have learned a lot about what we need to have in place to successfully open stores at the planned rate.”

Pearson worked with senior leadership to initiate an aggressive internal talent development program that’s encouraging company growth overall. He evaluated the field structure, proposed more efficient processes and programs, and ultimately continues to execute successful store openings. Under his leadership, his team overcomes one of its biggest obstacles: competing for talent in new locations.

“We have beefed up our presence on college campuses with an eye toward schools in close proximity to our growth locations and have developed a marketing strategy to ensure we cultivate pools of candidates in each new store market,” Pearson says. “We have a great story to tell, as we are one of a few retailers who are growing.”