Bob Ravener has made a career out of being a people person. As executive vice president and chief people officer at Nashville-based retailer Dollar General, Ravener, the company, and his HR leadership team are focused on putting employees in the best possible situations to advance their skills, take on new responsibilities, and grow their careers. And they do, mostly within Dollar General.
“I’m proud of the fact that, at the store support center for three years running, three of every four job openings are filled from within,” says Ravener, who joined Dollar General in 2008. “More than nine thousand of our store managers were promoted from within. I, along with our leadership team, get a lot of satisfaction out of helping people grow and achieve their career goals and aspirations.”
Ravener knows how that feels. A graduate of the US Naval Academy who also has an MBA from New York University, he has gone on to hold important leadership positions in human resources at several of the most iconic brands in the world, including PepsiCo, Starbucks, and The Home Depot.
However, success is about more than being part of large, successful companies. According to Ravener, it’s just as much about learning from many different experiences.
“I can go back to my time in the military as a twenty-three-year-old standing on top of the conning tower of an 8,600-ton nuclear sub, responsible for the safety of 150 men aboard and tremendous fire power to help defend the nation,” he says. “That’s emblematic of the military. You get a lot of experience at very early stages of your career, something I try to emulate with others. I am a big fan of hiring the talent and then training for the skills needed to be successful.”
Ravener brings all his experience to bear in his current role at Dollar General. And with his fair share of responsibilities, he has the opportunity to bring wisdom to many different areas of the company.
Ravener says his role is pretty much anything dealing with people. He and his team are involved with everything from hiring to compensation, training to benefits, culture to structure. He spends the majority of his time on macro, strategic, and systemic initiatives because he has a great team of professionals that can handle most day-to-day challenges.
“You are only as good as the people around you, so I invest a great deal of time in coaching and surrounding myself with the best,” he says. “I’d put my team and colleagues at Dollar General up against any others in retail.”
Having such a great team allows Ravener to adjust to problems as they come along. At Dollar General, no two days are ever the same, and no matter how much you plan ahead, there are always curveballs thrown your way.
At the end of the day, Ravener tries to put most of his emphasis on his passion, which is people development. He wouldn’t be able to have such a great team if he didn’t have a history of being a part of great teams. To him, helping others advance in their careers is merely a way to pay it forward.
“One of the things that has made a big difference in my life is having a lot of good role models and strong team members around me,” he says. “I’m grateful to the teachers, coaches, and business leaders who took personal interest in me and saw potential and gave me their time and talents. That’s helped form who I’ve become over the last thirty years, and nothing gives me greater satisfaction than seeing others grow and achieve their own success.”
Aside from focusing on developing people, Ravener also has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. His daily info intake includes multiple newspapers, blogs, podcasts, and books. And Ravener is not only constantly researching, reading, asking questions, and trying to be more self-developed in every spare moment, but he is also sharing what he learns with others.
“You don’t learn as much from success as you do from failure and real-world experience.”
In fact, Ravener’s life experiences even spawned his own book: Up! The Difference Between Today and Tomorrow Is You, which was published in 2013. “Basically, it’s about overcoming adversity in life,” he explains. “It’s a personal memoir, but it also has tools and tips for overcoming adversity. It’s a story of someone who started with nothing and made something of himself, with a lot of help from mentors. In summary, life happens. The question is, what are you going to do about it?”
Overcoming adversity in his own life may be why he enjoys working in retail so much. At Dollar General, Ravener sees that rise from the bottom rung of the career ladder to the top of one’s own goals all the time.
Bob Ravener never gives up. He first played, then coached, baseball at the Naval Academy, and he was on the field in 1985 for an exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Midshipmen. In an improbable 4-3 Navy win that day, he had many of the Orioles sign a game ball—except one notable omission. Cal Ripken Jr. did not make the trip to Annapolis for that game due to an on-field injury the previous day. Not until he met Ripken in 2013 did Ravener finally get the hall-of-famer’s autograph on that ball. Ripken, baseball’s all-time leader in consecutive games played, had to admire that kind of determination.
“I’m a big fan of retail to gain life experiences; I get frustrated when I hear retail positions portrayed negatively,” he says. “Retail is one of the last places where people can come out of high school and—if they leverage their emotional agility, work ethic, and coachability—go as far as their career aspirations will take them.”
Dollar General employees get an extra boost from having Ravener as their HR executive. He is squarely focused on acquiring, developing, and promoting employees over the long haul.
Identifying management material begins by figuring out an employee’s ability to grasp store management basics, which requires strong leadership abilities and business acumen. Each Dollar General store has about ten thousand stock-keeping units, which is a lot to track. Good organizational skills are a must.
“You also have to have good emotional intelligence, which means a knack for customer service,” Ravener says. “Overall, you’ve got to be able to multitask across a wide spectrum of activities.”
It’s no surprise, then, that employee training is such a big focus at Dollar General. One of the HR team’s latest projects was revising field training programs, beginning with district managers in 2015. Last year, Ravener and his team revamped the training program for distribution leaders and store managers, and they also elevated the stature of the more than one thousand training store managers, a group that is crucial to the organization.
Another initiative Ravener’s retail HR team has led is an annual internal career day for hourly employees. They can go on-site for the event or participate remotely and ask executives questions about career paths and opportunities within Dollar General.
To help advance people from within, the company tracks the progress of high-potential employees and puts them through a rigorous assessment process to determine whether they’re ready for the next level.
“You need the right person in place who exercises good judgment,” Ravener says. “We also have the right policies and procedures as a compass to guide them in doing what they need to do to keep the store running smoothly. Having both ought to take care of 98 percent of the issues that emerge.”
But like his own job, store manager and distribution leadership roles always have unexpected challenges. When things come up, Ravener wants managers to make the right call and ask for help if they need it. After all, the company promotes an environment where leaders are around to support, coach, and help managers to break down barriers and solve problems.
Ravener has firsthand experience and knows how important it is to make the call for yourself. He wouldn’t be where he is today if he wasn’t allowed to learn from mistakes along the way.
“You don’t learn as much from success as you do from failure and real-world experience,” he says. “When you overcome a challenge, you’ve either had that experience before and learned from it, or you’ve forged improved judgment and developed guiding principles that will help you make better decisions in the future.”
Over the course of his career, Ravener has shown a knack for making good decisions, made even better with strong collaboration with his team. Being part of Dollar General’s growth story and the people who make it happen is just the latest success story.