As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of Toby Noiles.
Toby Noiles is part of Sky Wellness’s executive team leading operations, sales, eCommerce and supply chain as the COO. In Toby’s 30+ years of experience, she has held several leadership positions mostly in the retail food channel at Safeway, Sam’s Club, Fresh Direct and Northwest Co. The length and sheer breadth of her experience has afforded a deep understanding of and leadership strength in a multitude of functional areas in retail, wholesale and food service. Toby has a proven track record leading transformational strategies delivering profitable share growth again and again and throughout her career she has proven to be an innovative and transformational leader.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
For most of my career, I have led businesses on the other side of the desk focusing on innovation and strategies that will resonate with the end consumer to drive loyalty and share of wallet. On the sales side, one of our largest partners made the statement that the sales relationship has been completed — we are confirmed as one of the three chosen from a placement perspective for the chain but now it is time to accelerate against strategic support for the category. Not only the placement but the trust to do the right thing as a category partner was granted which further solidified that no matter what side of the desk you are on, focusing on the consumer/customer first is always the right strategy and will win the day to foster longer term growth and partnership strength.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh my goodness — that was a long time ago, but one pops to mind that I do still laugh about today. When I first started in retail, I was a brand-new hire for a new store opening. The leader of the division asked if I could do garnishes for the grand opening. I said yes because I always said yes and ran hard to do it but I had no idea what garnishes were, so I went to the library (before internet…lol) to research. I stayed up all night and made 150 different carved garnishes and brought them in on trays. The VP was shocked but said he only expected pepper rings and cucumber swirls. I was a little embarrassed but the salads, etc. looked fantastic garnished. After this he brought me to all new store openings, and I was quickly promoted. This taught me a lesson in life… that being determined and resourceful pays off and you can never really over deliver.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many leaders throughout my 30 years at Safeway that supported me to grow in new positions or uncharted territory and were very generous with their mentorship. Brian Cornell, Larree Renda, Lori Raya, Thom Schwilke, Geoff White, David Lee, Frank Calfas, Stuart Aitken to name a few. With that said, I am most grateful to my father who modeled his hard work and dedication to leading a company and instilled in me at a young age that I was capable of being and doing whatever I put my mind and energy to with the right attitude and determination. This armed me with the confidence (and maybe naivety) that I could break the glass ceilings in a very male dominant industry if that was the path I wanted to forge. Now what he did not teach me or model is balance — which quite frankly I am still working on achieving.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I am still a work in progress reducing the intensity in which I approach the day including high stakes meetings. Preparation of the right content, knowing your audience, the opportunities you can help close, the customers and point of view is certainly important. Spending the time to know the content and flow is equally important but then it is about trusting that you know your “stuff” so that it is not over rehearsed but engaging with the meeting audience for the best outcomes.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Not only is morally and ethically the right position to support, diverse employees in business decisions at all levels make better business decisions up to 87% of the time. Diverse teams tend to work better with other teams, which can result in more collaborations, and better cooperation and coordination across units. Improved satisfaction improves culture and retention also creating better results and lower costs associated with training and onboarding.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I believe corporate HR should define diversity goals and requirements. As part of the bonused objectives, there should be diversity goals both short-term based on where the company is currently, and long-term that would be reflective of the diversity percentages in the country of operation. I think it is also important for the leadership to proactively support change by being a visible sponsor for those that are underrepresented or have been subjected to inequities in society. The teams that I have led have always been reflective of the diversity in the state we operated in. In addition, at Safeway, I was one of the leadership sponsors for GALA (Gay and Lesbian Alliance).
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Honestly, from a leadership perspective, the COO leads in a manner aligned to the culture and frontline leadership best practices similarly to everyone else in the organization. The largest differences would be in the diversity of functional areas in which leadership is given. The COO position spends more time in strategic planning, innovation, team coaching, goal setting, financial review and foundational road mapping. Other than that, time invested in investor updates, partner relationship expansion and cost reduction activities would fill out the remaining differences in role.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I would think that it would be that we are different that others from a talent perspective. Although in some cases that may be true, generally, the role you achieve is a mix between desired path, focus and determination, experiences, mentorship/sponsorship, ability to multitask and remain level, and raw talent/passion to make a difference in the company and the team you work with.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Men and women lead and communicate differently. In a male dominated industry, leadership and business acumen is often judged from a quality perspective dependent on your point of view or own leadership style. Although diversity has proven stats for value or alternate views/styles, this can often be a roadblock. Progress made in a culture often requires executive leadership to lead by example and reward the right behavior. This can be a “chicken or egg” situation until the executive leadership team is balanced or has a very proactive C-Suite team that truly believes in the need and benefit for ensuring diversity within the company leadership levels.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
There really are no differences in what I expected my job to be and what it is. I have a fantastic relationship with our CEO, Thom Brodeur, and the role was well explained prior to accepting the position. I would say, in this size of company, an executive is required to have the ability to pitch in and get into the weeds to bridge team gaps as needed, as well as drive strategy and vision.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
A good leader leverages team talent, listens to diverse opinions, and balances speed and quality of team decision making to the best results. Focus on development of talent and foundation in parallel to driving innovation/initiatives for both short- and long-term strategic goals. Intensity as well as patience is needed to inspire people to raise the bar to deliver top of competitive peer group results.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Although personal development is always key, ride the horse that got your there. I.E. Leverage your strengths and try not to model behavior that is not in your core personality or leadership wheelhouse. Don’t be scared to voice your opinion and stand up to be counted…. we are as strong and as talented as any man, we just lead and manage differently.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Not beyond taking a personal stake in the development and support of the teams I have been fortunate to be part of, as well as speaking at professional engagements. This needs to be an accelerated focus in the next 5 years… to give back.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1 . There are many paths to take leveraging your strengths- do not be scared to make a move to a different position or company…. Who you are as a leader will still apply.
Early in my career, I believed that my value was in my deli/food service expertise. Only when I was strongly requested to lead a leadership restructure activity and customer strategy did I earn the confidence that what I contributed had broader value. The first move out of the comfort of what I knew very well was the hardest and I should have made the move earlier in my career.
2. How you attain results is just as important as what the results are that you achieve.
As a young leader, in a 360 evaluation, I was fortunate for my team to give very honest constructive feedback. I never missed a goal, but the speed and path taken was not optimal for buy in and bringing people along. Turns out, with a shift in focus, the results were as strong, but the team became stronger gaining layers of momentum.
3. Take personal and professional risks. This is when you do you will achieve the largest personal growth and joy.
Every two years for the last 20 years, the organizations I have worked for have trusted me to lead something new in which going in I knew very little about. Not only did it round me out as a leader and afforded me the opportunity to hold C-Suite positions, the initial 18 months were filled will high speed learning and growth — both personally and professionally. In my current role, I am on the CPG side of the business and enjoying every minute of being part of a high growth trajectory company. Change is a great thing for development.
4. Team members respect and enjoy working for a leader who is fair and consistent, and that listens — this is not always consistent with the most likable leader that always says yes.
There have been many times in my career in which a team does not rally as strong behind a leader that does not have an ability to lead through conflict and crisis. Teams need to trust that their leader not only has the best intentions for the company and their own personal careers, but the ability to drive against those intentions to achieve the end game as well as safe passage on the journey.
5. Have fun! Enjoy the journey- even the failures- no one is going to die.
Now 34 in on my journey, although I laughed a lot and cared deeply about the companies and teams I have worked with, time has passed way too quickly and I wish I had smelled the roses a little more.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
The movement of tolerance and balance would be a great movement. Too many opposing sides drawn hard, inflexible lines on so many subjects often politically driven or driven out of fear or ignorance. Very little needs to be black and white and we should be able to tolerate, as well as move into gray areas ourselves, depending on the subject matter without inciting angry rhetoric or judgement.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Life is an Orchestra — it is all in how you conduct it! I really believe life is full of situations, challenges and opportunities. Often it is how you internalize and lead through that make all the difference in how you and others feel as well as the path you travel down with risks and rewards.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Rosalind Brewer and Larree Renda together. Two women that I believe are exceptionally strong women and leaders that have not only helped shape the companies they have led, paved the way for diverse and tolerant cultures, but also personally supported me through some difficult challenges. Shining examples of how to shatter glass ceilings with powerful thought leadership, kindness and grace.