Real Leaders

Cracking the Leadership Code: Trader Joe’s – a Remarkable Retail Business

‘Business intimacy’.

These two words aren’t often used in the same sentence. Many might argue that it’s not even plausible to use emotive words such as ‘intimacy’ in a business context.
My contention is that it’s highly performance-enhancing to develop such a degree of closeness with your business because it enables you to intervene in a far more nuanced and accurate way.
To illustrate this, every so often I am going to share a story about a business that has honed its success formula to an unusually intimate degree. This week, Trader Joe’s is my example.

For those of you who might not be familiar with this business, Trader Joe’s is a stand-out American retail operation. Not only are they very successful (their sales per square meter performance is 2x that of any of their competitors) but they are also highly unique in their approach. In fact, they defy norms and often do things that might seem counter-intuitive to other businesses.

As an illustration of this, consider their core values:

  • We are a product-driven company
  • We create WOW customer experiences every day
  • No bureaucracy
  • The store is the brand
  • Integrity
  • We are a national chain of neighborhood grocery stores

What impresses me is less about the content, but more about the clarity with which Trader Joe’s knows what it is – and isn’t.
And it’s written down, codified, honed over time, and publicly known. The challenge for you, the CEO, is to get to a similar place of intimacy with your success formula.


  • Have you ‘officially’ codified your business and interrogated that thinking to a point of high accuracy?
  • Have you written it down in order to create an artifact that can live within the business, known by many?
  • Have you made it public, understood, and well-known within your business?

The value of doing so is broad:

  • The more people who understand this codification, the better they can execute it.
  • The better your success formula is known, so better choices and decisions can be made that honor it.
  • The better you, the CEO, understand your business and what makes it ‘tick’ the more accurately you can lead the business.

I am fascinated by this codification process as it’s truly a higher-order form of CEOship that has profound implications across your business. At the same time, I recognize that the higher-order nature of this thinking can feel nebulous or a nice-to-have (which I’m utterly convinced it’s not).

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