Think Backwards

Today’s Wednesdays for Women blog is an insightful conversation with Cheryl Williams, CIO at Wakefern Food.  Cheryl recently stood on mainstage at NRF 2019 with Desikan Madhavanur, JDA’s Executive Vice President and Chief Development Officer and Professor Dr. Michael Feindt, founder of Blue Yonder, to share results of AI and ML at work in their supply chain to decrease out of stocks and increase efficiency.   

Cheryl shares her journey working her way through technology to CIO in the grocery space and how she “thinks backwards,” to ensure success is top-of-mind with every project.

Cheryl with her two sons attending a family wedding in Bulgaria

SCN: Can you tell us a bit about your family and growing up in New Jersey?

I was born in New Brunswick, grew up in East Brunswick, moved to North Brunswick when I got married and now I live in South Brunswick.  So, I’ve covered all the Brunswicks – I’m a New Jersey girl through and through!  My husband and I have been married for 35 years, at one point he was a butcher and worked as the meat manager for a competitive grocery firm. He now owns a brokerage company. We have two adult sons living and working in the NJ area; my oldest son works for Bloomberg and my youngest son is a Port Authority Police Officer.

My family has always been in technology. My dad was an early adopter of technology. He worked for Westinghouse and he was assigned to work on their first computer, the first series IBM mainframe.  My mother started in payroll, moved to be a key punch operator and scheduler at Rutgers University.  In high school, I took a programming class and that led me to be a computer science major at Rutgers University.  My passions lie with technology and I was hooked from a young age.

SCN: Can you tell me about your career path and what led you into grocery technology?

In high school I worked in retail sales at Macy’s and in college I interned at Revlon, where I stayed on full time after graduation.

I was given a wonderful opportunity for a role at either Johnson & Johnson, to continue in the manufacturing supply chain side of things, or a new company called Pathmark.  Pathmark was an emerging supermarket chain, only 16 years old, and the culture was filled with enthusiasm and energy.  From the first day I step through the door, I knew it was going to be the best decision I ever made.  I was hooked on the grocery industry and I loved that it was always on the go 24×7 and that I could talk to my neighbors about it. From Pathmark, I went to Wakefern and I’ve been at Wakefern for 22 years and counting!

At some point in my career, I’ve covered it all in grocery IT.  I was the Manager of retail systems (managing all systems in the four walls of the store), then I took over applications development. I became our VP of Marketing where we created the first ever shopper marketing department and created the first eCommerce website for Wakefern. I also had responsibility for quality assurance, specialty grocery, non-perishables, private label, consumer analytics, and more throughout the years.  Technology is my life, and my path gave me a great foundation to see how all areas of the business are run.  I returned to technology and I’ve been CIO for three years now.  My background gives me a whole different perspective as CIO that I’m lucky to have.

SCN: What is your biggest regret?

I can’t say I have many regrets in my life.  After every single project, I think about what I could have done differently, or how could something have been handled better. But everything I’ve done has made me who I am.

That reminds me of a recent lunch outing. I was in a local taco shop and there were two tip buckets: Continue My Life As It Is or I Want To Restart My Life.  I put my tip in the Continue My Life As It Is tip jar.  Unfortunately, the I Want To Restart My Life jar was more full. I hope people realize it’s never too late to try something they are passionate about, learn something new, shadow in a role that has always interested them, or participate in a stretch assignment.  Life is too short for regrets.   I’m very proud of my family, friends, and my career and I don’t have any big regrets.

SCN: What’s your proudest achievement in your career?

I always feel I have been given roles that aren’t necessarily the standard roles.  I’ve always been given roles that were changing the status quo or doing something that hasn’t been done before.  For example, the internet was so new, and I had to work hard at negotiating and influencing others to expand ShopRite From Home (our buy online pick-up in store or deliver at home offering) to where it is today.  We were one of the first early adopters of the digital grocery experience and Wakefern has always been a leader in this space.  I’m most proud of being a part of that team, it was not easy, and it felt like at times I was trying to move an entire building five feet to the right.  There were a lot of challenges, but we continued to evolve and solve problems to succeed.

SCN: What are your tips  on collaboration to cross-functionally working together to achieve a goal?
To me, it’s all about transparency.  I think it’s important to present the data-driven facts in a very transparent way.  People have always said that I don’t mince words and they always know exactly what I’m thinking.

I also believe every leader needs to be flexible and passionate.  The world changes too quickly. You must have flexibility to adjust quickly.  You must have passion. Your passion will show, and it will take you to where you need to be.  If someone wants to learn and has passion, it will show.  When you do presentations, you can see when people are passionate about what they are saying.  My passion is what motivates me, and I think my passion inspires others.

It’s a very complex dance to make a change in any organization, and if I’m transparent and passionate then people understand the common goal.

SCN: How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

My parents raised me to be very responsible; as an only child it was necessary.  For example, I didn’t have a curfew growing up, my parents always told me I was responsible for my life and for my own decisions. I have taken that notion with me in life.

In addition to how I was raised, there is one turning point in my career that really sticks out that has shaped the way I think.  Several years ago, a CEO I was working with at the time called a few of us into his office to explain why a certain project was going awry.  The CEO made it very clear to me that everything is within my control and there are no excuses. I learned that day that it is my job to just make it happen. It caused me to think backwards.  People often think about why things can’t be done, and I always start my thinking with how it can get done.  I start by thinking why and how this will work and be a success.  This perspective of thinking backwards shapes how I think and how I encourage my team to think.  I always tell my team that you own it, it’s within your control, make it happen.  Try it, think backwards, it really does make a difference.