Leadership tips from the liquor industry | Ashleigh’s story

January 15, 2023
leadership tips

From a young age, Ashleigh Smith knew she wanted to work in a customer-facing role.

Although originally working in the beauty industry, when Ashleigh came across an opportunity in liquor with retail giant Coles, she jumped on it without hesitation.

leadership tips

“I like a customer-facing role where every day is unique. The liquor industry is also constantly evolving and changing.”

Today, Ashleigh is an Area Manager for the company’s liquor division, leading 24 stores in her region.

As her role and responsibilities get bigger, Ashleigh reflects on how much she has grown personally and professionally as a leader.

We asked Ashleigh some of the biggest lessons she’s learned about leadership so far, and here’s what she shared.

1. You’re only as good as your team

Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice when you talk to Ashleigh about her career is how much she loves the people she manages. And the more she talks about her work, the more you’ll realize that she knows just how crucial her teams are to her success.

“I have won awards for Store Manager and Area Manager of the year. And both times, it was due to teamwork and the return on the hard work and engagement of the teams I’ve had the pleasure of leading.”

After all, in an industry as large and complex as the liquor industry, you won’t go far without the support of the people you work with.

Ashleigh reminds us that no matter your industry or line of work, leadership will never be about “I” – it’s about “we”.

Like a conductor guiding an orchestra (in Ashleigh’s case, 24 orchestras), success is a collaborative event – one where every member fulfills their role.

She credits her success to her dedication to really knowing the people she manages.

coles team

“Leading people while building relationships with them is perhaps one of the most important skills a senior leader should have.”

2. It’s about empowering individuals

In a perfect world, you would give your instructions and guidance to your team, and that would be it. But the reality is that we work with people, not robots. And people have their own thoughts, feelings, and ambitions.

And as most managers will tell you, aligning everyone to a common goal can be incredibly challenging. But one major key, Ashleigh tells us, is empowering the individuals on your team. 

“It’s one thing to give orders, and it’s another to seek their input on important area decisions. Giving my team a sense of ownership and building what we plan to deliver together is the one lesson I’ve learnt that I will always commit to.”

Good leadership, then, isn’t a dictatorship. It’s a collaboration. And this requires adapting your leadership style to suit the people you work with.

“I have learnt to adapt my leadership style to a person’s profile and personality to drive them to deliver our vision. I also try to look at things from my team’s point of view as well as mine.”

Whenever she encounters pushback or conflicting ideas from her team, Ashleigh has learned to work on finding solutions together. She remembers a favorite line she picked up from one of her mentors:

“Build it together – 25 minds are better than one.”

As a leader, Ashleigh also sees herself more as a coach than just a boss.

Ashleigh smith coles

“The best part of my role is coaching my team. I work towards fostering a supportive and open network where my team members can be themselves and reach their own career paths.”

3. A supportive company gets you farther

Having a solid team can take you far as a leader. But if you want to go farther faster, you need to work with a company that understands the value of good leadership.

Ashleigh is thankful to have found such a company with Coles.

“I completed both Liquor Retail Leaders Programs One and Two while with the company. Since then, I have been given the opportunity to deliver my leadership skills and build strong teams along the way.”

These programs have been instrumental in Ashleigh’s career growth, arming her with the tools and knowledge to lead more people as her responsibilities grew.

“The programs are designed to provide the knowledge to successfully lead our liquor teams and stores by engaging a range of activities, including face-to-face workshops, online webinars, self-paced activities, on-the-job tasks, and peer-to-peer learning.”

Ashleigh also loves that the company invests not just in its senior management but also employees at other levels.

“Outside of our learning Hub and Liquor Leadership Programs, we have a partnership with Coursera that provides short courses to strengthen the many skillsets of our store managers, allowing them to attain a university certification.”

Coles offers flexible working arrangements, shared caring responsibility entitlements, and career development programs that empower more women in the workplace.

Learn more 

4. Leadership is leading by example

Ashleigh knows that she can’t expect things from her team that she can’t expect from herself. That’s why she makes leading by example a core part of her leadership philosophy.

And it all starts with the right attitude.

“I think that a person can change their future by merely changing their attitude.”

This positive attitude is what Ashleigh has used to drive herself in every role, and it’s what she aims to foster in every person she manages.

“When you can implement a positive attitude at work, your team members may be more likely to follow your example. It’s also the foundation to providing quality customer service.”

Ashleigh also promotes proper work-life balance among her team, which, she admits, she also needs to work on.

“I have struggled with creating the optimal work-life balance throughout my leadership path. It’s something I feel most people face from time to time, but I know the importance of finding time to do the things I love.”

This balance, Ashleigh adds, is something she wants to instill together with her teams.

“In our operations agenda, I always resonate with the health and happiness of each of my teams. I like to use health, food, and exercise to optimize performance both personally and professionally. And I encourage my teams to do the same.”

5. You should welcome and enable change

Finally, central to being a good leader is constantly working on improving things and always steering the ship in the right direction.

This requires welcoming and enabling change. And for Ashleigh, this largely means creating a better future for women in her industry.

“It’s important for women to root for and support other women. For the women in our business, I think it’s important to remember that everyone faces their own struggles. Have the confidence to be you.”

She remains committed to empowering women in her field as well as setting an example for others with transferrable skills that are considering entering the industry.

Ashleigh Smith Coles

“Closing the gender gap is an important social and professional goal that organizations should commit to with enthusiasm. Having more women leading companies shows a positive shift in business attitude.”

And as that attitude shifts in the liquor industry, we’re confident you’ll find Ashleigh leading the way.

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About the Author

Jacynta Clayton’s career started in recruitment advertising and employer branding, working with global clients to create and deploy strategic and creative content. Now she combines her industry experience with the knowledge from her psychology and professional writing degrees to write unique and resounding stories. As a WORK180 storyteller she relishes the opportunity to elevate the voices and experiences of so many amazing people, while also empowering and educating audiences on how to choose a workplace where they can thrive.

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