Leadership and the Bottom Line
What I’m going to talk about in this post is some personal, real-world examples of where corporate leaders didn’t just talk the proverbial talk, they actually walked the walk. And I’m going to start with a very recent one-year experience with a very large home improvement chain, where employees never seemed to do quite well enough in management’s eyes. Or at least that was my experience.
It was Saturday morning and I had just started a nine hour shift, during which time I would get two 15 minute paid breaks and a one hour unpaid lunch. With the exception of those three periods I would be on my feet on concrete floor the entire time. And running my ass off.
I had just given my termination notice that I would be leaving shortly to work part-time for a locally owned high-end outdoor gear retailer–more related to my lifestyle. I had two weeks to work but I intended to make the best of them.
A woman in her late fifties (my age) entered the hardware department where I worked. She was seeking a few items, foremost being a lightweight drill. She didn’t like her husband’s heavy 18 volt drill. I shared a comment that my wife, Sue, didn’t like my drill since she had to hold it with two hands. I said that I had a solution for her. What I showed her was a lightweight 12 volt drill which I had sold to an older woman a few weeks before who had severe arthritis in her hands.
My customer fell quickly in love with the drill. That was the ticket. She then needed some accessories and screws. Total interaction time: 10 minutes. She shook my hand and proceeded to the checkout.
The experience didn’t end there.
Minutes later the head cashier came up to me asking where my supervisor was. She had feedback from the female customer who raved about my service, saying among other things how I treated her with respect (something she said was rare in hardware departments) and how helpful I’d been. Within minutes it seemed that the entire front end of the store had heard of my customer service moment. I thought it was hilarious.
I’m a human being with a sufficient ego. Of course it was reinforcing to hear these comments. But over the course of a year I’d had my hand shaken more times than I could count and even been hugged by one male customer for helping him. I love these customers and absolutely respect them. They were a total joy to serve. I don’t give a crap if management noticed. I’m not into pats on the back or badges handed out at semi-annual employee events. I’m into intrinsic motivation, knowing that I did a good job.
What I’m NOT into is nick-picking and pettiness, something my recent employer exceled at. It seemed that employees (or “Associates” for those who drank the corporate Kool-Aid) could never do well enough. You would receive a great performance review, as I did after six months, but it was a state of constant complaints and nagging that “Associates” were not doing well enough.
Let’s put this into context.
Employees in this vast organization earn anywhere from $12/hour upwards. Most are part-timers with very limited benefits. As a federal retiree I didn’t need them fortunately. However, as was said to me numerous times over the course of a year from full-timers was, “Jim, I’m here for the benefits.” And the debilitating comment I heard in the lunchroom: “Management treats us as children.”
What did I do differently for that female customer that Saturday morning?
Absolutely nothing. I treated her the same way as the thousand customers I had served over the course of a year–with respect and attention.
The key when it comes to leadership in customer service is the daily effort to constantly poke yourself, to place yourself in the customer’s shoes: this is how I would like to be treated. I’m demanding as a customer and as a cranky Baby Boomer; so that has helped keep me stay focused when it comes to customer service.
Before moving on to an example of leadership that gets it let me share one other example, which happened to be my last day at work with this home improvement chain.
Again, it was a Saturday; I had only a couple of hours until I pressed the eject button. The store had suddenly quieted down around noon. The beautiful weather was killing retail business. A gentleman in his sixties entered hardware. One of my co-workers was standing beside me. We both turned simultaneously towards the customer and asked if we could help him. He said no thanks, started to continue but suddenly veered towards us. Then he blurted out: “When I come to this store I always find someone to help me. In some of your other stores in Ottawa I can never find anyone.”
This is called a customer service moment. And guess who was standing 30 feet to our left but the store manager, who makes a point of being present when it’s busy.
So I said to the customer that he might like to share his comment with the manager. And that he did. The reaction from the store manager was a little bizarre. As much as he shows leadership by being out in front in a hectic retail setting, he also typically exhibits a funeral-type of expression. I have no idea why. I smile at customers, joking with them, empathizing with them, and wanting to find a solution to their specific issue. The manager looked down while talking to this customer, mumbled something about the other two stores. It was painful to watch.
Here’s how the scene should have gone once the customer expressed his frustration (very politely I should add) to the store manager:
“Thank you, sir, for sharing your feedback on our store. My managers, associates and I strive to provide the best service possible. And as manager I try to ensure that we’re properly staffed during busy periods. I would encourage you to share your concerns with the store managers at the other locations. They would like to hear your feedback. We hope you will continue shopping at our stores.”
And look the customer in the eye.
I still cringe when I reflect on that recent experience.
Let me now share an example of an amazing Canadian leader who knows how to recognize people and who started off as a very competent defense lawyer, who later entered politics in middle age and who became an outstanding leader of a province, and who now is at the apex of one of North America’s largest and most successful banks.
Meet Frank McKenna, a farm boy from Apohaqui, New Brunswick.
During part of my tenure with the Government of Canada I worked and lived in New Brunswick. Frank McKenna was premier (equivalent to a U.S. governor) from 1989 to 1999. When he was elected as premier with all 58 seats in the legislature, he promised that he would only remain in politics for 10 years. He kept his word. When the 10 year mark hit he stepped down as leader and entered the private sector. Some years later he was aggressively courted by the federal Liberal Party to run as leader. He subsequently declined, and I like to think (along with many other Canadians) that Frank McKenna was one of Canada’s great prime ministers who never was.
But why was Frank McKenna such a phenomenal leader?
Besides having a clear action-oriented vision for the Province of New Brunswick and a brutally tough work ethic–where he was at his desk at 7 am every morning having walked over a mile from his home along the St. John River and working into the early evening–McKenna made a consistent point of regularly recognizing lower level civil servants.
He would bypass the hierarchical levels and walk into a policy officer’s cubicle and personally thank him or her for doing a piece of work and for doing it well.
Take a moment to let that sink in.
This is leadership in action. This is the farm boy who is now the Vice-Chairman of TD Bank, one of the fastest growing banks in North America, a Canadian bank with a proud history which now has more branches in the U.S. than in Canada.
If Frank McKenna figured it out two decades ago, without having to read leadership and management books, then so can you.
I worked as a middle manager a long time ago. I’m now retired from the federal public service, and well before I started reading management books and working in the leadership field I figured out on my own that you get much better results if you’re straight up with your team, recognizing them immediately when they do well, instead of nickpicking them. Yeah, I fell on my face a few times in the early years.
So at the tender age of 58, having worked in a variety of venues, and now working in outdoor gear retail after a year with a humongous home improvement retailer where really good service was never enough, I’m still actively learning new stuff and trying to figure out how to keep all the balls in the air. But that’s what life is about. Otherwise, you’re essentially dead.
If you’re in a supervisory position, or in a formalized management role, be sure to step back and reflect upon how you provide feedback to your team. Better yet, ask for regular feedback on how you’re doing. Working in an operational environment, such as fast-paced retail and sales, means it’s even that much more important to ensure that your team is properly recognized AND rewarded.
In doing so you facilitate the alignment of your team towards a shared purpose. And you’re going to have a blast along the way.
Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.
– Tom Peters
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