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Leadership and the Bottom Line

October 14, 2013

PVM1 A ton has been written over the years on recognizing and rewarding employees. I’m not going to revisit that. We’ve all been there, done that.

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.”

How motivating.

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.

PVM3 I’m no better than you. I do have an ingrained sense of helping others that was embedded in me in the late 70s when I worked in consumer lending. But I’m just a regular dude.

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.

Frank+McKenna+ONEXONE+Gala+TIFF+2008+lbyiwylA9qWl 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.

Trust me.

Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.

Tom Peters

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2013 2:15 am

    Jim, I love your article. I am a new supervisor but an “old guy” who has been around the block. I have been tired of working for some bosses who were anything but leaders or who were not interested in much else other than enhancing their own careers. Therefore, at a time when most of my peers were retiring, I decided to promote and “do things the right way.” Hope that doesn’t sound cocky. I don’t think I am but I am confident I can both motivate people and make them feel good about themselves while I help them to get the job done properly and safely.

    I don’t like much of the “leadership” training that is being offered these days. Much of it is not really revolutionary nor useful. There are lots of theories and fanciful ideas. I think that much of it is just an excuse for some people to make money in the “leadership” industry and to inflate their already over-inflated egos.

    The reason I feel confident I can do a pretty good job as a leader is: 1) I know the job of my employees really well (I did it for 23 years); 2) I am with them in the field with them and not always in the office (helping and monitoring but not micro-managing); and 3) I really care about them and looks for ways to help them achieve career goals.

    Your article about taking the time to care about what employees think, do and then to thank them for good work is a breath of fresh air (though you could do better with less crass expressions dude). These mandatory “leadership” classes I am taking as a new supervisor would be more tolerable if the instructors would simply admit a simple truth first. Treat employees the way you want to be treated. The Golden Rule is still the gold standard of great leadership. It’s that simple my friend. You don’t need to go to Harvard Business School for that one.

    • October 18, 2013 3:03 am

      Thanks for stopping by Jim to read this post, and I especially appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences. While I haven’t been on leadership training courses for a long time. I can imagine their being akin to much of the recent literature: recycle and boring. I was fortunate when I went to conferences and training sessions in the nineties since that was when people like Peter Senge and John Kotter were producing exciting new ideas and concepts. I did my second Masters in leadership in the late nineties and benefited from from many of the individuals.

      You hit three very important points on how you function as a leader. Self-confidence as a leader is a major asset, provided one has a strong desire to learn. And in the words of Angeles Arrien, author of The Fourfold Way (be sure to check it out): “Be open to outcome, not attached to it.” These words have guided me for 15 years.

      On a separate note, with respect to your parenthetical comment of crassness, I can’t recall what I said, but let me frame it this way. I’ve been blogging for 5 years and have over 360 posts on my blog, plus some 20 ebooks and white papers. While the latter are written in a semi-casual manner, my blog writing is more relaxed. I’ve learned from the experts, and blogging is a different ball of wax from other writing. I spent 30 years writing in government, using its risk-averse, stilted prose; taught at the Masters level and wrote academic papers; and more recently do some contract writing which has rigid requirements.

      That’s not to make any excuses, except to say that my blog is my blog and a huge amount of thought and care goes into each post. For me it’s freedom from having to cater to editors or paranoid bosses. For example, if I use the word “bullshit” in a post, then that’s the best word that aptly describes the message I’m conveying.

      I do appreciate your comment. I’m just replying to help frame it in context of the blogosphere..

      Thanks again for taking the time to share your comments.

  2. October 14, 2013 3:46 pm


    Loved the personal examples at the hardware store where you worked. Sounds like the store should be sorry to lose you. It’s always surprising to me when management doesn’t seem to understand the basics of customer service and also employee motivation. You would think in a chain store, there’s be some leadership training for the folks who run their stores. Maybe in your letter of resignation you could leave a link to this blog post. 🙂

    • October 14, 2013 6:17 pm

      The company has, or had, an online exit survey for the store’s HR manager told me that it wasn’t work. But it doesn’t matter since this particular store and more broadly the company doesn’t really care what employees think. The “empower” word is used loosely, but it’s essentially meaningless crap. The only reason, in my view, why it’s doing as well as it is is because its main competitors have really bad customer service.

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