Bagging Groceries Taught Me Everything I Needed to Know About Being an Executive Part 4
“Your assets are your employees. Invest more on those performing well. Let the non performers go.” Manoj Arora, From the Rat Race to Financial Freedom
“If you do not treat people with the respect they deserve, do not expect any kind of commitment to your productivity goals and target.” Ian Fuhr, Get That Feeling
Lesson 4: You must clearly communicate with subordinates about their performance. No one should ever be surprised by a disciplinary action. It is the cornerstone of good leadership, and you owe it to them.
My first “real” job was at Piggly Wiggly Southern®, a grocery store chain that was primarily based in Georgia in the early 80’s. This is the fourth in a series of posts describing the Executive Leadership lessons I learned in that first job.
A year of bagging groceries and running the cash register quickly passed by. My best friend graduated high school and took a full-time job with the company, requiring him to move to another store. I really missed having him around, but his position as “Front End Manager” was suddenly open! He spoke to management and they agreed to try me in the position. My first management position!
The Front End Manager was responsible for everything in the front of the store with the exception of the cashiers themselves. I was responsible for making the schedule for the bag boys, ordering supplies, and the appearance of the front end of the store. I would eventually be involved in hiring and firing decisions. Later I would be taught how to close the store at the end of the day so I could assist with that if needed. I had just turned 17 so I was very pleased with myself.
I “officially” reported to the Assistant Store Manager, but he delegated that to the Stock Manager who eventually became a good friend of mine. He told me that he had faith in me so he was trusting me to take care of my responsibilities without clearing anything through him. An important lesson in delegation, but that is a different story! I loved the authority, but quickly realized that being a manager changed my relationship with everyone in the store. Since I made the schedule, every week I was accused of either disliking someone (not enough hours) or playing favorites (hours but weekend evenings free). This caused me to develop a standardized rotating scheduled to take the perceived bias out of it. My first experience with management controls!
I quickly learned that managing people was a real challenge. Shockingly, not everyone wanted to work hard, people failed to execute the simplest of tasks and they sometimes called in sick at the most inconvenient times! I tried to serve as a mentor and trainer to new employees just as my friend had done for me. I showed everyone how to stock the front end, how to bag groceries properly, where to store the extra bags and how to clean up the store prior to closing.
I also worked with them on customer service issues. For example, we took pride in the fact that every customer had their groceries taken to the car for them by a bag boy, which meant you had to offer this to every customer and sometimes politely insist on it. While we loved to get tips, we were forbidden to ask for them! I learned a lot a lot about people skills through these interactions, and I tried to teach the new employees what I had learned.
Despite my best efforts, one employee was a constant issue. This person was amazingly lazy and did everything in their power to avoid work. While it seemed like I was spending more time trying to make him work then doing my actual job, I felt obligated to help them become a better employee. After weeks of this, I was frustrated and getting angrier with every shift. One afternoon we were very busy and I had called all the bag boys to the front of the store to deal with the crowd. Everyone was working very hard when I noticed that my problem employee was missing…
I immediately went to the back of the store to look for him, and completely lost my temper when I found him lounging in the back of the store talking to someone in our produce department. I was so angry that I fired him on the spot! He began to cry (we were still kids after all) and tried to convince me to change my mind. I felt I had to hold firm, so I had him turn in his name tag and he left the store. I felt both awful for the employee and proud because I did what I felt was right.
Later that evening the Stock Manager called me to the office. He asked me if I had fired the employee, and I told him I had. Then he asked me something I never forgot: “Did he see it coming? Had you told him that he was a mistake away from losing his job?”.
I had not! As I reflected over the past couple of weeks, I realized that I had fallen into the habit of correcting the employee and fixing what he did wrong, but I never actually talked to them about how bad his performance was! I just assumed he knew! But in retrospect, if I didn’t tell him that his performance was so bad his job was at risk, how would he know?
I suddenly felt ashamed and knew I had done the wrong thing. I asked my friend what I should do and he said: “Nothing. He’s a kid, you’re a kid and you both probably learned something. Just don’t do that ever again.”
In over 35 years as a both a manager and an executive, I never did.
I was inspired to write these articles because I have two daughters who are in school and working at the same time. One is in college and is a supervisor at a at a local sandwich shop and the other is in high school and works at a fast food establishment. My oldest also worked through school and is now a nurse. I told all of them that everything I learned about being a good manager, leader and executive I learned at Piggly Wiggly. They told me to prove it, so here I am! I am proud to say that they all have a good work ethic and are being rewarded for that at work. If you are interested in other articles on a variety of topics, you can access my blog at www.projectmanagementforum.net.