Bagging Groceries Taught Me Everything I Needed to Know About Being an Executive Part 5
“Friendship ... is born at the moment when one man says to another "What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
“Et tu, Brute?” William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Lesson 5: Work colleagues are not friends. Find out who your true friends are and keep your mouth shut in front of everyone else.
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 fifth in a series of posts describing the Executive Leadership lessons I learned in that first job.
This is a lesson that I learned but continue to have problems following. I am by nature a social person who enjoys talking to people, and I would never betray someone who told me something in confidence. I would also never harm a colleague by “telling” on them for something trivial that they may have said. If I had a problem with something someone said, I would confront them with it! But some people are weasels…
I had been the Front End Manager for about six months and things were going well. I had a good team and the job had become second nature. I was also in my senior year of high school and was facing the prospect of making choices that would shape the rest of my life. I was deciding if I should go immediatly to college, which may seem like a strange thing people who are reading this. In that place and at that time, going to college was not an automatic decision for my friends and me.
As a “manager”, I found myself beginning to associate with other members of the management team. The Stock Manager and I became good friends and he was a great guy with a good heart. The Perishables Goods Manager was a very a nice lady who always had a smile on her face and was quick to tell me stories about her kids who were around my age. The Head Cashier was a pleasant lady who always wanted me to bag for her because she was exceptionally fast checking people out and I was one of the few who could keep up her! As we came to know each other, I began to let my guard down.
That was a mistake.
The Assistant Store Manager was not liked. Today I would say that he was a micro-manager, not a leader. Back then I would have just said he was a jerk. Which I did…
One Saturday morning I was talking to the Perishables Goods Manager and the Head Cashier when the Assistant Store Manager approached us. He immediately made a smart comment about the three of us standing there, then proceeded to critique the jobs that the we were doing by pointing out what we felt were insignificant things. After he walked away, the two ladies began saying unkind things about him and I contributed by saying that he could be a “real jerk”.
I thought nothing of it.
The next day when I came in to work, I was asked to come to the office. I was surprised to see the Store Manager, the Assistant Store Manager, the Stock Manager and the Assistant Stock Manager waiting there for me. I honestly had no idea what was going on but was smart enough to know that it couldn’t be good! I was immediate confronted and asked if I had called the Assistant Store Manager a jerk.
My mind was racing! Why was I sitting here? The other two people had said much worse things. I suddenly realized that I had been betrayed! People who I thought were my friends had gone out of their way to betray me. Worse, they had participated in the discussion and only reported my transgressions. Why would they do this? What did they have to gain? The short answer (as I later found out) was that some people are just jerks.
But I had a question to answer. I looked directly at the Assistant Store Manager and told him that I had said that he could act like a jerk at times, and then apologized because I knew it was wrong to say that. I owned it and didn’t betray my colleagues. He accepted my apology. The Store Manager then told me he was impressed by my honesty and had I tried to avoid it he would have fired me on the spot. He told me that he couldn’t have a senior member of his team be disrespected, and he had no choice but to suspend me for a week. Effective immediately. He told everyone that I was a great worker who made a mistake, and that he didn’t want anyone else to know that I was suspended. If he heard from anyone that the news that I had been suspended got out, there would be repercussions.
Then he looked at me and told me to “put on my game face, clock out and go home”.
I was completely numb. I had been betrayed by people I trusted and now my “career” was at risk. I reflected on the situation and came to the realization that I was overly trusting and a bit naïve. People are mean just to be mean, and some people look for opportunities to hurt other people. I also realized that I needed to understand who were my friends and treat everyone else as colleagues who had the potential to betray me.
That lesson is as applicable in the board room as it is at the grocery store.
My first day back is the focus of the next executive lesson.
If you have been following the news in the United States about texts and emails between government officials, you know the risk you take when you talk about someone! It seems like every day someone ruins their career with a poorly thought out Tweet, Facebook post or statement to the press. Electronic media makes it possible for your bad choices to be on display forever! While everyone has made the mistake of saying something they regret, I think the best rule is to never say anything behind someone’s back you wouldn’t say to their face. And know who your friends are. They are the only ones you should confide in.