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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

Bagging Groceries Taught Me Everything I Needed to Know About Being an Executive Part 7

Funny meme about management

“The problem with being a leader is that you’re never sure if you’re being followed or chased.” Claire A. Murray

“The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.” Casey Stengel

Lesson 7: You get what you measure. Leaders will do the right thing and get good results. Managers will focus on “the numbers” leading to counterproductive behaviors.

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 seventh in a series of posts describing the Executive Leadership lessons I learned in that first job.

I graduated High School and started my first semester at the local community college. I had good grades and I scored very high on the SAT, so I managed to get a full scholarship. My parents were ecstatic that I was going to college! My mom was a WWII Concentration Camp survivor and my father grew up during the Great Depression, and they had done a remarkable job providing me with everything that I needed (as opposed to wanted!) growing up. Coming from such humble roots, they were very happy that I was going to college.

While in my first semester in college, I was offered a full-time job as a stock clerk at Piggly Wiggly. My pay would be double what I was making as a part time bag boy and I would get health insurance, life insurance and a retirement plan. Almost none of my friends were going to college and I felt a bit out of place, so I quit after the first semester and went to work full time at Piggly Wiggly as a stock clerk.

Of course, I lost my scholarship.

The promotion required me to move to a different store, and upon reporting I was shocked by the difference in management! The store managers were paid a base salary plus bonuses based on a complex formula that considered the size of the store, efficiency, profit margin, capital invested. It was done this way so that every manager had a chance to earn a bonus regardless of the size of their store.

The store I was leaving was a smaller store, so the manager was focused on, well, managing! The schedule was scrubbed to make sure we used as few hours as possible, and people were often sent home early if sales were slower than expected. Our shelves were kept as bare as feasible because excess inventory hurt the capital score, which was store inventory as a function of sales. Every supply was counted, slightly damaged cans of goods were left on the shelf and we often ran out of perishable goods because the manager didn’t want to risk throwing things out if they expired. We routinely ran out of staples like sugar, which had a small area on the shelf. I suggested that we build a display so we would never run out, and the manager told me that sugar was a “low margin product” and you should never display those.

So we kept running out!

The most corrosive thing about focusing on “management” is that it created an unhealthy atmosphere in the store. People show up expecting to work the shift they were scheduled for, and when they were sent home early they resented it. We all hated constantly being followed around to make sure that we weren’t wasting money (including ridiculous rules like turning off the lights in the stock room every time we left – how much money could that have saved??) and the store always looked empty and understocked. I believe customers picked up on all this and went to other stores, which resulted in lower sales. Managements reaction was to be even more focused on the efficiency scores rather than running the store!

The new store was completely different! The management team there was focused on increasing sales, and in fact the manager had a banner in his office that said “Volume Cures all Ills”, meaning if you got the sales, the rest would take care of itself.

And it did!

The store manager in my new store was completely focused on the customer experience. He wanted to make sure that his shelves were full, that the store looked good at all times and that there was a vibrant and energetic feel. One example was the stock room in the back of the store. At my previous store it was always had a dark and slightly dirty feel, while at the new store the manager insisted that it was as neat and well maintained as the aisles where the customers shopped. One of my first days there I noticed that there was an entire end display of sugar! When I asked the manager about it, he said “It’s more important to make sure an in-demand item is always available than it is to worry about the profit margin on a specific item. I’ll get it back in other ways”.

My old store had managers. They worried about the “numbers”, and that led to expedient decisions that created a poor atmosphere for both the customers and the employees. My new store had leaders where they focused on doing the right thing for the customers and employees. Goodness came from those good decisions.

Over the years I have seen this scenario repeat itself in a variety of different settings, sometimes with disastrous results. Managers focus on what is measured. Leaders focus on the business. That is a crucial difference.

What does your management team focus on?


I was in Europe earlier this month to participate in the launch of an extraordinarily successful international project. The project team did a remarkable job of dealing with multiple jurisdictions, legal frameworks and cybersecurity regulations to deliver a project that was on time, within scope, on budget and met the customers needs. Truly remarkable. I am not at liberty to discuss the project or the organization (hopefully it will get some attention from the public in the future), but I know many of the participants either subscribe to my blog or are colleagues on LinkedIn. Congratulations on a fantastic job!


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