Bagging Groceries Taught Me Everything I Needed to Know About Being an Executive Part 9
“Plow horses are easy. Harness them, work them and feed them. Race horses by nature are high strung. They bite, kick and get hurt easily. But they can sure run fast!” Bill Holmes Jr. My dad.
“Who wants to be the fastest horse in a slow stable?” Kelly Murphy
Lesson 9. High performers are often difficult to manage, but if you want the best for your team you need to figure out how! Having a team of “manageable” people should not be the goal.
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 ninth in a series of posts describing the Executive Leadership lessons I learned in that first job.
Having dropped out of college, I was now a full time stock clerk at Piggly Wiggly. I was young, had a cool car, regular paycheck and job security. Good to be 18! We had a good crew, things got done and there was good morale. There was a hierarchy among the stock clerks with the fastest and best being on the harder aisles (canned goods) and the slower being on easier aisles (paper goods, dog food). The best stock clerk was in line for Assistant Stock Manager, and with that position came perks and additional pay. I was very quick so I felt that I was next in line.
Then Jacky showed up.
Jacky showed up one evening with the store manager, and he informed us that Jacky was now on the crew and would be given the hardest aisle to stock. While most of us were just out of high school, Jacky was in his mid-thirties with a permanent dab of chewing tobacco in his lip and thinning blond hair that seemed to go in almost every direction. He also had a gleam in his eye that for some reason reminded me of a leprechaun. I liked him immediately.
The story was that he was somehow connected to the Store Manager through marriage, and that he had lost his job at the Datsun dealership because he hit a customer with the camshaft of a motor. I immediately thought that was a crazy story, but after I got to know him better I realized it was possible!
Did I mention he was the fastest stocker I had ever seen? The aisle he had been assigned was normally the last one done, and it was common for those of us with easier aisles to go help after we were finished. On his first night, Jacky came over and asked me if I needed any help. I explained that we all finished our aisles first, then found someone to help. He spit into a cup and said “Well, that’s why I am here.” I couldn’t believe it! I went to his aisle and it was completely stocked, beautifully done and he had even already taken his excess inventory back to the stockroom. Everything he did was like that. Fast and perfect. He was a racehorse!
But like all racehorses, he had an ornery side! Some examples.
After the store was closed he would get bored and would start throwing groceries at you! “Bill!” he would should out and I would answer back. Suddenly I would hear him yell “Incoming!” and a bag of rice or a can of Vienna Sausages would come sailing across the aisle aimed directly at where I had answered from.
On another occasion we were unloading a huge truck of watermelons. Jacky immediately “volunteered” to be on the truck handing the watermelons down to us. I couldn’t understand why he would volunteer because he would have to work twice as hard as everyone else, but I soon did! These were very big watermelons, and at first he would gently hand it down making sure you had it. After a couple of trips he started dropping them to me from a few feet up. And I noticed that twinkle in his eye. A few trips later, he was throwing them down to us with a cheery “heads up” with each melon. The last one he threw at me hit so hard that it knocked me down and the watermelon exploded all over me.
He thought it was hilarious.
Final example. We had a grand opening at another store and corporate had brought in the “Piggly Wiggly” mascot costume. For those of you not familiar with the logo, it was a very cheerful pig in a grocery hat. On the costume, the head was huge, and you looked out through the mouth. The hands had three large fingers, which will come into play later! After the grand opening of the other store, the pig costume was rotated through the local locations to generate traffic. One very hot August Saturday it was our stores turn. Not thinking it through, I volunteered to wear the costume first. My logic was that standing on the corner waving to motorists was an easy way to spend a Saturday! I forgot two things. 1) A hot plastic costume was the last thing you wanted to wear on a hot Georgia day in August and 2) people are mean and loved shouting obscenities at people on the side of the road in costumes!
I made it for about an hour. By then I was certain I was on the verge of heatstroke, so I came inside and went to the stores backroom where I pulled off the head and tried to cool off. Jackie came strolling up and asked what I was doing as he spit a wad of tobacco into a cup. I told him, and he said “I’ll wear the pig.” He put on the costume, commented how I needed to take a shower and wandered toward the front of the store. A few minutes later, the manager asked why I wasn’t outside and I told him in needed to cool down. He said “OK” and started walking away, but suddenly stopped and asked, “Who is wearing the pig?”. “Jacky” I said. I’ll never forget the horrified look on his face as he muttered “Oh no!” and ran to the front of the store! I followed and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Jacky didn’t have the tolerance that I did for people yelling at him, so I was greeted to the sight of the Piggly Wiggly mascot screaming obscenities at passers by and giving them the middle “finger” on the costumes hand!
But he didn’t get fired.
Jacky was a racehorse who elevated the performance of those around him despite his quirks. He was so incredibly fast at his job that everyone else was forced to speed up and the entire crew was more efficient. The Store Manager was a leader who understand that exceptionally high performers needed to be handled differently than average employees, and that you take the good with the bad.
A less enlightened manager would have only focused on the negatives and Jacky would have been fired over some procedural issue.
And the store would have been worse for it.
What do you focus on? Do you focus on the high performers and provide an environment where they can excel? Or do you create an environment where all the racehorses leave and you are left with a bunch of plow horses? They are easier to manage, but should that be go goal?
No, it shouldn’t be.
Kelly Murphy was a mentor and great friend when I first became a manager in Atlanta, GA. We remained close as I worked in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Philadelphia and ultimately Washington, DC. I would call him often as I confronted some issue or another, and he always kept me grounded and reminded me that all decisions should come from core principles. He was extremely helpful in keeping me humble (well, he tried!) after I got my first assignment as an executive. He was an amazing man. He fought a valiant battle with cancer, but ultimately lost that battle several years ago. I miss him.