After graduating college, my first real professional experience was in a nationwide retail-clothing store. Having worked there part-time during school, I was afforded the opportunity upon graduation to become a manager in the home store of our District Manager (DM).
As an hourly associate I had heard the horror stories about the DM but I had never really seen the carnage personally. Only working nights and some weekends as an associate, my shifts were always outside of the DM’s normal business hours, but because I was at the home store I always felt the effects. But once I was promoted, received those keys, management responsibilities and more hours I had the opportunity to meet our infamous leader.
I recall the first morning I had to open the store. About and hour after we slung open the gates I saw the DM enter. As I anxiously waited and played out our first conversation in my head, I was face to face with her…all 4 feet 10 inches, 120 pounds of her. There were no pleasantries. No “Hey, how you doing?” No “Hi, you must be Justin!” There was none of that fluffy stuff. The first thing that came out of her mouth was “Why is there no one at the front of the store!” “What is the goal for the day and what were our sales on this day last year?” “Why is no one talking to that [pointing] customer?!?!” As I scrambled to spout off the answers, I thought to myself, “I am NOT about to let this woman haze me! I’m turning in these dang keys!”
Interactions were always strictly business, constant challenges and frequent critiques. While my immediate supervisor was usually there to take most of the heat from her, she always found a way to make my days miserable. However difficult, I couldn’t let her see me sweat…or fail. There was no “He’s the new manager, let’s give him time or cut him some slack.” The expectation was that if I was going to help run that store, I had to produce like I was running that store. She made me better…by holding me accountable, not allowing excuses and by always forcing me to be alert and focused.
I saw to it that sales goals were exceeded. I made sure that the store was always immaculate and that my employees were always equipped, in place and engaged with every client…even with folks that walked by thinking about coming inside my store. I crunched numbers and made plans. I went above and beyond in everything and there was nothing going on in the company that I wasn’t aware of. The last thing I wanted at the end of the night was to report a deficit, as excuses always fell deaf on her ears. I learned everything about our business, our employees and how to get the most out of every client interaction because as much as I didn’t like dealing with her, I didn’t want to disappoint her. She made me better…by expecting me to know what was going on in the industry and with our competition, and I learned that my employees are only as good as the tools I provide them.
Over time I saw that my Super DM was actually human. She could be kind, supportive and funny, but could flip the switch and go right back into retail terminator mode on demand. It was actually pretty darn impressive, as most people I know are unsuccessful at having one persona for work and another for home. I remember feeling sorry for her family and always thinking to myself, “Man if she treats them like she treats us, they won’t stay in that house long!” But my DM knew to whom she could speak to like that. If there were employees she knew wouldn’t respond to her brash style, she would let one of us “nicer” managers handle them or their issue. She made me better…by being an example of knowing how to communicate and motivate specific audiences and by showing me that it’s ok to kick butt during the day and be a softy at night after clocking out.
The four years I worked for her were the foundation of what I have built my career on; balance, focus, knowledge and service. I learned that I could be both forward and personable, but never to let one take away from the other. I learned that setting uncomfortable yet attainable goals for employees and holding them to it helps to build them…and while they may not like you, they will respect you…and perform.
What started off as fear for her turned into respect. What was contempt is now admiration. Sometimes we don’t know just how good a manager is until we get a bad one, and since then, very few of mine have been able to stack up to her. This post is dedicated to a special woman, a tough manager that taught me what success was and inspired me to become the best leader I could possibly be. I left the company better than when I began and it was all thanks to her.