How many senior managers do you know who could run an ice cream store as well as the manager is running it now?
The other day while I was standing in a crowded ice cream store, waiting for the line to move forward so I could get some cooling ice cream because it was above 90 degrees and very humid, a question popped into mind: How many senior managers do I know who could run this ice cream store as well as the manager was running it now? The store was packed but the line was moving, customers seemed to be in good moods, and best of all, the employees behind the counter–not one looking to be over 20–were working as a team.
Certainly, many senior managers could have done the ordering, predicted customer flow and even negotiated good prices with suppliers. But when it got to the real work of dealing with people–teens showing up late for work or not at all, assistant managers not knowing where to turn for supplies or backup employees, or dealing with customers face to face and not via a call center–I’m afraid some folks I know would pull up short.
Let’s be honest. Very few senior leaders would want to run such a store, and so my question is moot, save for one important element: the people quotient. While many senior folks are good at dealing with people in an organized system of process and procedure, few of them would be able to flex with the changing nature of a fast moving retail environment where floor traffic ebbs and flows, and employees come and go. Likewise, few I know would be able to build a business, to harness the power of an idea and bring it to fruition in the competitive jungle of getting a new business off the ground. While senior folks may be good system thinkers, they are not systems thinkers. The difference is huge. System thinking means following the rules and regulations, but systems thinkers focus on the holistic enterprise–that is, making decisions and considering consequences that will affect individuals and the organization.
That is sad because no matter what size the business, be it a mom-and-pop operation or a billion-dollar company, its success will rely upon men and women who are critical thinkers, as well as creative and enterprising. Managers can foster such traits by watching how folks in retail hire and develop their people, usually not from a manual, but from years of practice:
Hire people persons. Working retail is a one on one business, buyer and seller accounting for hundreds of transactions per day. Furthermore, retailers deal with suppliers one on one, whether it’s the person who delivers the supplies, the UPS delivery person or the local contractors–not to mention the city health inspectors. You must have people skills. Tick one of those folks off, and you might not have the syrup you need to make sundaes, or worse, the ice cream. You need to hire people who like to interact with other individuals.
Manage appropriately. Watch how people interact with others. As John Madden, the football analyst and former coach, says, “Coaches watch for what they don’t want to see, and listen for what they don’t want to hear.” What Madden means is the coaches must be observant to what is going right as well as what is going wrong. Sometimes the manager will need to intervene, as with a contractor or supplier, and other times he will have to stand back and let his assistant manager work out conflicts among workers or learn how to fill a schedule when folks do not show up on time.
Learn from what goes wrong. So often, people skip work or fail to do the heavy lifting for one simple reason: They can. No matter the size of the ice cream store (speaking metaphorically here), you must instill a sense of accountability. That means establish consequences. When people do not show up, dock their pay, of course, but warn them that they may be terminated. For those who don’t care, it will be no big deal. But the truth is, you don’t want them in your store anyway. They are trouble. Better to pay a bit more per hour for a quality hire than pay rock-bottom wages for an endless cycle of no shows.
Handling the people quotient
There is one group of folks whose backgrounds make them perfectly suited to running either an ice cream store or something grander in scale: those who have served in the military either as non commissioned or commissioned officers. These folks are accustomed to being in charge, something that’s vital to running a business. But more importantly, they know their power does not come from being in charge (title or rank); it comes from dealing with people and dealing with them as individuals. Yes, the military can order folks to do something, and they will, but that is not often how it works in the ranks. Good officers and non coms know their troops, their likes, dislikes, as well as what excites them and what does not. They are not psychologists, but they know how to foster unit cohesion—that is, soldiers pulling together as one, which is the ultimate strength of any fighting force.
Managing an ice cream store will not land you on the cover of Business Week or Fortune, but of the many senior managers who have graced those covers, it is fun to wonder how many of them could actually run such a shop. Mark Cuban, the in your face and outspoken billionaire investor and sports entrepreneur, once upbraided a sports commissioner by saying he didn’t have what it took to manage a Dairy Queen. When folks at the fast food emporium complained, Cuban, never one to miss making a headline, dropped into a Dairy Queen for a day as manager. As a self made businessman, Cuban acquitted himself well enough, but he was humble enough to acknowledge his limitations. And that’s something that few in senior management would do. And perhaps that’s another added lesson of managing on the front lines. You certainly don’t get a swelled head.