Both good and bad managers have a lasting impact and they live in the memory of those who worked for them. I have been traveling through my own time archives thinking about those several individuals who impacted me on my own career journey. This article is the tale of two different managers and the lessons they taught me that I share with others today in my leadership development work. I will call these managers Kurt and John.
While I was in school, I worked for a large retail store chain. We had many employees there who worked different shifts. In general, with a few exceptions, we were all hard working individuals. We knew our jobs and we worked well together.
Looking back, we were a very diverse group not only in the usual areas of race, gender, age, and national origin, but also in our communication and interaction styles. Despite our differences, there was one area of unanimous agreement among all of us. We hated working for Kurt and we liked working for John.
In fact, when our weekly work schedules were posted on Sundays we all rushed to the bulletin board to see who got to work with Kurt and who got to work with John. Those who worked with John that week always teased those who had to work with Kurt. It was a running joke among the store's staff members.
What was it about Kurt and John that brought us all to the same conclusions? They both got results. They both expected us to do our jobs. They both were consistent in their interactions with others.
In two words, the difference between them came down to leadership style. We hated the way Kurt led us and we appreciated the way John led us.
Working for Kurt
Kurt did not have favorites--he treated us all the same. He drove us like we were cattle. He spent his time circulating the floor to let us know he was monitoring our work, and he gave us unrealistic production requirements.
Kurt was very quick to punish any mistakes that any staff member made, and this correction usually came with an angry verbal public scolding in front of any customers or other staff members who happened to be present. Clearly, Kurt believed that public embarrassment was the best way to prevent staff mistakes from occurring. We all needed our jobs so we worked hard to meet his many demands and to avoid his emotionally charged verbal attacks.
Kurt seemed to enjoy taking disciplinary action against employees. It wasn't what he said that gave us that impression. Rather, it was what you felt from Kurt after he disciplined an employee. You could tell that he was happy and his floor monitoring on those occasions took on an air of the following:
You better not mess with me! Did you see what I just did?
Kurt's disciplinary actions included firings. In fact, most of the employee terminations in the store occurred on one of his shifts. Whenever he did take some type of disciplinary action with an employee our general reaction was to question the fairness of Kurt's actions. This was true even when we knew an employee failed in some aspect of his or her job. Because of Kurt's leadership style, there was rarely a clean separating line between the employee's behavior and Kurt's.
The only time Kurt relaxed his tight control was when the district manager visited the store. For these visits, Kurt underwent a personality transformation becoming a cordial manager. He would circle the floor and ask us how we were doing. When this occurred, we all knew that one of the top corporate bosses was in the store and probably looking down on floor operations as Kurt spoke with us. We used to call their visits "staff relief day." (The day the big boss came to the store and we could get some relief from Kurt's overbearing leadership style.)
Despite how we felt about Kurt and his leadership style, he did get results. In fact, he was one of the most productive shift managers for the district. When our store manager position became vacant, he became one of the top candidates for the position.
Working for John
John did not have favorites either--he treated us all the same. He gave us realistic production requirements, trusted us to do our jobs (until shown differently), and he asked for our input as work issues arose.
When mistakes occurred, John's first step was to ask what occurred, work with the team member on resolution, and then hold the team member accountable for a better effort the next time. He also talked to the team member about any mistakes he or she made in a secluded area of the store so peers or customers would not hear the conversation.
John expected us to get our work done and to do it correctly but he coached more than he directed. John also took time to interact with us individually as he checked to make sure we did not have any concerns or questions about team operations. John was personable but he wasn't overly lenient.
In fact, like Kurt, John would take disciplinary action when he felt it was appropriate. The difference between Kurt and John was that John started with coaching, however. John moved to disciplinary action when a team member did not respond appropriately to his coaching. He rarely fired an employee as most team members responded positively to his coaching. When he did take some type of disciplinary action with an employee, our general consensus was that the team member deserved it.
John did not seem to get any special pleasure from taking disciplinary action. Instead, you felt from him that he saw disciplinary action as something that was necessary for him to do for the good of store operations. He knew it came with his job as a manager.
This was particularly true in the rare occasion when John terminated someone. In those occasions, John did not take visible pleasure in the power he held over us. He made the tough call that was necessary and instead of gloating, he just refocused us on fulfilling our duties.
Finally, unlike Kurt, John's behavior did not change when the district manager visited the store. We never had any way of knowing when the district manager was at the store by the way John interacted with us. Like Kurt, John was also a productive shift manager for the district. His numbers were slightly below Kurt's. John was also one of the top candidates for the vacant store manager position.
The Day Everything Blew Up!
Specifically, one day a fatality occurred in our store that upset everyone. The cashiers who witnessed the incident were visibly shaken and some were crying. Those of us who worked in the warehouse were also stunned.
After public safety personnel left the store and removed the body, we milled about for a short time trying to make sense out of what had just happened. Kurt circled the sales floor in his usual manner and then called us all together. I still remember my thoughts at the time. I knew Kurt was going to take charge of the situation, offer words of encouragement and send some of the more upset cashiers home (as they were in no position to work).
I was wrong, however. When Kurt did speak, we were stunned. He proceeded to verbally attack the cashiers for being so emotional and not serving the customers. He told the rest of us to clean up the mess and get back to work. He also told us that we had to have all of the day's work done by our regular shift ending time. Clearly, Kurt was concerned about keeping his production record untarnished.
Kurt did get results that day--just not the ones he wanted. Some staff quit immediately and walked off the job and others later complained to district headquarters. Still, others insisted on working other schedules when Kurt was not in charge and everyone held him in contempt.
Senior management took notice of this uncommon reaction from the store's staff and Kurt's promotion disappeared with the actions he took that day. Instead, John was later rewarded BOTH for his ability to get good results and also for his ability to work effectively with employees.
Leadership: It's More Than Results!
Results are critical for any leader, but there are sometimes when we should argue with a leader's results! This is especially true when the leader's results come at the expense of the overall well-being of the team of people who have to do the actual work.
Ultimately, Kurt failed as a leader and John succeeded as a leader because of the way they made us feel. When we worked with Kurt, we felt tense, frustrated, angry, powerless, etc. When we worked with John, we felt supported, respected, engaged, and empowered.
It's been decades since I worked in that store but I still remember how those two managers made me feel. Ultimately, the key to consistent effective leadership is the following: How do you make your employees feel?
LEADING LIKE JOHN
12 Steps to Improve Your Leadership Effectiveness
A proven way to improve your leadership effectiveness is to incorporate the best practices of successful leaders (like John) into your own leadership style. The challenge to leading like the best is that you have to first learn from them. Next, you have to identify their best practices that can easily translate to your own situation. Finally, you need some practical instruction that shows you how to do what they do. This book with its accompanying workbook can help you to take the next step to transform your leadership effectiveness and organizational reputation in your organization. Available in ebook and paperback formats.