July 15, 2020
July 15, 2020
My first real job was in a U-Totem convenience store, where I worked through five different store managers and had an opportunity to observe how not to manage a business. My second job was in a small independent grocery store where I survived three management changes, command and control management, and more examples of what did and did not work.
In July of 1970, I turned sixteen and was old enough to go to work legally. Having four years of full-time food retailing experience, I went to work as a top paid food clerk in one of Houston‘s earliest Safeway Stores, Inc. stores. By July of 1972, I had performed just about every job available in a food store and was promoted to Management Trainee. In 1974, I became an Assistant Store Manager and was promoted to Store Manager in 1975.
Back in those days, Houston was like the Wild West and the Houston Safeway division was no different. The city was young, expanding and experiencing intense growing pains, many of which were caused by runaway inflation, changing demographics, and very little infrastructure. The division was growing quickly, opening new stores every month, and since few people were willing to relocate to Houston, we had to grow most of our management team from scratch. We had labor strikes, racial difficulties, and an unskilled labor force. To make things even more interesting, it seemed every time I looked up, I was looking down the barrel of a gun. Supermarkets were vulnerable then because we had to have large sums of money on hand to cash payroll checks, and no real way to protect it. To say we had challenges would be a major understatement. What we did have, was a man named Don Gates. Without him, this fledgling division could have been a complete failure. Instead, we went from 0% to 23% of the greater Houston market in eight years.
When I was promoted to Store Manager, I knew exactly what was expected of me, despite the chaos. I had heard the message of our Retail Operations Manager, the executive to whom all of our district managers reported, and it was simple yet crystal clear. I remember attending a meeting in which he said “Folks, the workweek is 48 hours. If you can get the job done in 38, that’s fine. If it takes you 90, that won’t hurt my feelings either. If I come to your store at 2 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and everything is running fine, all you’re going to get from me is praise for a job well done. If on the other hand, I come in at 9 o’clock on Sunday night, and your store is in bad shape, we’ll have a tough conversation right then. Our jobs, then, are all about running well-staffed, well-stocked, squeaky clean stores, making Mrs. Jones happy, increasing sales, building winning store teams, and making money. That’s it. I’m not going to tell you how to do it. That’s your job. We’re all adults here, and we all have the same objective. None of you are here to impress me, nor any of the suits who might visit your store. If you are impressing Mrs. Jones, running your business, growing your people, and making a buck, we’ll all be just fine.”
During the nine years I spent with Safeway, I received an absolutely spectacular education. I learned what good management looked like and what micro-management looked like. I saw outstanding leadership combined with good management produce great results. I saw micro-management deliver devastating results. It was during the eight years I spent with Don Gates, that I had the distinct pleasure of seeing the spectacular results that come from good management and outstanding leadership.
Don Gates was a fiery and passionate retailing executive who epitomized total performance leadership. He was a high school graduate who often talked about spending ten years as a produce department manager. Don was hardly the typical executive you would see described in a modern-day search spec, you know the ones right out of central casting, yet I can’t think of a single executive who could have outdone him. When Don left our division to take over the reins in Butte, a thirty-nine store division regarded by many as a starter division, he made dramatic improvements in-store performance, and the division made money for the first time in many years.
He left the Butte division to take over the Kansas City division where he repeated his stellar performance. Don‘s next stop was the Southern California division, the largest division in the company, where he set records for same-store sales and profits as well as overall Return on Investment performance. He was then asked to lead the Eastern Division, headquartered in Landover, Maryland, and ultimately retired as Division President in Phoenix. Don’s performance in each assignment was unprecedented at that time, and to this day is unrivaled.
I make it a point to stop and talk about Don Gates for a number of reasons. First of all, leadership is not limited to, or just about degrees, years of experience, job titles, intelligence, pedigree, or technical expertise.
Total performance leaders consistently lead in a manner that inspires others to trust and follow them. They know how to connect with the workforce in such a manner that everyone in the organization understands the purpose. They are involved in all of the critical areas of the business: strategy, people systems, and operations. They are not micromanagers, but they are fully aware of what is going on in their business. They understand what drives the business. Total performance leaders encourage their leadership teams to stretch and achieve while holding everyone accountable for his or her performance, behavior, and promises.
Total performance leaders, unlike micromanagers, help their organizations cope with ambiguity by crystallizing the end objective, painting the vision, assigning priorities, separating the wheat from the chaff, and providing a laser-like focus. Total performance leaders do not know it all; and they know it. They understand their own strengths, weaknesses, and propensities; they delegate and compensate accordingly. Total performance leaders share information, resources, and credit effectively. They understand there is no limit to what can be accomplished if they do not care who gets the credit.
Total performance leaders are real people. They are not afraid to show vulnerability, admit mistakes, and ask for help. They are constantly communicating their company‘s vision, purpose, and values. Total performance leaders are constantly mindful of customers, end-users, and their rank-and-file employees. Total performance leaders are decisive, not reckless. They understand that a good plan, well-executed, beats a perfect plan with mediocre execution every time. These people understand that all employees deep down want to do a good job and want to feel like they are contributing. They understand that we are all looking for leadership.
Total performance leaders are confident, yet not arrogant. They are in constant contact with their organization to the extent they can feel the pulse; their constituents feel a connection with them. Total performance leaders have a sense of humor and the ability to make the job fun. They understand the power of a workforce that is happy to see them, not afraid of them. These individuals are high integrity players. They mean and do what they say, they have no hidden agendas. Most high-performance leaders are storytellers. They teach by telling stories, using anecdotes and metaphors to illustrate their points, and put things in perspective. These people instill passion in others and energize their workforces. They treat everyone with dignity and respect and do not tolerate the abuse of others.
The bad news is that these kinds of results, this kind of peak performance culture, and this brand of exceptional leadership is extremely perishable. It can disintegrate very quickly. When Gates was promoted to Division President in 1978, he was replaced by a “Central Casting” style micro-manager who single-handedly destroyed what Don Gates had built over eight years in less than two. He lost 44 out of 90 store managers and four out of eight district managers. In the blink of an eye, the leadership, purpose, clarity, measurement, and reward systems, as well as the autonomy, trust, and esprit de corps were all gone. The good news is that one man, one woman, one leader, properly placed, with the right purpose, in the right environment can make a huge difference.
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