Guest Post by Jenna Grafton (learn more about Jenna at the end of this post).
I was recently asked to speak at a session for new leaders within our organization. As I pondered what to share, I decided to share the leadership lessons I have learned along the way.
So let’s start all the way back at the beginning. After I graduated high school, and went to a Target Stores Job Fair. I figured I was applying as a cashier or basic customer service, as I already had 2 years scooping ice cream at a local drug store under my belt. At the job fair-they showed us videos of different jobs, one of which was for the price change team. I thought it seemed fun and a little different and chose that as my first choice for roles. One week later, I was helping set up our Target store and changing prices all over the places. I was on a team of 5, all of whom were female, and with the exception of me, over 40. We all worked together for about a year or so, had a weekly pizza party after work, had a lot of fun and were an all around tight team.
After about a year our boss got transferred to another store. Me, being 19 and thinking I was crazy smart, I applied for the supervisor role. Surprisingly, I was chosen for the job.
You know what I realized? The hardest thing to do is go from being one of the team to leading it. You know why? I thought I had to ‘be the boss’, which of course meant being mean. 6 months before I was promoted we hired a new gal on our team. Her name was Carol. She wasn’t performing all that well. They key in the price change world is to find every single item that needed to be marked down. We were given counts to look for and we tried to get all of the items marked. Carol regularly missed big quantities of priced down items. Me, with my infinite boss wisdom, read her the riot act. “YOU WILL DO THIS RIGHT OR YOU WILL BE FIRED” Ha ha! Discipline isn’t so hard! Right? Yeah. Wrong. Guess what happened? Carol got worse. All my team members who had been my friends stopped inviting me to pizza and my new boss called me in and told me to fix it. Ok….how???
Lesson number one: Start with being nice. You will have plenty of chances as a leader to be a hard ass. Start out with nice. In Leadership-people will do amazing things for people they like. It really isn’t hard to be nice. It is simple to say please, and thank you and ask about someone personally. The key is-be sincere. If you aren’t, people will know. Find your own rhythm of what is comfortable for you, but try nice-even when you have to deliver tough news.
Back to Target: I got promoted and wasn’t likeable. I thought I had to be really tough and mean to get my point across. Carol wasn’t doing her job well. I would get mad. It was a very intuitive job to me. It was a struggle for her. My first approach didn’t work, but I had to fix it. I tried to retrain Carol. I offered Carol a buddy. I spent 3 months really trying to help her be as effective as the rest of the team. Unfortunately, she still wasn’t getting it.
Lesson number two: Get the right people on the bus. This phrase comes from the book Good to Great by Jim Collins. Plain and simply, Carol was a dedicated employee but her skills were a poor fit for the specific job. We reviewed open positions within the store, found a couple that would be better for Carol. She and I sat down and discussed her options, I was nice…really! She applied for a role as the shoe department stocking supervisor. To this day, I still say Carol’s shoe department is the neatest and most organized I have seen. She was on the right (Target) bus, but not in the right seat. Once Carol got in the right seat or on the right department’s bus-she did a great job.
After I fixed how I initially handled the Carol situation, my team started to accept me again, I was invited back to weekly pizza, but not until after I ate some humble pie.
A few years later, I left Target and the scheduling insanity of retail and decided to go into an office environment. I applied at a public information company. When I got there, I started in the microfilm department. Back then, we used to pull copies of our documents off of microfilm and manually print each image out. It is boring, monotonous work.
Lesson number three: You own your own attitude. In almost all situations, attitude can make or break you. Who would you rather work with? Eeyore or Tigger?
Eeyore is a can-don’t kind of guy. Nothing works, poor, poor, pitiful Eeyore. If only things would just go his way.
Tigger bounds into the room. Has his hyper enthusiasm going at all times. He is a can do kind of guy. Happy to help, participate, join, lead, whatever needs doing.
In the microfilm room, I worked with a gal named Annie. Annie was full on Eeyore. 5 minutes after her break, she was asking for another one. She complained if there was too much work. She complained if there was too little work. She hated OT. She hated her regular paychecks without OT. There really wasn’t any pleasing Annie. I must admit, I am not an Annie. That has never really been my personality. I think time goes by much faster when you hustle and get the job done, do the best you can and provide a quality product. After about 3 months, there was a job opening within our branch. The job was to route work from one department to another. All day long. Walk from department to department to department, taking papers from one bin to the next to the next to the next. Yes, it was another monotonous job. But hey, I got to walk around and see more people– and, I got to learn about the other departments. I applied. So did Annie. I got the job. When Annie asked the supervisor very politely: “Why the heck did she get the job? I have been here longer!” My boss replied, “her attitude is better and I’d rather have that attitude walking around the branch all day, not yours”. Tough love! PS-I took that Tigger Attitude to a number of roles with the company and left as a department senior, all within my 2.5 years there. Annie? She was in the microfilm department until she quit 4 years ago.
Now let’s fast forward to when I was a Team Leader at my current company. I worked with a small team of 6. Another tight knit group of people. We were all about the same age. It was a fun office. We had great clients; we regularly exceeded expectations, except at one desk…. Yes, I had a Carol Jr, except his name was Kevin. Kevin was funny and engaging, but had a habit of forgetting to document information on his files. But dang it he was so nice. (And so was I now!) I learned my lesson from Carol. I had my great attitude! And every time I broached any subject with Kevin, he’d get hurt feelings….
Which brings us to lesson four: Hard discussions don’t get easier with time. They get harder. Because the receiver asks a really great question: If you knew about this a week ago, why didn’t you tell me then?? Well, because I am weak and didn’t want to hurt your feelings. Yeah, that inspires confidence! So Kevin and I had a bunch of really hard conversations, and every single time, I would dread going into the conference room. I would get a stomach ache when I called him into the room and sit him down. I hated it! It sapped the Tigger right out of me! Guess what, I built those conversations up into something they didn’t need to be. They didn’t need to be big scary discussions. We just needed to communicate! And hard discussions don’t get easier over time.
Since we are talking about communication…. How often have we been at meetings and presentations where we hear something like: Our new policy is to tie our shoes with double knots in all instances. Never single knots. Never triple knots. Just 2. Always. Why boss? Because it is OUR NEW POLICY!!! Yay new policy! Really? Who says Yay to new policies?
Lesson number five: It isn’t communication, it is inspiration! You have an opportunity every single time you share something new to engage and inspire your employees. I was recently in a management meeting where one of my peers mentioned ‘having to communicate’ to his employees. You HAVE TO? What! You GET TO communicate this to your employees. This is completely your opportunity to make sure they know not just what we need to do, but why and how their involvement affects the whole. So, when you share a policy change, give them the whole picture: Team, we have a great opportunity with our shoe laces. We have learned that tying our laces in single knots makes us prone to untied shoes and tripping over our feet. We have found that tying our shoes in double knots eliminates this problem. Just so you are aware, we tried tying our laces in triple knots, but it increased the length of lace needed, and therefore our costs, without improving the knot quality or performance. Therefore, we feel completely confident that double knots will eliminate the risks of you falling on your face!
The last thing I want to share with you is, to me, the absolutely most important. We all have huge customers out there. Accounts that ‘make or break’ your business. We need to make certain those customers are truly happy day in and out. How can we best create a fabulous experience for those clients?
By following lesson number 6: Always remember, your number one customer is your employee. I firmly believe that if you treat your employees well day in and out, they will be happier at work and that will carry over to our customers. What exactly does this mean? Don’t report me to HR, but it means, don’t sweat the small stuff. If an employee is sick, they should stay home. If an employee needs to go to the doctor, don’t freak out, their health is more important than those 2 hours of productivity. If a team member is 5 minutes late on occasion, you don’t need to walk into an office for a ‘hard discussion’. Instead, do the fun things. Bring in donuts or bagels or fruit or whatever works for your team. Dress up on Halloween or at a random meeting. Remember birthdays and anniversaries. We love to laugh, but more importantly, we love to feel like we personally matter. If you can show your employees they matter every day, you are on the road to success as a leader.
As I wrap up, I will leave you with this, newer leaders are critical to any organization. You are the new thinkers, the up and comers. Your teams matter. Your opinions matter. Your thoughts matter. Your voice absolutely matters. Make sure as you have questions, comments, concerns, ideas, suggestions you speak up. But when you do…be nice about it.
Jenna Grafton has been in a leadership role for 20+ years. She is currently working in the public information industry. She is a member of THRIVE a Houston based group in support of Servant Leadership.