Looking back on my 30+ year retail management career, I can say that the best lesson I ever learned was taught to me not by one of the many fantastic leaders I worked for, but by a department supervisor who worked for me.
I was managing a sporting goods specialty store in a busy shopping mall in New Jersey. I had been having a tough time figuring out how to get my six department supervisors to successfully complete their weekly merchandise setups before the sales began each Friday. We had a routine whereby each Monday morning I would walk the departments with the respective supervisors, we would make a list of the merchandising moves that needed to be made, and then I would follow up on Friday morning to check on execution of the lists.
Week after week, I was disappointed with the low completion rates. And, no matter what I said or did during those Friday "inspections," I could not make progress.
Finally one week, I decided to try something different. I walked the departments on Monday morning as usual. But then on Monday at 2:00pm, I walked through each department again to see what had been accomplished thus far. The supervisors had not made any progress, and they all had “explanations”. The most common explanation was that they still had four more days. On Tuesday, again at 2:00pm, I walked through each department. Once again, very little progress and lots of explanations.
On Wednesday at 2:00pm, I walked through again. The first three supervisors had made very little progress, had lots of explanations, and were pretty frustrated with me that I kept badgering them when they still had two more days before the deadline. Then I came to Regina and her Fashion department.
Regina had every item on her list completed, and the execution was flawless. With tears in my eyes, I asked Regina how she had done it. Her answer is as clear to me now as it was twenty years ago.
She said, "You walked through my department at 2:00 on Monday, and I didn't have anything done. You walked through again at 2:00 on Tuesday, and I still didn't have anything done. I figured you would do it again at 2:00 on Wednesday, and I didn't want to disappoint you." Four of the other five supervisors soon came to the same realization as Regina. The sixth supervisor couldn't do it, but he came to me himself and resigned rather than me having to take any sort of disciplinary action with him.
Wow. I had learned one of the most powerful lessons I would ever learn about retail management.
Be consistent and predictable in my follow up, and people will strive to meet the expectations.
I owe much of my success to the lesson that Regina taught me so many years ago. In today's world of technology and super-conceptual leadership theory, it is often the simplest lessons that have the most value.