I worked for a number of different companies holding numerous types of positions before settling into my career, and during that time I received quite an education on how poor leadership can set into motion a sequence of events and behaviors ultimately affecting a company’s brand and bottom line. My favorite and most memorable lesson occurred during my college years.
My real life leadership course began when I was working at a higher-end men’s clothing store in the early 90’s. We had nine employees and two managers on our staff, and we were all driven and motivated to sell based on a draw plus commission compensation package. I got the hang of selling rather quickly, and after a couple of weeks I was consistently posting higher-than-average sales numbers nearly every month. It was rare for me to have a bad week, so for a college student, I was making some pretty decent cash. Things were going very well during my first six months, before I met the company’s district manager, Paul, who I now refer to as my first “leadership instructor.”
Dave, who was our store manager, told me that Paul wanted to meet with me to discuss my performance. Naturally, I was really looking forward to our conversation, anticipating some sort of recognition or even a bonus based on the numbers I was posting. At the time, our store was one of two top-producing locations in his district of eight. I had no feelings of intimidation or fear based on how the store was doing, and the fact that my weekly sales were consistently more than fifteen percent higher than the average.
However, something completely unexpected happened on the day our district manager arrived. When Paul arrived and spent most of the day observing my sales technique, he escorted me to the back of the store, closed the door and expressed his concern that I wasn’t following the company’s approved sales process. Yes, I received a verbal warning for failure to follow the sales process as documented in the employee manual and as recorded on the corporate sales cassette tapes. The fact that I consistently posted higher-than-average numbers was completely irrelevant – I was forced to re-read the corporate sales bible, re-listen to the cassette tapes and adopt pre-approved scripts for greeting customers, asking questions and overcoming objections. Where my approach was friendly and conversational and based on finding out what the customers’ needs were, I was ordered to change my technique and apply a fair amount of pressure to everyone who walked through the door. I was Roadblocked with other orders and threats during our conversation, and after thirty minutes, I was issued an ultimatum – comply or resign.
With a smile, Paul said I would make a lot more money with the prescribed technique. I experimented with it for the next few days and my sales plummeted. I immediately started looking for a new job.
I later discovered that the approved corporate sales process was created by Paul, and that he had the same conversation with another salesperson who was doing quite well for herself and the company. By this time, my two-week notice was already submitted. The other salesperson quit on the spot when she was backed into the same corner.
What are the expensive consequences of bad leadership? Well, in this particular case study, the company lost two top-producing salespeople. Add to that the cost of losing other good people at other stores who may have resigned under similar circumstances. And let’s not overlook the cost the company bears with earning the reputation of being a horrible place to work, which certainly repels quality applicants.
At the time, there were eight stores under Paul’s control. I don’t know if Paul is still with the company, but seven of those eight stores have closed and the remaining store occupies a much smaller space than it did when I was with the company. I still think about that experience whenever I hear people vent about their leaders.