Managing Hourly Employees: Two Stories

by Shaun Kieran

I usually use the term “battlefield promotion” with my tongue in my cheek when I’m discussing managerial careers, but Jim’s situation was almost literally true.

 

Jim worked at one of those “quick oil change” places.  He’d taken the job in early May, right as he was finishing his Junior year of college, and planned to get a better – more “worthy” one – as soon as he could.  

 

His willing attitude and reliable work habits meant that, right away, there he was taking on extra duties like directing cars into the proper bays, pitching “extras” like air filters and new wiper blades, and picking up quickly on how to use the register, swiping the plastic, using the right codes for credit or debit. Jim was obviously someone comfortable being out front, dealing with customers.  He was a “go-getter.”

 

It all changed abruptly one morning. Jim’s supervisor and two other senior employees were nowhere to be found.  Instead, a man in a suit identifying himself as the owner (of this and three other shops in the Greater Metropolitan area) greeted him.

 

“Jim, I can’t talk too much about what’s happened, but I’ve had to let the supervisor go, and the two others decided to go with him. I’m making you the interim Manager.  I’ll send a Manager from one of the other shops over to help you as soon as I can, but we’ve got vacations and sick leave on top of this mess.  Your pay is doubled as of now.”

 

Feeling destiny had dropped an opportunity in his lap, Jim plunged ahead. He didn’t give human relations much thought.  As far as he was concerned, he’d gotten along well with his co-workers up to now, so he didn’t think becoming their manager would change things that much.

 

The co-workers’ reactions were decidedly mixed and took some time to play out.  One of them vocalized early and often that he had “no problem” with Jim getting the promotion – but some others, in varying degrees, were bothered that such a “short timer” got elevated over them.

 

In hindsight, the owner hadn’t chosen Jim because of any directly observed leadership qualities – it was Jim’s three years of College, and the immediate need for a trustworthy public face, along with reasonable competence and reliability regarding the (minimal) administrative tasks.

 

The owner promised Jim he’d “be around more” to help out, and handed him a  company DVD that supposedly trained people how to use the Point of Sale software, how to do non-routine transactions, etc. etc.

 

After a brief honeymoon (7 – 10 days) Jim began seeing some problems with the crew – not outright insubordination at first, but a lot of bickering and barely polite backtalk: “that’s not the way this should be done,” “he let me do that my way,” – civil on the surface, but not a lot of enthusiasm either.

 

Jim saw himself as a nice guy, and, at first thought it was a normal response to an abnormal situation, and maybe an understandable reaction to being managed by someone so young.  He hoped that all he had to do was keep talking, explain why, expect that people would cooperate – and he’d ride it out.  

 

In the land of $6.60-$11.50 an hour employees, Jim began to realize it wasn’t working.  His favorite Aunt, of all people, suggested he give me a call.

 

Long story short:  Jim was a quick study.  He learned right away that a big piece of managing people was about focusing on performance: having clear expectations, sincerely helping them achieve those expectations – and be ready to identify and address problems. Only a few sessions and he was back on track. He seemed to “get” the nature of his authority, didn’t overreach, and noticed right away how the employees “took” what he said.

 

He kept walking around, checking in, did a lot of “thinking out loud,” backpedaled nicely if he was wrong about something, demonstrated that he was going to keep walking around, keep noticing what needed to be done, and he was going to react to problems, not avoid them.

 

As you can well imagine, Jim is no longer a manager of a quick oil change operation.  Having been forged in the crucible, Jim developed tremendous early confidence in his ability to manage, and he now makes big money working for a major corporation.

 

Jim’s story demonstrates the value of a good temperament combined with a “learning” attitude.  When things started getting a little rocky, he recognized right away something was happening – but didn’t overreact.  He sought help (I spoke with him 3 times), but he probably would have been OK anyway, because – frankly – he wasn’t all that shaken up by what was happening, didn’t take the resistance personally, and didn’t make things worse by feeding the negativity and pushing back. 

 

Unlike Doreen……

 

Doreen was hurt and angry in our initial conversation.  Her meteoric managerial career had hit its first snag. She’d just found out that, when she applied for a Regional manager position, feedback existed “out there” describing her as “tough to take” and sometimes too “arbitrary.”  

 

It cut deeply because Doreen was rightfully proud that she’d risen far beyond where most people had imagined she would ever go.

 

Her parents were “just working people,” and Doreen had never even thought about a career in management – that’s what the “big-time” people did.

 

Starting out “way back when,” like most of her peers, she’d pretty much accepted that it might be all down hill after High School, and the only thing she knew for sure was that she wanted a family “at some point.”

 

She dabbled with a few Liberal Arts courses at the local Community College, while taking jobs at TrueValue Hardware, Sears, and then, while working at Lowe’s, she met her future husband.

 

At first, the idea was for her to be a stay-at-home Mom, while her husband continued working full-time at Lowe’s, but their finances wouldn’t let that fly.  She took a part-time, “evenings and weekends” job at a nationwide convenience store chain to supplement the family income, which allowed her husband to be home with the kids when she was working.

 

Sadly, the marriage lasted just shy of five years, and Doreen became a single Mom with a 3 1/2 year old son, and a 10-month-old daughter.  

 

Now divorced, Doreen realized that part-time at National Convenience Chain wouldn’t pay the bills.  She faced the classic choice: if she went on Welfare, she’d at least be home with the kids, but she REALLY didn’t want that.  So, to her enduring credit, Doreen stepped up.

 

It turned out that, by this, her fourth job for a national, corporate employer, she’d actually been paying attention.  She was a cut above the average part-timer: she could multitask as a cashier, restock, keep the store clean – and was reliable.  The company noticed.

 

They offered her a Manager’s job she could walk to from her apartment, with good benefits, including a decent childcare subsidy.  Ironically, she recalls her only hesitation was that she was terrified of having to fire someone – which she obviously knew she’d have to do.  

 

Doreen went for it.  Yes, she made a few mistakes, but she turned out to be a very focused store manager, and, after two and a half years, was bumped up to District manager, which had her overseeing three stores.

 

That went quite well, too, according to Doreen – but now here she was, talking to me about the “feedback” that apparently stood in the way of further upward mobility.

 

Doreen saw herself as a firm, but fair boss.  “You have no idea how hard it is to find and keep good employees to work in convenience stores.”

 

For Doreen, her ability to manage in that environment hinged on her commitment not to “lay back” and just let things happen.  “Leaning forward worked for me.”

 

As we talked, she shared some pretty strong “takes” about what she’d learned as a store manager:

 

Women were more generally reliable “hires” than men for convenience store work.  “It’s just the truth.”

And, being the honest person she is, she admitted to being more direct early, less tolerant of screw-ups, and more aggressive when the “problem employee was a guy.”

 

She also got over her reluctance to fire people pretty quickly.

 

She believes her instincts were “usually right” about who was going to work out well. She acknowledged a tendency to “play favorites,” and being selective in whom she invested her energies – helping some, but not others, and also in whom she “cut some slack” for their (“endless”) personal problems. “Reliable employees are gold in this business.”

 

She says she came to see that yes, if she was too tough, too early, she’d no doubt lose a few potentially good employees. But, conversely, she’d learned the hard way that “not going right at problems always ended in disaster.”  

 

 

“Chip on her shoulder” might be too strong, but Doreen’s boot-strapped self-confidence and proactive managing style made some enemies and some unnecessary problems for herself.  Honestly, Doreen didn’t  always do a great job of supervising some of the people who worked for her.

 

Getting that feedback and learning from it is a gift for Doreen.  Having had her career ride slightly interrupted, been forced to own her biases and rough edges, including acknowledging the way she’d played favorites, and, above all, that she’d developed what I refer to as “counter-aggression tactics” – she’s now positioned to extract the lessons, and be a very good manager to other managers down the road.  She certainly has the raw intelligence and the guts, all she needs now is a slightly more forgiving approach toward her fellow humans – and herself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Wally Bock

Nice post, Shaun. Thanks for the stories and lessons.

Pat

Your examples are realistic…some managers are more comfortable with their roles than others. I wish that all managers learned quickly from feedback. Thanks for the stories.
Pat

shaun

My goal is to be helpful to “real” people, only a few of whom have consciously chosen a career as a manager. Most get a promotion, or go get a certificate in something, just trying to move up, get a raise, etc. Then they run into the jealousies, resentments, fear, “games,” – the human condition in all its splendor.

If they don’t get on top of their emotions, keep their concentration, and focus on the work, they can be sucked into the vortex, and join the general mess in so many workplaces.

It helps to talk about it.

Thanks for commenting, Pat.

Shaun

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