Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Developing Our Leadership Skills… Communication Mistakes That Can Kill Relationships

This post is an effort to pass on a lesson I learned a few years ago.  I was a Grocery Team Leader at Whole Foods Market, and had been in that role for several years.  I was the Assistant Team Leader on that same team, so while it’s true that I inherited the team, I had been working on the team, and had been able to influence the most recent hiring decisions.  In retail stores like this, turnover is normally pretty high, and that allowed me to use the hiring skills I learned to hire only the best people I could find as others left the team.  Many of my new hires we obviously (at least to me) going to be better Leaders that I was, at least as long as they were committed to developing those qualities.

I spent the next 18 months or so working hard, and developing relationships with my team members.  I read everything by John C. Maxwell, Jim Collins, Dale Carnegie, The Dalai Lama, Daniel Goleman, Ken Blanchard, and as many others as I could fit into my schedule.  I also listened intently to The Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast… yes I know he’s a church leader.  He is also passionate about Leadership, and is able to put invaluable Leadership lessons into easily understood podcasts, so just get over the church part already.  I put as much of this information into effect as I could.  I indoctrinated my new hires, I met with and developed relationships with my team members, I was genuinely interested in helping them achieve their goals, I gave away all of the credit, and I did my best to walk my talk.

So… after a couple of years of hard work I had an extremely high functioning team.  We had very low turnover, were easily breaking sales records, meeting or beating all of our KPI, and we were supplying supervisors, buyers, and Assistant Team Leaders and Team Leaders to the Whole Foods stores around us.  Our store was recognized nationally as the best store over 10 years old, as well as the best merchandised store in the Mid Atlantic region.  Things were going REALLY well for the team, and the store as a whole.  My job had changed to one of simply maintaining the momentum of what we had created.  All was right with the world!

At some point, I began to get a little arrogant about how well all of that hard work that went into developing the team was paying off.  I had done a good job hadn’t I?  I was mentoring other team Leaders, and I was asked to be involved in most of the hiring decisions taking place in the store.  There we no tasks that I was responsible for on my own team, and my job evolved to maintaining relationships, and making sure all of my apprentices were properly training their replacements.  Living the dream!

At that time, Whole Foods was a very decentralized ‘bottom up’ company, and team Leaders were involved in goals setting, as well as many other decisions made in the store.  This means that in our meetings we were all involved in many aspects of how the store was run, and how we would achieve our goals.  Somewhere in there I started using the phrase “I don’t care”.  I don’t remember exactly when, and there were so many decisions to be made, I just said “I don’t care”. 

What I meant was “I have so much on my plate right now… this decision is not that important to me.  Why don’t you guys decide and I’m sure it will be fine”, however it didn’t really matter what I meant, or how I was feeling about the decision at hand…  What I said was what everyone heard, and to those people “I don’t care” was what I meant.  We all continued working hard, we were doing well, and the recognition kept rolling in.  However, my “I don’t care” was having an effect on the other team Leaders, as well as my store team Leaders.  I had no idea how much damage those three words could do over a very short time.  People started thinking that I wasn’t interested in them, in their success, or in what happened in the store.  None of that was true, and their perception of me was that I simply stopped caring about everything.

Luckily, I hire people who are smarter than I am, who have Leadership potential, and who are willing to challenge me.  One of my assistants asked me to take a walk around the block one day so he could ask me some questions.  Of course I have time for questions from one of my best apprentices…  He asked me a lot of questions about what I cared about, and then asked me why I was telling everyone I didn’t care about those things.  I made perfect sense, and he didn’t have to explain it any further.  Without even thinking about it I had been very clearly telling my peers and my team Leaders that I stopped caring about a lot of things.  Some frank conversations ensued, and the damage was reversible, however it took some time and a lot of energy.

I was very lucky to have a few things going for me… I hired to surround myself with great people, I had built pretty solid relationships with my peers and team Leaders, and I had made enough mistakes along the way to hear the truth when it was presented to me.

The lessons are many… I allowed myself to become too detached from the team, and from feedback from my apprentices.  Staying involved in some way with the daily running of the team is necessary, and would have done a lot to keep me more humble.  I stretched myself too thin, and should have bowed out of some of the invitations that came my way.  Trying to be involved in everything made it difficult for me to see how all decisions are important to someone, and stating “I don’t care” is equivalent to a sharp slap in the face.  And surrounding yourself with great people always pays off… never settle when hiring!

What lessons have you learned that you can pass along?

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