By Kristen McAlister, Co-owner, Cerius Executives
When was the last time your leadership team focused on and reviewed the basics of retail operations?
On a beautiful fall day in Southern California, a small park in the middle of Orange County was anything but quiet. If you were unaware of what was going on, you’d wonder if it was the biggest family reunion you’d ever seen or some type of mass competition. In reality, it was a large-scale training meeting for over 400 retail representatives throughout the western United States.
Our company, which was a retail manufacturer’s representative firm, had recently been awarded a multi-million-dollar contract with The Home Depot for a new in-store-services program. As part of our contract, we hired and trained more than 400 of our own employees within 12 weeks. Expectations for sales results were high, but guidance about the specifics of execution was still in early development; this was a new initiative for the giant retailer.
As vice president of operations, I often felt as though I was making up tactics as I went along. I had also never been responsible for leading this many people, let alone a distributed workforce spread over 13 states back at a time when pagers were issued as part of company equipment.
To orient our new employees, we conducted three days of round-robin classroom-based training. One afternoon, however, to get our new associates out of the classroom/warehouse up and moving for a few hours, we put together a series of games and scheduled them as a barbecue at a park across the street from our building.
Little did I know how much we would all be learning that day.
Execution starts and ends with communication. Whether you are all in the same building or store or are geographically dispersed, communication is always a challenge.
My firm struggled greatly with communication. Every task and direction came via phone and/or email across three time zones through our headquarters, then had to be repackaged and pushed out to employees who were spread throughout 13 states. To say we struggled is an understatement.
To help spotlight the causes (and cures) of some of our communication challenges, we played one of my favorites — the telephone game. We played by the usual rules: You had to whisper, you could only say the secret phrase once, and you could not ask for or receive clarification about what had been said.
Employees who worked together in the same geographic district sat together in a circle (an average of seven people per group) and repeated “The dog bought a faucet; the cat fell in the toilet.”
Why did we use this specific phase? Because it made absolutely no sense. In the end, it was non-stop laughter as the last person in each group repeated the statement he/she had heard. “The dog and the cat went to the store to buy a toilet.” “The dog bought a faucet for the cat.” Nobody came close to the original statement, but a number of final statements made more sense than the original.
So how did seven people sitting right next to each other get it so wrong?
By the end of the game, everyone could easily see where our communication breakdowns were occurring and brainstormed some ideas for improvement.
Next time you send out a communication, keep in mind the restrictions of the telephone game and try not to fall into its trap.
As much as it is human nature to want to be treated fairly, we sometimes forget this in the midst of the pressures and stress of business, particularly at the retail level. An unhappy customer has too many options nowadays to voice their experiences.
In the park, we next played a team-building game to teach the districts how to work together. In the end, I think we as a leadership team learned more from the experience than the groups did.
The goal of the sponge relay race was to move water from a full bucket at the back of a line of people into an empty bucket at the front of the line. The last person dipped the sponge and each person passed it up to the front, while trying to lose as little water as possible, and the first person squeezed it out and passed it back.
It was interesting to see the various techniques they came up with; one manager switched the start and end players during the competition because some “sponge-loaders” were better at soaking and other “sponge-squeezers” were better at offloading every last drop, for example.
One of the few rules was clear: When the whistle blew, that was the end of the game.
Unfortunately, one team finished wringing its sponge after the whistle blew. Well, none of the other teams were having that. There were prizes on the line. And if the others were going to lose, it was going to be a fair loss. This episode was the most vocal I had seen any of our new associates since they had arrived for training. The other teams kept shouting, “That’s not fair.” As a leadership team, we made a call: By show of hands, we asked the “disgruntled” team members to vote on whether the non-compliant team should be disqualified or whether to remove one spongeful worth of water. They opted for the latter.
As adults, we can accept outcomes not going our way, as long as the process is fair. Everyone wants to feel as though they are being treated equally, and there is no special treatment. The more visibility, communication, and opportunity for input, the more associates will feel a part of a whole rather than the bottom of a totem pole.
In the end, my favorite activity in the park was the song lyric competition. We tasked each district group to come up with a two-minute musical performance with original song lyrics about the training so far. I expected some basic rhymes with a few words replaced here and there, set to a popular song. Wow, was I surprised!
Over the course of the 30-minute preparation time, the team members came up with a plan and divided the work. Some people started scavenging for materials, while others worked on the song. In the end, most teams put together a full production including costumes and props. When the teams performed, I don’t think I had ever laughed so hard in my life. Though some of the tunes were familiar, all of the lyrics were completely original and certainly far better than anything I could have come up with.
Since the day we had hired our 400 new associates, we had done nothing but bombard them with information and direction on how and what to do on a daily, hourly, and minute-by-minute basis. But the song lyric challenge showed us — their leadership team — that they could pole vault over and beyond our expectations. When we offered guidelines regarding our expectations for outcomes, rather than dictating every step, they were able to apply their experiences, expertise, and creativity in ways that we could never have anticipated at headquarters.
Clearly, we needed to adjust some of our plans.
The day in the park taught us as much as it taught our new associates. As a leadership team, we didn’t always know best. We needed to start tapping into the talent and creativity we had at the store level much more than we had been doing.
Retail leadership has a lot to offer; that day in the park sticks with me because it served as a humbling reminder that we also have a lot to learn from our associates. They are our eyes and ears at the customer and retail level. Their experiences can be rich mines of customer intelligence, lessons learned, best practices, and creative approaches to fairness issues and communication bottlenecks in the workplace.