Unlikely Lessons From an Unlikely Manager

November 2008

It had been two months since I had fired my own manager, Matt, when I received a phone call from my DM.  There had been three applicants for the manager’s position, one, in particular, had been a lead contestant for the position.  He seemed clean-cut, young, professional arriving in a full suit for his several interviews, I was eager to work with him…

“No, I didn’t hire who you think I did,  I was too scared I wouldn’t be able to resist sleeping with him.  I picked a man who was a general manager at Wal-Mart for 11 years.  He’s going to be great, you’ll love him, I promise!”

Unlikely ManagerThat next week the DM sat on a bench outside the store next to an incredibly large, and incredibly older gentleman.  His gray hair was in a buzz cut and his transitional lenses remained a strange dark hue of brown.  His shoulders were broad, as he was once a linebacker for Penn State long ago.  He was slow to move, and his breathing was labored as he managed his way into the shop.  I began my morning routine of flipping lights, playing music, filling fountains, watering bamboo plants and so on.  He followed me asking me why this or that had not yet been done, “I haven’t gotten to it yet,” I managed.

“Sir,” I stole a glance his way, his face stern, “I have not gotten to it, sir.”

I nodded, “sir”.  This would not be as fun of a holiday season as predicted.  For the first two weeks, he was a real firecracker, shouting out orders, delegating everything, doing nothing.  That is until he received his new paycheck.  His face turned to a ghostly white as he read and re-read the number and he sat down in shock, there was a moment I thought he may actually vomit.  “This is not even close to the pay I was promised,” he spoke softly over and over again to himself.

He came to work each day in short red athletic shorts and a sleeveless gray T-Shirt which had giant sweat stains that lined his armpits.  He spent most days sitting on the couch that was at the front of the store for the customers as he watched us work; he claimed it was the most advantageous spot to watch for shoplifters.  He could write speeches on the disdain he had for our Mickey Mouse company and its Mickey Mouse CEO.  “He is an idiot,” he would say.

He was rude to the customers and took them for every penny in their pocket (no really he would ask them, how much is in your pocket).  He panicked the small details and cared nothing for the actual mission of the company.  He and I were on such two different plains of thought, and this turned out to be quite counterproductive.

There are three major lessons Gar Bear attempted to teach me:

  1.  Do not communicate with upper management more than you have to.  Do not speak on conference calls, do not call your DM to ask questions, figure it all out on your own, stay out of the spotlight.
  2. Do not waste your time or money on a degree in Retail Management.
  3. You don’t have to have a passion for the product to sell it.  All of this stuff we carry is shit.

There was a point though that I realized this man had spent his entire life in retail management, and there was something to respect there.  He must have a bushel of real-life information to pass onto me, and I had to be open to reception:

  1.  Upon our arguing over a policy once more he finally said, “if a rulebook could manage a store they wouldn’t be paying you.”
    • In his talk, this meant:  Each day is full of unique customers and unique employees with unique situations.  Being a manager is about managing those situations with your best judgment with your store and company mission in mind.
  2. When I decided I no longer wanted to teach I told him of my grand plan to make millions in real estate and to purchase the company we worked for.  He rolled his eyes, why waste your effort on this store?
    • In his talk, this meant:  You’re better than that, dream bigger.

The day he met his fateful end (again at my own command) with our company I cried…in fact I still find times that I wish I could talk to him about certain situations I have come across in retail just to learn from the snarky response he would have in store…but that is a tale for another day.  Remember the best guidance can come from the most unlikely teachers if you open your mind to read between the lines.


8 thoughts on “Unlikely Lessons From an Unlikely Manager

  1. The best teachers don’t require reading between the lines. At my former employer we had a manager just like Gary, he came in demanding and scolding and acting a general “I’m the manager and I said so” ass.

    He and I had a rather public contemptuous disagreement over our walkies. He ordered me to the office and I let him know what I thought of him.

    Now, that doesn’t mean I told him what an ass he was. Rather, I explained he was alienating himself, that asking rather than demanding, and actually listening to what was said would get him better results.

    He changed after that and it turned out he was really smart when it came to retail. He was still rather aloof most of the time but he and I got on better and I did learn a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Poor Gar-Bear, he was just so burnt out he just didn’t care about being a good boss. He just wanted to get in, meet the daily numbers, and leave. He had gone from overseeing a walmart distribution center, to managing a compusa, to managing our tiny demographically post-adolescent hippy niche company in a town where jobs were difficult to come by for a man of his age. We had it out many times…no really lots. I actually didn’t include all of that because I didn’t want to trail too far away from the point I was making. I indeed went over his head to complain, went back and forth with him in honest heart to hearts, quit, came back…there is so much going on in that relationship that I just had to really dig deep down to the point I was attempting to relay.


      1. I understand. I was a bit notorious for my blow ups with management. My coworkers often asked how I hadn’t been fired. But I was always respectful and the blow ups we had were about business.

        One of the side effects of my relationship with management was that I got to know them better than most, at least as far as work went. I repeatedly answered “I hate (manager’s name), he is so stupid” with, “actually he’s really smart, he knows more than you think.”.

        I understand your point and what leads them to be like that but they often hurt themselves with that behavior, and worse, they hurt the store.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Exactly, It took a year, but eventually Gar-Bear was sent off and I involuntarily and unwillingly was made his predecessor. (We jumped from the last quadrant of rankings in the company to store number 8 in less than a month). Really makes a difference to have passion in the driver’s seat.


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