Years ago I was working in retail. I was in college, but serving as an area manager for a large department store. I was responsible for ordering the basic items in my department, making sure we were always in stock with regular sellers. One of those items was a collar extender. I don’t know that those are even used anymore, and I never used one personally, but basically it was a metal button extender that allowed a man to wear a shirt as the man grew larger, by making the neck bigger. (You know you wanted to know that.)
Anyway, we normally kept a couple boxes with 12 extenders in each in stock. When we had sold one box I was to order another box. They weren’t fast sellers, so it didn’t happen often. I noticed one day that we were down to our last box, so I placed an order, but instead of ordering one box of 12, I incorrectly order 12 boxes of 12. That’s pretty much enough for a decade of extender sells.
I had made a mistake.
How did management handle the issue?
The morning after the arrival of our new case of extenders, a memo was sent to all area managers, in every department, throughout the store. It read something like, “From now on, all orders will need to be signed by a supervisor prior to completion.” I was instantly frustrated, since I knew the memo was a direct response to my mistake. No one had said anything to me. I had not been reprimanded. It was never mentioned otherwise, but now we had a new policy, which affected everyone, because of my one error. (BTW, extenders retailed for $1.25 back then.)
The new mandate slowed down the progress of everyone, because they now had to wait for approval before they could order basic needs. It was not accepted by other managers, proved to be more of an inconvenience than it was worth and soon no one practiced it at all.
What did this experience teach me?
Weakness in leadership never produces the desired result.
How should it have been handled?
In my opinion, I should have been called aside, made aware of my mistake (to let me know they knew), and allowed me learn from the experience. If I continued to make the same error, which I never did again, then further action could have been taken.
The incident helped shape some of my leadership.
Here are 7 things I learned from a poor management experience:
- Never send an email (today’s memo) to correct an action.
- Never over-react to a minor issue.
- Never make a policy to correct a single error.
- Never single someone out publicly who hasn’t been talked to privately.
- Never punish everyone for the mistake of one.
- Never act like it’s not a big deal if you think it’s a big deal.
- Never be so weak as a leader that you fail to address the real issue, or the real problem, even if the real problem is a person.
I am certain I have repeated each of these myself at times, but the experience truly did shape my leadership and management practices. The best thing this experience did for me was give me a principle I have used and often shared with other leaders:
If you need to slap a hand, bring a ruler and show up in person.
BTW, need a collar extender? I know where you might can find one.
(In complete transparency, it’s been almost 30 years and I don’t remember all the specific details of this incident. Also, though this story is from actual experience, in fairness to others involved, I altered some of the details to protect identities.)