I remember the first year I was in charge of hiring seasonal employees for Toy House. I was ill-prepared. I had done no research into how to interview a candidate. Heck, I had only sat through three job interviews in my life on the other side of the desk. I don’t think I asked any illegal questions. I don’t think I asked any insightful questions either.
Of the ten people I hired that first year, all on a yet-to-be-honed gut instinct, I found a couple good employees, six warm bodies that took up space, and two people we were better off letting go before we got busy. Not that great of a track record.
I started asking questions that began with the phrase, “Tell me about a time when you …”
Actions speak louder than words. Ask your candidates to tell you what they have done, not what they think or believe, and you will get a more accurate description of who they are and what they will do for you.
Now that you know what to ask, Proven.com—a website for finding and hiring new employees—has put out the definitive list of illegal questionsyou cannot ask. These are illegal. You can get in trouble for asking them. Download the infographic and keep it right next to your list of “Tell me …” questions.
We all know it is illegal to ask, “What medications do you take?” but did you know you cannot ask, “How many kids do you have?” Being a toy store owner I probably made that mistake in an interview or two. I wish I had this list before that first round of interviews. I owed it to the candidates to be better prepared.
Now you have this info so that you can be better prepared. Believe me, it will help.
PS Many of the books I read on hiring told me to “hire for experience.” As you already know, not all “retail experience” is the same. When you hire for character traits and core values, you’ll consistently find candidates that fit better with you and your store.
Whether you agree with yesterday’s post about giving good people back to society or not, you will likely agree with this statement …
You want the best staff your payroll and training budget will allow.
(Surprisingly, many chain retailers at the mall don’t act like they agree with that statement. Not surprisingly, many chain retailers at the mall are closing stores.)
The two limiting factors to having an amazing staff filled with good people are Time and Money. As always, you can spend one to save the other. You can pay more than everyone else in your industry and hopefully attract the best and brightest candidates. Or you can spend the time to make them the best and brightest.
I give you three things today that will help you get the most out of your payroll and training budget. The first is something you have to do no matter what. The second costs you time. The third costs you money. All three together, however, will help you give good people back to society.
HIRE GOOD PEOPLE
It starts with the quality of your hiring. In my book Hiring and the Potter’s Wheel I outline the nine steps a potter takes to create a work of art that is considered beautiful, useful, strong, and long-lasting. I then show you how those nine steps relate to the hiring and training process to create a staff that is beautiful, useful, strong, and long-lasting.
One of the first steps is to hire someone who already has the right character traits to be successful on the job.
Along with the other traits you might need, you should hire people who are already Caring and who are Problem Solvers by nature. Those people will try harder to take care of your customers in the first place.
START WITH SMILES
We started each staff meeting with “Smile Stories”, stories from the previous month where we made the customer’s day. Our mission was summed up by the phrase, “We’re here to make you smile.” By starting each meeting with those Smile Stories, we not only reinforced our mission, we put everyone into a positive mood. People were laughing (and sometimes even crying tears of joy) at the stories. This opened people up and made them more receptive to any training offered.
If you start by criticizing (as I have seen many managers do), you put people on the defensive. They close up and make it difficult for you to get anything across to them.
Start with your successes and build on them.
MAKE CONTINUED LEARNING A PRIORITY
For several years I offered a $150 bonus toward some form of continued learning. It could be used for a computer class, a conference fee, or even a dance class. The idea behind it is that a person who makes continued learning a goal in his or her life will be more open to learning new skills in general. By encouraging my team to continue to pursue their dreams and grow their skills in their personal life, I kept them in a frame of mind for growing their skills in general. This made my staff trainings more effective right from the start. Learning new skills is a mindset that you need to foster.
In Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive, he states there are three things needed to motivate your staff. One of those is Mastery, the idea that they are learning new skills to become better at what they do. When you foster continued learning, you lead your team to Mastery. When you lead your team to Mastery, they find the intrinsic motivation they need to do their best.
Too many retailers look at their staff as a plastic bottle of syrup to be squeezed until every last drop is out, only to be discarded for a new bottle down the road. Instead look at your staff as the ceramic pitcher that holds the syrup in a much more classy way, gets refilled as necessary, and lasts through many years of service.
That’s how you get the best staff your payroll and training budget will allow.
PS I cannot emphasize enough the importance of starting off meetings on a positive note. I did a presentation to kick off a staff meeting once. We were having a rocking good time. Then the meeting began and the manager started off with a laundry list of every mistake the team had made since the last meeting. The energy drained from the room faster than if a tornado had swung through. I could tell by the body language in the room that everyone had shutdown. No one was listening intently after that. If you have to criticize, do so in private and sandwich it between two pieces of praise. If you have to bring up a problem in a meeting, do it by saying, “Here is an area where we can improve.” Much more positive that way.
In 1990 I wrote a description of Team Building practices to help my facilitators understand the process when working with our groups. My program at YMCA Storer Camps utilized low and high ropes course initiatives and rock climbing to foster team building. The goal of every group was to get to a new level of Trust among the members. Sometimes we got there, sometimes we didn’t.
The process, however, was the key. Even the groups who never got to a level of fully trusting each other did learn to communicate better, did learn to cooperate better, and saw the power of coordinated effort. Those are often seen as the Three C’s of Team Building.
I want to add a fourth C to that list, one that I think is most important …
That was the differentiating characteristic between groups that made it to Trust and groups that did not. Only when a group started to put the needs of others ahead of their own did they show they cared. Only when a group looked at everyone’s emotional and physical safety as being the top concern did they show they cared.
Caring was the stepping stone to Trust.
You don’t get to Caring easily. It takes a whole bunch of other C’s. You have to first become Comfortable with each other. Then you have to learn to Communicate effectively. Then you have to learn how to Coordinate your efforts and Cooperate with each other. Even then, Caring is not a certainty.
When I was training my facilitators we often talked about the Transformation. Caring happened when the focus of the group shifted from “getting to the end of the task” to “getting everyone to the end of the task.“ Caring happened when inclusiveness was more important than successfully completing a task, even though inclusiveness was often the best way to complete a task
There are several ways to complete any task. The first is to have a powerful, talented individual who gets the group to the end line through sheer brute force of their abilities and/or leadership. The second is to have every member included, every member supported, and every member working together. The former disappears as soon as the individual leader is gone. The latter stays around and becomes the culture that continues success even as the parts change.
That’s why our true goal of every team building activity was to cross over the bridge from Cooperating to Caring. That leap was where the transformation occurred and changed the culture of the team. The step from Caring to Trust was much shorter and easier.
Of course, this was all theory from my own practices and observations in Team Building, until Google went about proving it.
Google did research of their teams to see if they could figure out why some teams were more successful than others. They found “five key dynamics that set successful teams apart”. Those five key dynamics in order of importance are:
Structure and clarity
Psychological Safety is Caring. It is making the group and the individuals within the group feel supported. A group of individuals who are feeling supported are more willing to think out of the box and take better risks, which leads to better performance in the long run. This was the most important dynamic for successful teams.
Dependability is Trust. In team building terms, we get to Trust after we get to Caring. But once we get there, we have the two most important dynamics found in Google’s study.
The other three items on the list match up nicely with Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive and his three keys to motivation. Pink says your team needs:
Structure and Clarity is the same as Autonomy in that you have given your team the guidelines to do what they need to do and have left them to do it within those guidelines. Micromanaging takes away that structure and clarity because everyone is second-guessing the rules, waiting for you to change them on the fly.
Meaning and Impact are the Purpose of what you are doing. Make sure your team always knows Why you do what you do and how that affects the customers and the company.
Google’s research is fascinating because it confirms exactly what I started teaching 27 years ago, and validates everything Daniel H. Pink wrote in his book about motivation.
So how do you get that kind of a team?
First, hire individuals who care about others, who show empathy. Caring is a tough character trait to teach, so look for it in your applicants.
Second, train them. Team building doesn’t have to be a corporate-retreat-three-day-weekend-activity. Team building can happen over the long run, fostered by the other C’s of being Comfortable, Communicating, Cooperating, and Coordinating. Work on those skills in your training. The better your team learns to communicate and cooperate, the more likely the leadership of those who care will take the team to the next level. You’ll see the transformation when it happens.
PS Yes, I still do Team Building for groups when you want to kickstart the process. I also do training for Managers, teaching them the basics of Team Building and how to foster short-term and long-term growth in their team. The cool thing is Google just confirmed that what I have been teaching creates the most effective, successful teams.
PPS What should you do about your team members who don’t care about others? Unless you have a job where they work completely on their own with no interaction with the team or the customers, fire them and start over. Seriously. They’ll never serve your customers the way your customers want to be served. They’ll never let the team get to its highest level of productivity. They’ll never grow your business. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Google.
We sold a ton of dot-to-dot books over the years. I bought them by the number count – 10, 20, 50, 75, even 100-count dot-to-dots. I loved dot-to-dots as a child. My favorite was to try to guess the picture before putting pencil to paper, seeing the image in my mind. A few years ago there were some dot-to-dots designed for adults with up to 1000 dots in a single picture. (Yes, you needed a magnifying glass and a super thin mechanical pencil to do some of the more complex pictures.)
Today I want to connect a few dots for you in the hiring process.
If you have read my book Hiring and the Potter’s Wheel, you know that to find the best employees you need to find the right character traits for the job. For instance, if you are hiring a sales person, you want someone friendly, engaging, and able to solve problems. If you are hiring a bookkeeper you want someone organized, detail-oriented, and task-driven. The best person for the job has to bring those traits to the position. You can’t train those.
Yet, the first thing I do when I work with a client to help them write a job description and list of the traits they need to hire for a specific position is talk to the client about his or her personal Core Values. If you are the boss, the owner, the final decision maker, your Core Values become your company’s Core Values. What is important to you personally will be what is important to you professionally. It is where you will spend your most time, energy, and focus. Roy H. Williams and David Freeman taught me that.
It is not just enough that the people you hire possess the traits necessary to be successful on the job. To truly become an asset on your team, they need to share some of the same values you and your business share.
For example, my core values are Having Fun, Helpful, Educational and Nostalgic. While it isn’t important that you match those values perfectly, the more you match, the better we will get along.
Fortunately for me, a toy store attracted mostly people who like to Have Fun. I also hired specifically for the trait of being Helpful. My office manager had traits I will never have of being ultra-organized and detail-oriented. But she also was amazinglyHelpful. On top of that, she celebrated the seasons and holidays even more than I did. My key jack-of-all-trades guy had a level of Curiosity that surpassed my own. My event planner took Nostalgia to new levels and was always trying to Teach others. One of the most common phrases I heard her say was, “You can do that. Here, let me show you.”
When your staff doesn’t share your values, you get frustrated. You feel as if they don’t get you or what you are trying to do. Oh, they get you. They just don’t put as much value on the things most important to you. They may have all the other traits perfect for the job and may even be performing to a high level based on those traits, but if you don’t value the same things, you’ll always feel disappointed by them.
Connect the dots.
I saw a snippet of a training my good buddy Tim Miles did for business leaders managing their people. The slide had three words. “Walk the talk.” Tim goes on to tell you that you have to be consistent in what you say to your team and what you do personally. We all know that hypocrisy causes distrust. The do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do style of leadership doesn’t last very long. The strongest organizations are those where the leaders walk the talk. Your Core Values come into play here, as well.
When you let your Core Values guide you, you will always walk the talk, because you are starting and ending with the very essence of your being. Your consistency will never be questioned because even in moments of stress, your Core Values will guide everything you do. Your staff will know exactly where you stand at all times.
When Tim mentions that you should walk the talk, he isn’t saying that you have to have done every single thing you ask your staff to do. He is asking that you lead through consistency, that your actions match your words. I don’t like filing papers away. I hired a bookkeeper who loves filing papers away. What we both share is a deep desire for being helpful. It isn’t as important that I know how to file as it is that I show her I will be helpful to her and ask that she be helpful to me in return. Her way of helping me is by doing the stuff I cannot or don’t want to do. It just so happens that she has the traits of being organized, detail-oriented, and task-driven to go along with the value of being Helpful.
Connect the dots.
Daniel H. Pink, in his book Drive, says that to get the best out of your employees you need to offer them three things—Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Autonomy allows them to do the job their way without the feeling of being micro-managed. Mastery means they are getting the opportunity to gain skills, learn, and become proficient at the task. Purpose means they understand why they are doing what they are doing.
Your Core Values come into play here as well. Of the three motivational elements, Mastery and Purpose are easy. Give them training and experience and feedback and they’ll become masters. Purpose is simply understanding your Core Values and what greater goal you’re trying to accomplish. Autonomy is the hardest of the three.
For you to be the kind of boss who checks in with your employees rather than checking on your employees, you have to develop a level of trust. It is far easier to develop that trust with people who share your Core Values than it is without. You know at the end of the day that their inner voice speaks to them in a similar language as your inner voice, so you trust that their decision process, while maybe not as experienced as yours, will be similar enough to meet the goals of the organization. Autonomy is tough when you don’t trust the employee. Without it, you won’t get the highest level of productivity. As a side note, if you are quick to trust, but your values don’t meet, you might get the wrong kind of productivity.
Connect the dots and you will see how your Core Values come into play in creating your own Dream Team.
PS Go back and look at all the best teams you’ve ever been a part of. I can promise that you’ll find the individual members of the team shared many of the same core values. It took me a while to notice that in my own life, but in hindsight it is as easy to see as the arrow in the FedEx logo.
PPS When I say shared values, they don’t always have to be a perfect match. My jack-of-all-trades guy had the value of Curiosity. Not exactly the same as my value of Education, but close enough to be the kind of fit that made our team rock.
Every year I would hire around ten people to work the Christmas season at Toy House. A few of those hires were easy. Former staff members would often come back to pick up some extra money around the holidays. I also picked up some seasonal employees from YMCA Storer Camps. Those were easy because I knew they already shared my core values of fun, helpful, and educational. Each year I also would interview several people to find some new blood.
As I mentioned before, Experience only counts if the experience shows you had the character traits I desired. Often I would interview college and high school-aged students with no work experience whatsoever. Without a track record of work I had to have questions that would help me learn whether these applicants had the traits I desired (helpfulness, problem-solving, friendly.)
If I were interviewing a college student with no prior work experience, some of my favorite questions were …
What has been your favorite class and why? This question gives me some insight into the student’s interests, plus opens up the conversation about learning types. What gets them excited? How do they like to learn? This is also a “passion” question. Interviewees are nervous by nature. A simple question about something they like usually helps them relax. Relaxed people give you better answers, often more truthful and less rehearsed.
What has been your hardest class and why? Notice that I didn’t say least favorite? Sometimes the answer to both questions is the same class. This tells me the student loves a good challenge and won’t back down. Like the first question, this one is usually easy to answer, helps to relax the student, and gives me insight into where they excel and where they don’t. Remember that you are looking for character traits more than anything else. The follow-up question to this one is, How did you get through the class? You can probably figure out where that question is going.
Tell me about your extra-curricular activities. What are you currently doing? Why? What does it take for you to be successful at it? What have you learned? I want to know several things here. Are they too busy to work? Are they team players (team sports like football and basketball)? Are they able to work on their own (individual sports like swimming, track, and tennis)? What else drives their passion? Do they do it because they want to or because their friend is doing it? What do they get out of doing it? You get a lot more insight from their extra-curricular activities than you do from their academics because they choose these activities, and these activities define them more.
If they don’t have extra-curricular activities I ask the same questions about their hobbies. Some of your best applicants don’t have extra-curriculars because no one is offering something that cranks them up as much as their favorite hobby.
Tell me about a time recently when you received what you would consider to be excellent customer service. The cop-out answer is that they haven’t been out shopping. If they haven’t been a shopper, they might have a hard time relating to your shoppers and the whole shopping experience. The other cop-out is that they can’t really remember anything memorable. It is possible but not likely. The pandering answer is for them to tell you about an experience in your store. That’s okay if it truthful and full of detail. What I really want to learn is what they see as “excellent customer service.” If they start talking about price and discount, you know they have a Transactional bent. If they start talking about knowledge and helpfulness, then you might have a keeper. (Note: the more detail in the story, the more likely it really happened.)
Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond what was expected of you. If they haven’t yet, they likely won’t for your customers, either. People who go above and beyond do that regularly. Others only do what is asked of them. For those that go above and beyond, you will get responses about things they did for friends, for siblings, for their parents, or for their teachers/coaches. You also get some insight into what they consider “above and beyond.” I once had someone tell me they stayed past their shift for “two whole minutes!” waiting for someone to get back from lunch.
What are your dreams? I like this question, but I don’t like to start with it. It is also “passion” question that really gets the student fired up (assuming they have dreams) but not everyone is comfortable sharing their dreams. I like to wait until they become more relaxed. Those that have crystal clear dreams and view the path to get them there are often more driven to learn and more driven to succeed. Those that don’t have dreams have a tendency to never see beyond what they have already been shown. That might be fine in a job with menial tasks, but working with the public requires people who can see possibilities.
These are just a few of my favorite questions and why I like to ask them. What are some of yours?
PS I mention college students because most of the high school students I hired were friends of the family. Typical questions in those interviews were, “How’s your mom?” “Do you have reliable transportation to get here?” and “When are you available?”
We didn’t have a hierarchical structure at Toy House. While my dad was still there I did have the mantle of Vice President, but that was mostly to satisfy corporate rules. We didn’t have a manager or assistant managers or department heads. The closest thing we had to any kind of structure were the “key” employees—informally named because they had the keys to the building. They had the final say when I wasn’t in the building.
In my last group of key employees, none of them were hired because of their retail experience. They came from a wide variety of backgrounds and brought interesting skills to the table, but only one of them had worked in a similar environment (and she was hired because of skills she had shown in other non-retail jobs).
Yet there they were as my confidants, the inner circle of people I trusted the most with the safety and security of my retail business. They all shared a few traits such as the ability to stay calm in stressful situations, the ability to look at problems from the vantage point of what would be best for the customer and for the store’s reputation long term, and the ability to take charge of a situation if needed.
None of those traits are taught in typical retail training programs.
You are about to hire your seasonal team to help you get through the holidays. You already feel the crunch of the busy season. You worry if you will have the time to properly train your new seasonal staff well enough to serve your customers at the level they expect. Because of your fears and worries you make the single biggest mistake most retailers make in their hiring process.
You put too much emphasis on having “retail experience.”
Your thought process is that the more retail experience they have, the less training you need to do. I found out the hard way just how wrong that thought process really is.
First, understand that most other retailers don’t have a training program in place for their front line staff. They teach you how to clock in. They teach you how to read the schedule. They teach you how to run the register (if that’s part of your job). But the rest you pretty much have to pick up on your own. Therefore someone can have years of retail experience and still be lousy at it.
Second, recognize that your customers have a higher expectation from you and your staff than they do from most other retailers. So even if a new employee did get some modicum of training, it might not be anywhere close to the level you want them to have. Therefore all that “experience” ends up being a detriment, and you spend more time breaking bad habits than you do installing good habits.
The only “experience” that counts is their experience that shows they have the character traits you need.
Do you want someone to be helpful? Find someone with experience being helpful and see whether they thrived in that position, regardless of where they worked.
Do you want someone to be a quick learner? Find someone with experience having to learn things quickly and see how well they did. (Did they grow in position and get promoted or stay stuck in one spot?)
Do you want someone who can solve problems? Find someone with experience doing a job that had problems needing to be solved and see how they did.
Do you want someone to be able to motivate others? Find someone with experience motivating others and see how well they did.
When I finally learned the lesson to stop hiring just because they had “retail experience” and started focusing on hiring for character traits, I found that my new hires without retail experience were often my best employees. They brought fresh, new perspective to the role while having the personality to meet my customers’ needs. Plus, I spent less time breaking them of their bad habits.
I know it is counter-intuitive. Heck, I read several books on hiring that echoed the sentiment of Harvard Business Essential’s book Hiring and Keeping the Best People that said, “The number one factor is experience on the job.”
I beg to differ.
Experience counts. But it is the quality of experience, not the location of the experience that makes the difference. In retail, in management, in jobs where people skills trump specialized training, personality traits are far more important than having done a similar job somewhere else.
PS If you’re hiring high school and college-aged kids, they often won’t have any retail experience. Their academic and extra-curricular careers, however, tell you a lot about their personality and whether they have the traits to be successful on the job.
Since closing up Toy House last December I have been writing, speaking, coaching, sailing, selling, and singing for my supper. It has been an interesting adjustment from the steady paycheck of selling toys. It has been filled with highs and lows and stimulating conversations when people ask me how I’m enjoying “retirement.” I’m a few decades away from that word. I need to work.
The past few days I have thrown my hat into the ring for some full-time job openings in southern Michigan.
Yes, I am looking for work.
Here is my resume: (Please excuse my bragging—that’s what resumes are for, right?)
27 years as a Team Builder: Developed, Organized and Led Team Building Activities utilizing Low and High Ropes Courses, Wilderness & Experiential Activities, and designated tasks to promote better communication, cooperation and trust for groups ranging from adolescents to corporate America. Led and Facilitated Training Programs to teach others to be Team Builders. Wrote and published blogs and articles on Team Building.
24 years as a Purchasing Agent: Created and Managed Open-to-Buy programs for multi-million dollar retail store. Negotiated Terms with Vendors. Made Purchasing Decisions for millions of dollars of inventory. Designed Merchandising Displays including Revamping 16,000 square feet of display space. Led Workshops, Seminars and Webinars on Inventory Management, Pricing, and Financials,
22 years as a Marketing & Advertising Director: Developed and Managed Advertising Budgets between $20,000 and $120,000 annually. Made Advertising Purchases and Created Content for TV, Radio, Newsprint, Billboard, Direct Mail, Email, Facebook, In-Store Signage, Business Flyers, and Press Releases. Conceived, Organized and Hosted several public and private Marketing Events. Made Public Appearances at Networking Events, on Radio, and TV. Built websites for www.ToyHouseOnline.com and www.PhilsForum.com(among others). Led Workshops, Seminars and Webinars on Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations. Wrote book on Advertising called Most Ads Suck (But Yours Won’t).
21 years as an HR Director:Hired, Trained, Scheduled and Managed a team of 12 to 30 employees. Created an Employment Manual and Training Program. Planned, Organized and Led monthly Staff Trainings and Meetings. Led Workshops, Seminars and Webinars on Hiring & Training and Customer Service. Wrote and Published a Book on Hiring and Training called Hiring and the Potter’s Wheel: Turning Your Staff Into a Work of Art.
27 years as a Speaker/Teacher: I have given over 100 seminars to other businesses, led over 100 training workshops for staff development, facilitated over 100 team building events, conducted over 100 presentations on shopping to customers, and taught over 100 classes for new, expectant fathers at our local hospital.
9 years as a Writer: I have written four books, dozens of magazine articles, hundreds of different advertising content, and 788 blog posts(counting this one.)
I am looking for work.
You can hire me to do Private Coaching, one-on-one, in the area you need the most help. (For a lot of people that has been hiring and training.)
You can hire me to do Presentations and Workshops. My Customer Service presentation takes a unique approach by helping you define each point of contact a customer has with your business and measures your performance at every step along the way. Like my Hiring & Training presentation, this works with any type or size of business. In fact, it was a manufacturer who paid me the highest compliment telling me I had given him the “million-dollar idea” he needed to take his business to the next level (as he flew away on his private jet.)
You can hire me to help you revamp your Marketing & Advertising. Whether temporary as a coach/consultant and/or to help you create new content, or full-time as a Manager or Director, I will bring insights and skills that will move the needle for your business.
You can hire me to Write. My specialty in writing is to teach and persuade. I’m sure you can figure out how to use that in your business.
I’m not a perfect candidate. Most people look at my resume and get hung up on the fact I have Bachelor of Science in Geological Oceanography from the University of Michigan. That was 28 years ago. I barely remember that child (but I still know more about shoreline erosion than anyone really needs to know.)
Or they want to discount the above experiences because I didn’t do it in corporate America. I can see that. Of course, I did all those jobs simultaneously (plus twelve years as CEO and CFO) for a store that in 2009 was named “One of the 25 best independent stores in America!” in the book Retail Superstars by George Whalin. That’s not corporate America, but it does speak to my ability to learn and my ability to stay organized and focused while juggling a lot of responsibilities in a fast-paced environment.
I’d be happy to discuss these and any other reservations during the interview.
I am looking for work. Do you know anyone who can use a guy like me?
PS I apologize if this post sounds too much like bragging. I really do need more work. I want you to know I’m not just a blogger who thinks he knows something about business. I have walked the walk. I have made many mistakes and learned from them. I don’t have the business degree, but I did have the toughest teacher ever—real life! You get the exam first and then you get the lesson. Please share this post with anyone you know who could use a guy like me.
PPS You know my Core Values are Having Fun, Helping Others, Education and Nostalgia. My ideal job is teaching and helping others. It is what I do best and I enjoy it thoroughly. My second passion is marketing & advertising, finding new ways to drive traffic. That and Free Cell are my two favorite puzzles to solve. If the right opportunity comes along, however, I’m game for just about anything that lines up with my values.
Reports are that Toys R Us has secured $3.1 billion in financing to get them through the holiday season. Thanksgiving is only nine weeks away. I have a plan for the first million dollars they should spend that will change the culture in their stores immediately and just in time for the critical holiday season. It will take about seven weeks to fully implement. Have David Brandon call me ASAP.
There are 866 Toys R Us and Babies R Us locations in the United States. I would fly the 866 store managers in to headquarters for a full day of training. That training would include a morning segment and an afternoon segment.
The morning segment would be all about toys and play value including:
The Importance of Play Value on Child Development
The Elements of a Great Toy
The Different Ways Children Play
Smart Toy Shopping
The afternoon segment would be all about hiring and training a staff plus how to raise the bar of customer service and would include:
Determining the Character Traits for the different positions on the team
Developing a Training program for New Hires
Developing a Continual Training Program for current staff
Raising the Bar on Customer Service
The morning would be about changing the way the company as a whole looks at the products they sell and gets them to shift their mindset away from “selling toys” to “solving problems” or “helping children develop.” As I explained previously, this is the direction they should have taken back in 1998 when Walmart surpassed them in overall toy sales. This is where they should have gone to reclaim their throne as the “king of toys.”
The afternoon would focus on raising the bar for the staff by finding better people, training them better, and creating a lasting program to continually raise the bar on their servicing of their customers. Even a big chain like Toys R Us that doesn’t offer a lot of fancy services like free gift wrapping or year-round layaway can still find new and better ways to treat customers by meeting and exceeding their expectations.
The managers would end the day equipped with new skills for hiring, training, and managing their staff while also teaching their staff and their customer base about the importance of their products and why customers should be choosing to shop at Toys R Us for all their toy needs.
Not only would Toys R Us see a profound shift in customer satisfaction this holiday season, but with better hiring of the seasonal staff, the managers would have a better pool of employees to change the culture of their stores going forward. Better hiring skills have a cumulative effect year after year.
The cost to TRU breaks down like this …
866 managers flown in for training x $800 per person for flight and hotel = $692,000
Assorted costs for training room, lunches, and printed materials = $58,000
Fee for me to do 7 weeks of training (at 25 managers a day, it would take 35 days to see them all, or seven 5-day weeks) = $250,000
It would be the best million dollars they spend all year. But they better hurry. Thanksgiving is only nine weeks away.
PS If you’re an independent retailer you’re hating this post. Everything I just explained that TRU should do is exactly what sets you apart from the category killer and big-box discounters you compete against. If you’re an indie retailer, though, you have secretly been scared that if the category killer in your industry ever “got it” and decided to do what I’ve outlined, it would make your job that much harder. Here’s the kicker. Do it first. Do it before they get smart.
PPS My rate may seem a little high, but that’s because I’m here to help my fellow indie retailers and small businesses succeed. If the chains want me, they’ll have to pay. You, however, can hire me to do all that for your business at fraction (very small fraction) of that cost. Get a couple of your fellow local retailers to join you and you can split it even further. Call me.
We all dreaded the blue sheets. As camp counselors at Storer Camps, we had to write up an “evaluation” of every camper in our cabin. The blue sheet was the worksheet we used. It had spaces for us to mark their daily activities and a few questions where we wrote short answers about their time at camp including what they seemed to like most, their strengths, and areas where they struggled.
The blue sheet dates back several decades. I remember my mom getting them from my counselors back in the 1970’s. I remember my own trials writing them late at night by flashlight on the porch of my cabin just to get them done on time. I remember turning them in to my director for approval only to be asked to rewrite them because of penmanship or to change a word or phrase. No time off until your blue sheets were finished and approved.
I also remember reading them as a parent and appreciating the thoughtfulness and insight that went into them. It made my boys’ camp experiences more meaningful. It gave me an outsider’s perspective of my children, a valuable measure of their growth.
Evaluations can be viewed as measuring sticks. They show you progress when you compare them to previous evaluations. They are also maps because they show you where you are in relation to where you want to go.
If your Game Plan, however, is to exploit your Competitive Advantage of having better people offering better services, you have to have a map that shows you where your staff members are in relation to where you want them to go. You have to have a tool for evaluating their progress.
Some consultants believe in commission sales as the tool to evaluate your staff. If their numbers are going up, then life is good. The problem is that commission sales don’t always work in every type of retail store, nor are they truly an accurate predictor of someone’s selling skills since luck and timing and many other factors outside of pure selling skills have an effect on the numbers.
Some believe in written evaluations—blue sheets for your staff listing their strengths and areas they need to improve. I tried those and got frustrated by them. Although they measured, they didn’t map. Plus they took a long time to process and complete. They were as discouraging as they were encouraging. On top of that, if you don’t evaluate fairly and honestly without emotion using concrete, specific examples of problems needing to be fixed, these written reports could come back to bite you in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
Written evaluations are best for documenting unacceptable behavior to protect yourself in termination cases, but they don’t work as well for motivating your staff to improve.
Here are the concrete steps I suggest for mapping a path for your staff.
Talk to them. Sit down every so often and just have an informal conversation.
Ask questions. Ask them how they are doing. Ask them what they are working on. Ask them what they have learned from the training program (that I know you have implemented.) Ask them where they see themselves in the big picture of the store. Ask them if they understand their purpose for being employed. Ask, ask, ask.
Give them praise. Praise them for what they have done, what they have learned, and where they are. Roy H. Williams said, “What gets measured gets managed, but what gets measured and rewarded improves.” Praise is often enough of a reward to get the improvement you seek.
Offer suggestions. Based on your observations of their work, coupled with their own beliefs of where they are on their journey, give them suggestions for what they can “work on next” to reach the goals you have already spelled out for your team. Give them concrete action steps such as reading certain articles or books, or watching certain videos, or working on a specific task.
Do it informally and do it often. Formal evaluations are scary and make your team afraid of you. Because of the amount of work involved, they also happen too infrequently to be of good value. Informal discussions following the format above build trust and help motivate your team. Plus they give you a much quicker read on the talent and potential of your current players so that it is easier to spot new, better talent when it comes along.
PS There are many who might disagree with this procedure. There are valid arguments for a formal evaluation process. If you are a small business with only a handful of employees, however, a formal evaluation process could be (or at least feel) overwhelming. Your true goal for evaluating your staff is to see where they are and motivate them toward the ultimate goal of being the best at serving your customers. Daniel H. Pink in his book “Drive” points to three things that intrinsically motivate your staff—Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. A simple measuring stick of growth compared to where you were previously is Mastery, but a map of where you are in relation to where you want to go is Mastery and Purpose.
I’ve only been flown in for an interview once in my life. I went to the Catskills in New York to interview for a position running an experiential education and wilderness trip program. I was a perfect candidate for the job. Not only did I have the experience running a similar program in Michigan, this program also had a strong bike program and owned a fleet of several dozen bikes they had to maintain. I had spent my teenage years assembling and fixing bikes at Toy House. It was a perfect match!
I figured I had the inside track on this job. They flew me in so they must have thought quite highly of me. I had the perfect skill set. I also knew the other two candidates. Both were currently working in the program where I was interviewing. Both had previously worked for me. Neither had the experience in a managerial role I had.
Although I thought I interviewed well, I didn’t get the job.
Only later did I find out the guy doing the hiring had always and only promoted from within. He flew me in only because his boss demanded he interview someone outside the company. I didn’t have a chance. I never had a chance.
Hiring from within makes sense on the surface. You’re hiring a known quantity. You’re hiring someone who already knows your culture (and likely fits in). You’re hiring someone who already knows your procedures. You’re hiring someone who is already loyal to you. The risks seem low.
Laurence J. Peters published a management theory in 1969 about the promotion and hiring from within now called the Peter Principle. According to Wikipedia, the concept is “that the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and ‘managers rise to the level of their incompetence.’ “
The risks may seem low, but the downside to the Peter Principle is that you end up with incompetent people at every level of the organization because you elevate people until they are no longer competent. Does that sound like a good plan?
You need to hire your manager the same way you hire anyone at your company. Make a list of all the traits and skills necessary for a person to be successful on the job. Then figure out what you can teach your new manager and what that person needs to bring to the table.
When you make a list for a sales associate you get different traits than your list for a store manager. A perfect salesperson is great at selling. A perfect manager is great at teaching and motivating. Yes, one person can be good at both. But if you are promoting your best salesperson to manager just because they are your best salesperson, you might have made two positions on your team worse off.
Your manager is most important hire you will make. Your manager is the person who gives you the most time to work on your business instead of in it.
Make a list of the skills needed to be a great manager. That list better include the ability to teach, the ability to motivate, and empathy. You probably need to throw trustworthy onto that list, too, and the ability to learn.
Make a list of questions you can use to identify those skills in your candidates. Here are some on ability to teach and trustworthiness. Tell me about a time where you had to teach someone else a new skill. How well did it go? What would you do differently if you could go back in time? Tell me about a time when you weren’t able to keep your word. How did you rectify that situation later?
Talk to your current staff, especially the high performers who are great in their current role, but not necessarily skilled for the next role. Many people feel the need to want to move up the ranks. Your best salespeople might feel resentment if you pass them over. Talk to them about the importance of their current role and why you need them in that position. If it about money, give them a raise. If they are truly your best salespeople, they are worth it. If it is about power, give them responsibilities that fit with their skill set. They feel better, you feel better, and you haven’t promoted anyone to the level of incompetence.
Move “industry knowledge” lower down your list. Sure it helps if someone is as enthusiastic about your niche in the market as you are. But it isn’t nearly as important as the ability to learn, the ability to teach, and the ability to motivate other people. Given the choice between hiring someone who can step in and lead the team while they learn the products or someone who knows the products but is still learning how to lead, you know the smarter choice.
Your goal is to get the most competent people into every position possible. The manager role is the most important of all those positions.
PS I have seen the Peter Principle in almost every place I have worked. I have even been guilty of it a few times myself. It never seems to end well. The easiest way to prevent it from happening in your business is to look at each role as being a separate position requiring separate skills, not a benefit or reward for time served or a promotion for those who do best in their current role.
PPS My son wrote a college entrance essay on “Leadership”. He identified empathy as being the most important character trait of a great leader. I couldn’t argue with his premise at all. Hopefully he still has that essay saved somewhere so that I can use it in a future post.