I was on my weekly errand run, checking out at a drugstore I visit frequently. As usual, Helen, the early morning cashier, was taking care of me. I asked her what was new.
“Ray got promoted and moved to a bigger store,” she said. “I’m really happy for him.”
“How’s the new store manager?” I asked.
“Well,” Helen said. She paused, choosing her words carefully. “His first name is apparently, ‘Mister.’ He’s sure no Ray.”
I remembered when Ray took over the store a couple of years before. He made an instant impact. It started with his name.
My Name is Ray
The company practice was that store managers and assistant managers all had black nametags with white lettering. The lettering had their first and last name and their title. Everyone else in the store had white nametags with black lettering with just their first name. Ray had his own nametag made up. It had black letters on a white background. It said “Ray.”
He told the people at the store that he thought about what they all ought to call each other. He considered things like “Mr.” or “Ms.” But he rejected that because it was kind of cumbersome. Instead, he had decided that it would be best if they all called each other by their first name, including him.
He stuck to it, too. Helen and the other people who worked the store figured that he’d put on the standard nametag when they had visitors from corporate, but Ray didn’t do it. He took some grief from the muckety-mucks for the nametag, but not much because the store was doing so well.
That was the thing about Ray. He did things a little differently than most of the other managers in the company, but he also got much better results. Within a few months, the store was among the most profitable in the company. Ray received an award for the store performance.
Ray gave everyone who worked there a gift card for a meal for two at a local restaurant. “After all,” he told them, “you guys did most of the work.”
I asked Helen what she thought made Ray an effective boss. The first thing she mentioned was that he was clear about what he expected. Everyone but Ray called them “Ray’s Rules.”
In his first meeting with the people in the store, Ray told them that he had three rules.
1. Show up on time, ready to work. 2. Treat everyone in the store like they’re your favorite uncle. 3. Pitch in when there’s work to be done, and especially when someone else needs help.
“It was so clear,” Helen told me, “he didn’t have that whole book of rules. He wanted to help you do right. He just had those three rules. They were easy to remember and easy to follow, and they worked.”
Picking Up the Gum
There was one other thing that Helen remembered, mixed in with the other comments. Ray picked up the gum. I knew exactly what she meant. Soon after he got there as manager, I was in the store and I saw someone cleaning up gum off the floor. At the time, I didn’t know who it was, and Helen told me “That’s the new store manager, Ray.”
I didn’t get it at the time, but now it’s clear. Ray changed the culture in the space of a couple of hours by a few simple acts. By making up his own nametag that looked like everyone else’s, he told them he didn’t think he was any better than they were.
He sent the same message when he picked up the gum. I’ve seen enough store managers to know that most of them, if they found gum on the floor, would call for someone else to clean it up. Ray just did it. Helen asked him about it once and all he said was “Rule number three.”
But Ray was also the person in charge. He set the rules that everyone worked by. He didn’t need a nametag that told everyone he was a store manager, that’s just what he was. And he saw the job of store manager as one of many in the store that helped make things good for customers.
It seemed clear that the new manager, in Helen’s words, is “no Ray.” If that’s true, the culture of pitching in and helping out and treating everyone with respect will deteriorate over time. In the end, everyone will remember that it was really great when Ray was there.
Great bosses never forget that they’re part of the team, as well as the team leader, and they show it by the way the act. They also don’t forget that they’re the one responsible for the performance of the team.
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In addition to writing the Three Star Leadership blog, Wally Bock is an author, ghostwriter, writing coach and book doctor. In his past lives he has run a small publishing company, been a popular keynote speaker to audiences around the world, and served as a U. S. Marine. He loves good beer, good friends, and good stories.