Lessons in Leadership

My first team leader job was a Clinique Counter Manager position in my early 20’s; I was responsible for 1 full-time and 2 part-time beauty consultants. Back then, I could not have imagined that my entire career would revolve around various management responsibilities, or that learning about leadership would be a lifelong pursuit. My passion for servant leadership started a few years after the Counter Manager gig, when I accepted a position as Sales Manager for the Cosmetics department at a Rich’s store in a South Atlanta shopping center called Shannon Mall. It was the time I spent at Rich’s Shannon with 15 female sales professionals that ultimately became my foundation for  how to build a dynamic team and how to be a supportive boss.

Shannon Mall, sadly, no longer exists. It closed in 2010 after 30 years of business, and online pictures of the declining retail facility do not help me recall my years working there. The memories I cherish come from a folder I have kept since the 90’s, with photographs of my team, documenting a time when we created an encouraging work family. These are the women I grew to love, and for whom I would do anything to create a pleasant work atmosphere.

When the Store Manager of Rich’s at Shannon Mall offered me the opportunity to run my own department, I was initially uncertain. In an effort to help me decide, I visited the store and skulked about the cosmetics area to get a sense of it. I watched the women working there, who seemed to have a sense of dedication and camaraderie, and I could easily imagine myself in their midst. I accepted the position and the transformation began immediately. From the impressive individuals within that small space, I learned how to be a team leader. They taught me about building a culture, resolving conflict and communicating in a positive way.

 

There is a popular leadership quote: “people want to know how much you care before they care how much you know”. I approached the job with this in mind, in a position of humility, knowing that I was young and inexperienced and that they knew the business top to bottom. Once the team had a sense that I was more interested in offering support than disruption, they began to trust me and provided me with the tools I needed to succeed as their leader. The key, as is so often the case, is to listen for the answers, instead of forcing one’s own answers onto others.

I constantly asked questions and accepted guidance. I rolled up my sleeves to work with them. I was open to new ideas. I was not afraid to put in long hours. In exchange for this, the team rewarded me with not only their knowledge, but their kindness and their trust. They made grand gestures for my birthday (see photo of a money tree above) and they were committed to the success of our business. We worked hard and played hard and cared about one another. There were struggles and fights, much like any family, but at the end of the day, there was respect.

When I think of the kind of boss I am today, I know that I have these women to thank. I am not afraid to have the tough conversations with people, but I know that you have to do it with calmness and consideration. I am known to launch innovative projects, but I value process and protocol. I accept that there is a fine line between supervisor and friend, but realize that you can truly love the team members you serve and fight tooth and nail to make sure they are happy. All of this I learned from these 15 women, and my subsequent team members through the years can give them the credit (or the blame) for the type of boss I eventually blossomed into being. Although we only spent a few years together, it was a pivotal time in my leadership development, and an experience I greatly treasure.

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