It was a night of terrible storms that sent hundreds with flooding basements to local hardware stores for new sump pumps. The plumbing aisle was packed with eager customers, where I witnessed a leadership opportunity. The situation was volatile for the lone employee trying to respond to dozens of desperate people crowding in.
The employee (I’ll call him Bob) was a professional plumber that tried to make a few extra bucks selling supplies at night. He asked his manager to help twice, but received no help. An employee (I’ll call her Anne) from another department saw the crowd and started to help Bob. Within minutes the shelves were empty.
Bob climbed the ladder to the overstock area and passed sump pumps down to Anne. The eager crowd grabbed the sump pumps before she could set them down. Another wave of people entered the plumbing aisle and Anne called the manager for help, but wasn’t able to convince him to participate.
A continuous onslaught of people bombarded the two workers. Anne asked Bob what she should do to help and Bob quickly subdivided their workload. He sold the sump pumps, connectors and pipes, while Anne sold immersible utility pumps and hoses.
Another surge of people overwhelmed Bob with foolish questions. Their urgent agenda didn’t allow time for listening to Bob’s expert advice in solving their crisis. He acquiesced to their foolish demands, knowing they’d return within the hour.
Anne knew the ramifications and called the manager. She demanded that he help in the plumbing aisle or send two employees in his place. She hung up, to help another handful of people, before he could respond. Anne shifted over to yet another group needing help and noticed that the manager stepped into the far end of the aisle, helped one person and then left.
A short lull hit the aisle for a few minutes. During that time the manager returned and pulled Anne for other duties. He had her move cleaning supplies to the front of the store for the people’s anticipated return after their projects were finished.
Anne started setting up a display and noticed more people headed to the plumbing aisle. She immediately headed back to plumbing and the manager asked where she was going. She replied, “The aisle is filled with customers and I have to help Bob.” The manager responded in a shocked tone, ”Really?” As Anne disappeared into the aisle, the manager shouted out, “I’ll support that.”
Bob and Anne continued handing out various pumps until the shelves and overstock areas were empty – fifteen minutes past the store’s closing time.
I walked slowly toward checkout and heard the manager start to chum around with the two workers, as if he had participated in the workload. Then he exclaimed, “I can’t understand why hardly any of the pumps from the palette I put up front sold.”
“What?” shrieked Bob. “We told customers that we were out. Why would you take them up front?”
“To save them a trip to the plumbing aisle,” said the manager.
Bob countered, “But they’d have to come to plumbing anyway for the connectors.”
The next day, I purchased cleaning supplies and bumped into Bob and suggested the night before was kind of crazy.
Bob Responded, “Yeah, we sold close to a years worth of sump pumps in one night.”
“It’s a good thing you had help,” I reminded him.
“You’re not kidding,” he said. “I had just made the decision to quit and walk out, but I stopped when Anne started helping me. She was a godsend.”
“That wouldn’t have been too good of an idea, would it?” I questioned.
“What else could I do,” Bob exclaimed. “I was going crazy and my supervisor refused to help. I don’t need this kind of pressure in my life with what little I get paid. Besides, I learned this morning that there were several employees last night sitting on their hands because their departments didn’t have any customers.”
I felt for Bob and Anne. They would‘ve benefited from a Learning Leader – A leader who commits to three ideas in supporting their employees.
THE PERSON IN NEED DEFINES WHAT SUPPORT LOOKS LIKE
A Learning Leader seeks the advice of the expert in order to streamline workflow and avert crisis. Bob was the only expert that could determine the best way to handle the unexpected demand brought on by the flood. Taking advantage of the moment to learn what things should and should not happen during a future crisis will make the Learning Leader invaluable.
Bob was also the only one who could assign tasks to get everyone through the crisis. When Anne volunteered, he quickly assigned her something simple based on her background or lack thereof. Bob knew what items required Q&A to determine the best solution and what items could be supplied with little information. He was the only one in a position to define what help looked like for a volunteer.
DOING YOUR OWN THING TO HELP IS NO HELP AT ALL
The manager had no idea that he hindered sales by moving sump pumps to the front of the store – Out of sight for those making a beeline to the plumbing aisle. His idea to help the customer avoid the crowds was illogical because of the needed connectors. Had he first asked Bob, “What can I do to help?” Bob would’ve told him to hunt for every pump in the overheads and loading dock, and bring it to the middle of the aisle for customers.
The Learning Leader would’ve gained the knowledge that in a crisis everyone heads to where the answer resides, not where the product is stored. The vast majority of people headed to the expert to learn what they needed from the shelf. A Learning Leader would’ve realized that his expert was important to the customer looking for a solution, which could then be pulled from the shelf by any volunteer.
GIVE KUDOS TO EMPLOYEES FOR AVERTING (NOT SURVIVING) A CRISIS
Comraderie is common after a crisis especially if the employees commiserate together. However, its more profitable for the manager to encourage everything the employees did in advance that prevented a greater crisis. These elements can be easily picked up by a manager willing to listen to what could’ve been done better or what was averted because of Bob’s common practices.
A Learning Leader would immediately follow up a crisis with questions about what worked well and what daily preparation diminished the crisis. This is the opposite of the manager looking for attention. He would rather speak of how he and his team put out a fire – The sexy thing to do when vying for a promotion.
Only leaders that are willing to learn from their people know how to manage during a crisis. They learn what helps and doesn’t hinder. They also gain wisdom for next year’s crisis.
Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers