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Us vs. Them

September 4, 2008
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We all report in to somebody. Employees report to their managers. Managers report in to the owner, or shareholders. All owners, even the solo operator, are accountable to their customers.

Someday, you may become the person to whom others report. On that day, you cross a line. You cross a boundary into a foreign land, a place that isolates you from the people who – just the day before – had been your comrades, your friends, your brothers and sisters. On that day you move from being one of “Us” to one of “Them.”



We all report in to somebody. Employees report to their managers. Managers report in to the owner, or shareholders. All owners, even the solo operator, are accountable to their customers.

Someday, you may become the person to whom others report. On that day, you cross a line. You cross a boundary into a foreign land, a place that isolates you from the people who – the day before – had been your comrades, your friends, your brothers and sisters. On that day you move from being one of “Us” to one of “Them.”

In my lifetime, I have had about 100 jobs. It’s not hard for me to put myself in an employee’s shoes, because I have worn out several pairs. I was one of “Us.” And, I will never forget the day, the place and the moment I became one of “Them.”

Many of my 100 jobs were restaurant positions. I’ve worked as a dishwasher, pantry chef, sauté’ chef, busser, food server, bartender and cocktail waitress. As hostess, I greeted and seated. As an Oyster Café cook, I shucked thousands of oysters. Once, I was the dessert girl, for lack of an official title, and made cheesecakes by the dozens.

Gather that much experience in an industry and the inevitable happens. Someone asks you to become a manager.

“Ellen, you’ve been doing a great job around here. When Sammy goes into rehab, we’d like you to replace him as manager. Are you interested?”

Translation: Would you like to take on more responsibility, more hours, more stress and less money? The last manager ended up semi-conscious, in a fetal position in the corner of the walk-in freezer. Are you foolish enough to do it?

“Sure,” I said. (Hey, after all, it was a promotion.)

I was handed the keys to the restaurant. The keys! The symbolic scepter of leadership was passed to me.

I closed my hand around the keys. I felt different, stronger, and smarter. I walked from the managers’ office into the dining roomed. Walt, one of the bartenders, walked up and asked, “Have you seen Sammy? I need him to open the liquor cabinet. It’s time to open the bar.”

Puffing up a bit, I pronounced, “I have the keys, Walt. I’ll open the cabinet for you.”

My transition to the dark side was complete.

Walt looked at me, first in surprise. Then, a veil fell over his features. He was wondering if anything he had just said could be used against him in a court of law. At the same time, he was touched by sadness. I was gone from him as a friend, as a co-conspirator, as a cocktail waitress who would only laugh when he broke a rack of glasses. From this point on, around me, Walt would edit what he said. Around me, he would be wary and cautious. Because I had crossed the line and was now one of “Them.”

Since that day, I have been one of “Them.” It has been helpful to remember what it is like to be one of “Us.” It helps me recognize the rotten, knuckleheaded things bosses do to the folks who report to them. It’s those things that cause the border between the countries of “Us” and “Them” to be so broad and hostile.

So, what do the citizens of “Us” think of the people of “Them?” I’ll share lessons learned…from painful personal experience as well as empathetic observation of “Them.”

“They” Should Teach “Us” What We Are Supposed to Do
If someone is going to follow your lead, isn’t it reasonable to expect you to know where you are going? Managers are always looking for “self starters” and “people who don’t need to be told what to do.” How convenient that would be for the manager! Is it so much to ask that managers be competent and decisive? I’ve discovered that people love to be led if there is someplace worth going. And, if you map out a way to take them there.

As a manager, I have often failed to do this. I heard a sobering statistic that said “75 percent of a manager’s time is spent correcting behaviors you never explained or taught in the first place.”

On the flip side of this problem, lies another problem.

“They” Don’t Let “Us” Just Do Our Jobs
Working with a rudderless manager can be frustrating. But, employment with the overbearing manager is, well, unbearable. Why hire people if you are going to do everything yourself? You put your employees’ job at risk every time you jump in and take over.

Where’s the balance? Consider managing as guided discovery. As the manager, you are responsible for setting goals. Where are we going? What do we want to have? Accompanying each goal should be a form of measurement. How the heck are we going to know that we got there? Also, you have the right to dictate what behaviors you will and will not tolerate. For instance, anyone who lie, cheats or steals will be dismissed from employment.

As far as the specifics of how to get from where you are now to where you want to go, I suggest you involve the people who will be doing the traveling. Ask them and listen.

To “Them” Everything is an Emergency
At Bare Bones Biz, Gail Gudell is our Controller. As bean counter, she keeps track of the money, honey. Thank goodness! She has been counting the money for me for almost 2 decades…in every business venture and for the Rohr family empire. Now, the one thing that drives Gail crazy is when I drop a TO DO in her In Basket that is a burning emergency. Really, how can there be an accounting emergency? Accounting emergencies are just poor planning…on my part. It isn’t OK to put your team in full Rolaids mode because you are disorganized. Hey, once in while…you’ll be forgiven. Operate in the crisis mode for too long and you will find yourself employee-less.

“They” Don’t Hold to the Rules They Set for “Us”
Sigh. This one makes me cringe as I write it. Too many times in my life have I set high standards for my team…then let myself off the hook.

I spent most of my life being fashionably late. Worse, in a previous stint as one of “Them” I wrote up an employee who didn’t make it to work on time on a day that I showed up 20 minutes late. I have some integrity lapses to make amends for in this department. To have integrity, your thoughts, words and actions should be “integrated.” It’s not OK to have two sets of rules. You’ll tarnish your soul, as well as your relationships with the good people who work with you.

“They” Don’t Support “Us”
Your employees are on the front lines of the business playing field. In the middle of a play, they are going to make decisions. Hey, in this industry, can you anticipate every weird thing that could happen? No way. So, there is no way to write an Operations Manual that covers every possible situation.

Standing behind your employees can mean different things to “Them” as opposed to “Us.” Recently, I heard a heartbreaker of a customer complaint. Ray is a cleaning professional. He is technically skilled and delivers great service because he really cares about his customers. Ray is the kind of guy who makes you proud to be part of this industry.

Ray responded to a call for service and did a first rate job of solving the problem. He got all the signatures and approvals before he started the work, and he even called Mr. Homeowner at work to make sure that he was in concert with Mrs. Homeowner’s decision. The cleaning was done and everyone was happy. Total sale: $756.

Until Mr. Homeowner got a call from another contractor. Mr. Homeowner had called this other contractor the same day he called Ray’s company. The other guy finally called back. “You got ripped off,” he said. “I would have charged you $300.”

Mr. Homeowner called Ray. “You ripped me off,” he said.

This is a tough one. Ray didn’t do anything wrong! The jerk contractor who played Monday Morning quarterback is the one who should be thumped. And, one might argue, a customer who would back out of a contract after the work is done should be subject to a thrashing of some sort. The manager did his best to communicate the value of the services provided, and included a breakdown of the bill. Alas, a decision was made to refund money to Mr. Homeowner. It’s not fair.

And it’s not fair to Ray.

A job well done doesn’t mean the poop won’t hit the fan. Let your team know that you love and support them. But when it comes to the customers….they are the ones to whom we all report.

One More Lesson Learned…
“It’s surprising how much you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” -- Abraham Lincoln

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