Teachable Moments: Reflecting on 30 years at the University of Iowa

Three years ago, on 16 December 2015, I made one of the toughest decisions of my life: I chose to resign from my career at the University of Iowa after decades of service. I decided to grow my own consulting business to become my primary source of income.

At the time, I didn’t say much about my decision to leave. Unfortunately, some changes in management resulted in the work becoming really unbearable, and I didn’t want to speak negatively of the University or any staff members at that time. As someone who writes regularly and transparently about my life experiences, my silence left some people wondering about the reasons for my departure.

I’m writing now to share some context and reflection as I look back on my work at the University. There were some valuable teachable moments that are worth sharing.

While my time at the University spanned over 30 years, those were not contiguous years of service. I’d spent time abroad as an undergrad and did other work after graduating. My cumulative service at the University was just over 20 years of employment.

This article is primarily about my employment and work-life at the University. In the future, I plan to write more about campus life as a student. My personal website serves as a kind of memoir written in real-time going forward and also sharing stories from the past. So, this article is part of a series of writings with that goal in mind.  

My First University Job

My first tech support job at the University of Iowa was as an undergrad working in a language lab computer cluster on campus. That job became an important part of my education. For me it was like a paid 4-year internship that gave me practical experience and skills I’d use for years to come. I kept that job until I graduated and it became a springboard for other opportunities.

There were a lot of inspiring academic experiences to be discovered on campus. I  won’t mention them all here. I’ll reserve that for another missive, but one experience really stands out.

As an undergrad, I was grateful to have been able to take an interdisciplinary course with three professors teaching a group of 12 students. David Baldus (a law professor), Dr. John MacQueen (a medical doctor), and Alan Nagel (the head of the English Department at the time). We focused on “Hard Cases in English Literature” discussing historic ethical and legal challenges raised in classic literature. Having a 4:1 student to teacher ratio, made the class more personable compared to a lecture hall with a 500:1 student-teacher ratio.

After graduating, I moved away briefly for my first job as a non-student and spent several years working in San Francisco and then in the Washington D.C. area for a retail electronics and computer company. A few years later I returned to Iowa City.

College of Law

I was fortunate to be available in the early 1990s when an opportunity came up to work at the College of Law installing and then supporting the computer network and user community there. After 18 months, I was ‘scouted’ by what is now called ITS – the central campus IT services group who offered me a raise to join a network services team.

The College of Law eventually hired 5 people to provide the services I’d been offering. It made me feel good to know that I was delivering a significant value to the college. I’d been providing instantaneous support by using a voice pager messaging system before cellular phones were readily available. It was the same system being used by doctors at the time. I had a mobile services cart with all the tools and software needed to perform hardware and software support throughout the building. Eventually I had a 7-pound cellular phone that I put on the cart to make sure people could easily contact me with. Most support calls could be resolved in minutes over the phone which saved time and reduced frustrations. 

Donating to the University

At the College of Law, the paging system I was using, the cell phone, the tools, software, and even my own office computer and peripherals were all purchased with my own personal funds. This saved the college thousands of dollars, and allowed me to work with some fun technology that otherwise would not have been available due to limited funding. I purchased one of the first external writeable CD drives for about $1,200 and a scanner for about the same amount. 

I know my contributions don’t seem exceptional or significant when compared to the multi-million dollar donations made by those who have buildings named after them, but to me they seemed like something meaningful I could contribute.

I continued this practice of paying for all my supplies, services, and equipment over a span of 30 years, and even paying for some supplies and equipment to help others. From grad students on a budget to departments with limited funding, I offered cables, adapters, computer parts, printing services, all for no charge. Having instant ‘pre-approved’ access to any tools I needed to get my work done really helped create an efficiency in my workflow. I could just walk to the store, and in 5 minutes be back with whatever cable, adapter, or power cord was needed to get the job done. It supported my goal of instantaneous problem solving.

I was able to cover these costs with the additional income I had from my outside consulting business. I remember at one point, I was working a regular weekend gig that provided more income in a weekend than I earned all week at the University. Although the University didn’t pay as well as private companies and direct consulting clients, the benefits were good and the workplace culture was positive. This is how academic institutions have traditionally been able to attract and retain talented people willing to work for little less.

UIHC Consulting

I spent some time in the mid-1990s providing tech support to a department in the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. It was nice to be working for the University but getting paid as an independent contractor doing freelance work. I had a considerable amount of freedom to work on the projects assigned and I reported directly to the departmental administrator as well as to several doctors I was working with. That work paid well because there were not several layers of administration taking a cut of the budget between me and the department. I continued doing consulting and freelance work through 2001.

Language Media Center

In the late 1990s and into the year 2000, I was happy doing consulting work full-time, and probably would have continued, but one day I saw an ad for a job at the University working in the same language lab that I worked at as an undergrad. It prompted me to contact my old supervisor from 20 years prior. We had a good conversation reminiscing, and then she asked if I was calling about the job. I’d actually just called to visit, but the job did sound interesting and I decided to interview for the position. So, in the summer of 2001, I was back working at my old job, this time as a staff person rather than a student.

The Language Media Center was a really great place to be working given the experience and diversity of skills I’d developed over many years. I was able to flourish in the tech-side of multimedia while also supporting computers and people with a variety of support needs and abilities.

It was that ideal situation you hear about – where a person is paid to do what they enjoy. As a result, I’d spend 50 or 60 hours a week working at the LMC. There was always some project to work on or someone needing support. Back then we had extended hours and were open into the evenings and on weekends. People appreciated having some after-hours support, especially for evening events that took place in the building.

My supervisor was exceptional and knew how to equip, empower, and inspire people to achieve their best work. She hired smart, hard working, high caliber people, and then gave them the tools, training, and support they needed.

When the proper conditions are created, employees thrive. They go above and beyond what’s required or expected. That’s the context I was working in. It was really the best job and work environment I’d ever experienced. It’s that kind of workplace culture that encourages people to stay.

Wanting to give back more the University community, I joined with campus partners and organizations in common projects that served our department and division. This helped me ensure the practices, policies, and standards I was using were consistent with the broader IT community on campus. Sometimes tech people want to ‘do their own thing’ but I believed that standards were important for continuity and efficiency.

Flying Without Instrumentation

Robust organizations are data-driven and outcome-focused. Stakeholders are involved in decision making. Producers and consumers are partners in the governance process. Transparency is valued. Projects are collaborative. Teams and individuals cooperate. This is the kind of environment typically fostered in higher education institutions and successful businesses. As mentioned previously, this is the kind of workplace culture that attracts and retains talented hard working people.

Departments at the University are peer reviewed by members of other institutions. These reviews provide valuable insights into how academic units can perform more effectively and be better aligned with the University’s mission. When it came time to have our departmental review, I was eagerly awaiting the report – looking forward to getting some impartial feedback from the committee and suggestions on what we could be doing better.

The report was very positive. The committee concluded our department was providing services essential to the mission of the University. They determined we needed more space, more funding, and more staff. The College ignored the recommendations of the committee. We lost space and lost funding and had no increase in staffing. That was sort of a wake-up call for me. I couldn’t understand how someone could pay for an independent study, then reject the study once it was completed.

I share this story because it was an early indication to me that some aspects of the University’s character and culture were changing. As an employee, it made me feel less secure in my job and less confident about the fate of my department. Rather than acknowledging our contribution as reflected in the report, it seemed we weren’t being valued. Having space taken away from our group, instead of being given more, made our work more difficult.

When higher-level administrators ignore the findings and advice of colleagues from peer institutions, it’s like a pilot flying through a storm refusing to look at the instrumentation. If you’re on that airplane, you’ll feel a bit apprehensive. You might start clutching your life-vest.

It was then that I began to consider how I could make a lateral career move within the University if some high-level administrator on a whim decided to shut down our department.

OBSERVING DOWNSIZING

I’ve been encouraged following the news of states like Tennessee where legislators are increasing the state’s investment in higher education. Programs like Tennessee Promise ensure that everyone capable of achieving an advanced degree can get one. This creates a valuable equity of workforce readiness that results in the state becoming a magnet for top-tier businesses and high paying jobs. Today Tennessee is home to the world’s fastest supercomputer that may find a cure for cancer.

Unfortunately, in Iowa, legislators are less enthusiastic about higher education and public education. Instead of investing more money, they are repeatedly shrinking our education budget by millions of dollars. As a result, academic institutions are looking for ways to cut back, and downsizing is an easy place to start.

I’ll share a few observations about the impact of downsizing.

In advance of an annual physical with my doctor, I’d called the hospital with a question. My call went to voicemail so I left a recorded message. I thought it was odd that nobody was available to answer the call. Several days went by, and I’d had no response to my request. Finally I spoke with a nurse at the hospital, and asked her why there was such a delay in having someone get back to me. She explained that she was the only person responding to calls because they had cut back on staff at the hospital. She said there were hundreds of patient calls she had to respond to. Some high-level administrator thought it would be a good idea to cut back on staffing to save money. As a result, employees were stressed, unhappy, and overworked. Patients were not getting quality care and service. This is an example of how bottom-line thinking and ‘downsizing’ can produce undesirable results.

In the building where I worked on campus from 2001 – 2015, we had a custodial team that would arrive around 4PM and spend the evening cleaning the building, leaving after midnight. Because our lab was open after 5PM, and I would often work in the evenings, I got to know the custodial staff. They were a good group of hard working people. Caring for the building took a lot of work. By 2015, the downsizing trend impacted our custodial team. One evening, I saw one of the custodial staff and asked where everyone else was. He told me they had reduced staffing and now he was the only one cleaning the building – one person doing the work of four or five. He didn’t seem happy about the situation.

It became increasingly common to see office staff working after hours. Requests for additional staffing were denied, and as people left, the vacancies were not filled. Work was shifted to the remaining staff people. So, this resulted in people feeling overworked. It was an easy way to save money: Eliminate a full-time position, and shift the work to existing employees, thus recuperating the payroll costs as savings. It probably made sense on paper, but when implemented didn’t produce good outcomes.

At one point, a department head passed away unexpectedly. This was a sad event for everyone in our building. The College refused to fill that person’s position, so that entire department suffered.

I share these examples of downsizing and bottom-line thinking not as a criticism, but as an observations and ‘teachable moments’ where initiatives designed to create a more lean organization went too far and produced undesirable outcomes.

Under New Management

I’d mention informally to someone that I had concerns about my present career path at the University because our department wasn’t getting the recommended support we needed, and my colleagues would all be retiring in a few years. In the climate of downsizing, and a seeming unwillingness by the part of administrators to be guided by impartial data and stated goals, I thought there was a likelihood my department could be phased out. I’d seen it happen with other departments on campus. I asked this person for some advice about my long-term plans.

They apparently thought I wanted to be immediately transferred into their organization under their management. That was their ‘takeaway’ from our meeting.

So, one day I arrived at work to discover that this person had abruptly transferred me to their organization – without any meetings or prior discussion with my colleagues or my supervisor about the impact on our academic unit. An ambush meeting was arranged with my supervisor who went to the meeting not knowing what it was about. It wasn’t an exploratory or fact finding meeting. A decision was made that impacted me, my colleagues, and my department – all without any input from us or coordinated planning ahead of time. My supervisor was upset with me, thinking that I’d take this action without consulting her first. It was a very poorly executed mess, and my first glimpse of how it would be working with this new manager.

Experiencing Downsizing

An IT person in my building who I think was feeling overworked decided to take a job outside the University. As part of the downsizing trend, I was asked to take on his full-time position while continuing in my old full-time position. I agreed to the arrangement because I’d grown to really enjoy working with everyone in the various departments in our building. I really believe I could apply hard work and innovation to do both jobs in the same way I supported the entire College of Law on my own.

I soon discovered that the job I’d agreed to take had in some respects been neglected for years. I found unapproved network hardware that had been installed years ago. There were new computers and unopened equipment that was supposed to have been delivered to faculty and staff that was just sitting in boxes for many months. The building inventory hadn’t been kept current, so computers assigned to one user would be in someone else’s office. There were computers in the building that were listed as being elsewhere on campus. It would take two or three people working full time to get the mess cleaned up.

I didn’t blame the person who I was replacing. It was clear to me that he had inherited much of the disorganization I found, and he was too overworked to improve the situation. I’d been in the building for almost 15 years and knew that many of these problems pre-dated his time working there.

Initially I tried applying herculean efforts to bring order to the situation, but I was being given greater responsibilities and duties across campus by my new manager. One service I was responsible for was used by thousands of undergrad students and their instructors so it was essential to make that a priority. It was beginning to look like it wouldn’t be humanly possible to get everything done even with working evenings and weekends.

A Master Class in Poor Management

Over several months in working with this new supervisor, I felt like I was taking a Master Class in what it means to be a poor manager. It was one of the worst experiences I’ve had in my life. I’m purposefully omitting their name. For purposes of this story it doesn’t really matter who they were. What’s significant is the example of how poor management can cause businesses and institutions to lose some of their best people.

One of the first directives I was given by my new manager was to not respond promptly to support requests because this would establish the expectation that support could always be provided promptly. For the same reason, I was told not to answer emails after hours or on weekends. I was also told not to use my mobile phone, but instead to have people leave voicemail messages on my office phone – which would almost always be the case if I was out doing my job helping people in the building. Using the mobile phone had helped me answer simple support questions in real-time and avoid having support requests pile up.

These new directives would result in a substantial inefficiency in service delivery making my job almost impossible. There’s a misconception that providing exceptional and prompt service comes at a great cost. The fact is that prompt support benefits everyone and involves less work. Delays create inefficiency and frustration. Simple problems escalate into worse problems.

Another request was that I not help people with their personal computers and devices. That’s something that all of us had been doing in my department. We were a tech support center. We were tasked with providing user support for the various services and programs offered by the University. It was common for faculty and students to use their own devices for their academic work. If faculty members would take their computers to Best Buy or some other outside support provider, they could inadvertently compromise student data to snooping which is a potential violation of laws regulating privacy of student records (FERPA). If they had any health information on their computers, a data breach could violate HIPAA regulations. For example, an email from a student sharing healthcare information related to a request for accommodations.

On one occasion I requested time off for a doctor appointment. The supervisor asked me how much vacation time I’d be using for that doctor appointment. I explained that I planned to use sick leave for the doctor appointment – based on the prep and recovery instructions provided to me by the doctor. The supervisor said I would need to use vacation time rather than sick leave time for some of my time off. I had hundreds of hours of sick leave accumulated because I’d rarely taken time off work due to sickness. I typically worked even on occasions when didn’t feel great. So, to be told to use vacation time for health related time off was hard to understand. The supervisor defended their position by telling me that they had a similar procedure and didn’t need much time off. It was just bazaar.

In one meeting with some campus partners, the supervisor went off topic and criticized me for including my job title and support areas in my email signature. This was a common format used by everyone on campus, but for some reason the supervisor didn’t want others knowing the scope of my support responsibilities. The others in the room looked on with bewilderment. I explained that even if I didn’t have that information in my emails, it was posted on the main ITS website listing me as a contact for various campus services.

When I had my first performance review with this new supervisor, I received a good review, but it was clear to me from what was said that the supervisor had not contacted any of the primary administrators I worked with on a daily basis. After investigating this further, I found that the supervisor basically created my review out of thin air. Those who should have been consulted were upset to learn the review was completed without their input. I was upset as well because I’d worked on some important initiatives that I wasn’t getting credit for.

The few examples I’ve given here are mild and just the tip of the iceberg. It became clear to me that work-life under this new supervisor would be very unpleasant. I’d been an award winning member of the University community and I wanted to leave with the positive reputation I’d earned over three decades of hard work.

I share this experience because it was an important part of my experience at the University. I think it’s important to reflect on what conditions cause dedicated and talented people to leave.

I’ve had people ask me, “Why didn’t you do something about the situation?” Unfortunately, larger institutions and businesses often don’t have mechanisms in place for addressing and correcting problems with mid-level managers. If procedures exist, they are often ineffective. Employees are typically worried about retaliation, and rightfully so. A soured relationship with a supervisor can make work-life miserable, and result in a negative recommendation later – making getting another job difficult. So, most employees, even if they are dissatisfied just won’t say anything. Processes for grievances and whistle-blowing are intended to be confidential. If complaints quickly result in the supervisor being informed about what was said and who complained, then employees are even more reluctant to offer honest feedback about concerns. In this situation, because of IT support unification, had I moved to another department, I would have still been reporting to the same person. So, the only form of protest I had was to leave. Others had already left out of frustration, and I hoped that with more resignations eventually the exodus would bring attention to this person’s management shortcomings.

AN UNEXPECTED OPPORTUNITY

In November of 2015, Tristan Walker, the founder and CEO of Bevel, reached out with an offer to hire me. He had seen some of my writing and marketing work online. He and his team liked what I’d written about the company and products. The work with Bevel would be part-time marketing that could be done from my home in Iowa City. It was a perfect complement to my consulting work. So, I accepted the offer. At the time it also provided a positive explanation for leaving the University without having to speak about some other reasons I wanted to leave. The work with Bevel was rewarding. I still use their products. This month Bevel was acquired by Proctor & Gamble. It was enjoyable to be with the company fairly early on to see it grow.

The Decision to Leave

I decided if I was going to leave the University, I wanted to provide a full two-week notice. So, on 16 December 2015 I provided my resignation for December 31, knowing that it would provide a full month before classes would start again in mid January. In addition, I offered to come back and volunteer with my department to provide any additional training to team members there. Despite these efforts, my supervisor was critical of the timing saying I didn’t give them enough time to find a replacement.

I had one final meeting with the supervisor to complete the standard paperwork for off-boarding. Then unexpectedly the supervisor asked me to hand over a computer that had been assigned to me about 12 years prior. At first I didn’t even know what they were talking about. Then I recalled an old Windows computer that would have been sent to surplus years ago, but how would I prove that? I really didn’t want my University record to indicate there was an unaccounted for computer.

Fortunately my colleague kept impeccable records of all equipment sent to surplus, including dates, models, and serial numbers. She produced the record in minutes. The supervisor seemed surprised and a bit disappointed. It seemed to me it was an effort to get me in trouble. Then the supervisor asked about some other computers. They were all accounted for as well. They weren’t even computers assigned to me.

I found out later that I was supposed to be given a survey in which I would provide among other things feedback about my supervisor. That paperwork was not provided.

These departing experiences were a confirmation to me that I was doing the right thing and getting out just in time. It was a good feeling to finally have closure.

Volunteering

In December 2015, I made arrangements with my department to train my replacement and other staff members after my last day in order to ensure I’d have the time and focus to provide adequate training. 

So, I returned in January 2016 to volunteer with the Language Media Center, and those days of working with the department uninterrupted were really enjoyable. I felt bad about leaving and it was an opportunity to give something back and show appreciation for the many good years of working together.

UIOWA Apple Repair Center

In the summer of 2016 there was a half-time position open at the Apple computer repair center on campus in the Iowa Memorial Union. It would involve working with someone I’d known for many years and respected highly. So, I applied for the job and was hired. Before repairing any computers, I went through the official Apple training program to become an authorized repair technician.

I really enjoyed working at the repair center. There were no meetings to attend. Nobody was calling on the phone. I had no emails to answer other than a few customer questions. It was restful and rewarding work. I could just focus on repairing computers. We were providing convenience and value that people really seemed to appreciate.

I learned a lot from the manager of the repair center. Not only about Apple repairs, but also about exceptionalism in management and operations. He taught by example.

I continued working at the IMU into the fall semester, but the demands of my growing consulting business made it impractical to continue working there.

Conclusion

Overall, my experience at the University of Iowa was positive, both as a student, and as an employee across multiple campus centers and departments. So, I’d highly recommend UIOWA for anyone considering an education or career there.

I promised at the outset of this writing that there would be teachable moments, and there really have been. Over the years I’ve learned that exceptional managers can make a world of difference. A rewarding work-life can change a person’s life. I’ve had many excellent managers over the years, and I can reflect now with greater gratitude for each of them.

I’m grateful to have been inspired and empowered through my time at the University. At a young age, I not only learned important skills, but the importance of service to the world around me. 

I’ll close with a quote that’s engraved in the entryway of the Iowa Memorial Union that I think describes the impact of higher education for many people. It’s consistent with my experience as a student and later as a staff person on campus – being inspired by the UIOWA community to live a life of service.

“If this magnificent structure is to fulfill the dreams out of which it has arisen, it can only do so by stirring the impulses of the young men and women of Iowa to lives of service to mankind.”

~ James Weaver, 1926

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What I Learned as a Radio Shack Store Manager

In the fall of 1986 I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Iowa. With a B.A. in Spanish, and having taken some courses in computer science, I wasn’t sure what my job prospects would be. My girlfriend at the time graduated a semester earlier than I, and had already moved to the San Francisco Bay area where we planned to live.

In December, shortly after graduating, I decided to start job hunting in California. At that time, the job market was tough, and finding something wouldn’t be easy. I had the disadvantage of not being there, and was without any connections in the area.

I looked at the job listings for the area. “Where to begin?” I thought, looking at the various positions available. In that moment, I knew what I wanted to do. Instead of taking what was available, Based on my own interests, I’d choose what business I wanted to work for and then see if they would hire me — even if no job openings existed. This was a strategy that worked for me on several occasions.

Back in 1979, about 7 years earlier, I was in 9th grade, and Radio Shack began selling the Tandy TRS-80 Model I computer. I’d always had an interest in audio systems and electronics, so I’d spend a lot of time at the Radio Shack stores learning about the latest gadgets, tools, and supplies. With computers now available in the store, I began spending a considerable amount of time there, writing software programs on the store computer. Before too long, I knew the store and products fairly well. I got to be a ‘regular’ in the store, and would sometimes help customers. I enjoyed engaging with customers and finding solutions to their needs.

Reflecting on this experience, I decided to see if I could get a job with Radio Shack in San Francisco. I called a store in the area to get the name and phone number of the district manager (the DM). His name was Steve. We ended up talking on the phone, and when he found out I was fluent in Spanish, had computer skills, and was from Iowa, he hired me over the phone to begin immediately — in the Mission District of San Francisco.

Mr. Nguyen, the manager of the store where I first worked, was from Vietnam. I was an assistant manager with hopes of having my own store one day.

Mr. Nguyen was an excellent manager to train under, and we had a really good team at the store. At that time, just about everyone worked on commission. Any tasks not related to making sales, became less of a priority. Cleaning the store, receiving orders, putting merchandise on the shelves, and helping customers with returns or repairs were less desirable tasks since employees weren’t rewarded for these tasks.

As an assistant manager, I was often left managing the store on my own. I decided to create multiple ‘departments’ in the store. So, when a customer needed repairs, rather than being left sniffing their underarms wondering why all the sales people were avoiding them, I’d immediately greet the customer saying, “Welcome! Let me have you work with Bob in our repairs department.”

There was a measure of absurdity in my assertion that we had departments in the store. Radio Shack isn’t JC Penny or Sears, but I wanted to step it up a notch. So, we had a ‘receiving department’ and a ‘custodial department.’ By giving employees accountability over each area, rather than trying to avoid tasks, they took ownership of them.

Based on how well they were doing in their respective areas of responsibility (those tasks with no commission or reward), I would make sure each employee was compensated. I’d wait until I had helped a customer with a huge sale, like a computer or home entertainment system, and then I’d ask Bob to complete the order. That meant Bob, our ‘repairs manager’ would get the commissions for that order.

I wasn’t too concerned about losing income. With so much experience in Radio Shack stores, I’d become a kind of Dancing Wu Li Master of sales. I had memorized every product in the store, and knew the catalog cover to cover. As if by magic, the pages would open to the product I was looking for.

Radio Shack had a training program called the 15 steps to selling. It was quite good, and done right actually could be an effective way to meet people’s needs without selling them stuff they didn’t need. Several of us decided not to focus on maximum sales (and income) but to focus instead on meeting people’s needs, and letting income take care of itself. This approach worked and people flocked to our store.

When a customer would walk in the door, they would begin saying something like, “Do you have…” or “I’m looking for…” and I would cut them off mid sentence and say, “Yes, we have that.” It was mostly for theatrics. Perplexed, they’d continue explaining their need as I gestured them to follow me. Listening to them closely, I’d navigate to the place in the store where we needed to be so that by the time they finished talking, I’d be standing in front of the very product they were looking for, and with a game show host hand gesture, present the item to them.

Occasionally my little stunt would backfire, and the customer would describe something we didn’t have the the store. The other sales people would look on, thinking, “What’s he going to do now?” I was determined to help everyone that came in the door. Sometimes it meant creating a solution by combining adapters and cables to do what the person wanted to do. On one occasion, I had to purchase a soldering kit to solve a customer’s need.

Because sales and commissions weren’t our first priority, and helping the customer was our focus, it didn’t matter how small the item was, or how long it might take to help the customer.

There was a rare occasion when we actually didn’t have what they were looking for. We’d never say, “We don’t have that. Sorry.” Instead, we’d get on the phone and find it for them.

I enjoyed the selling process, and finding just the right product for people. Sometimes we’d be out of a product. “We have just what you need,” I’d say confidently walking toward the display area. Then I’d wave my hand presenting the empty space on the shelf, “What you need is the XB500,” and with much enthusiasm I’d begin to describe all the features the XB500 had to offer. “I’ll buy it!” the customer would say. The entire sales process would transpire without a product. As a neighborhood store, people were happy to stop back a day or two later for items that needed to be ordered.

To make the job a little more fun, we’d use some hackneyed sales techniques and phrases, with exaggerated delivery of lines — like something out of a 1950s television commercial.

The District Manager would stop in and visit us regularly. So, he saw many of these antics, but acknowledge that although our approach was unconventional, it was effective.

Working with Radio Shack, normally it takes two or three years to get into your own store. The training process is lengthy, and a store needs to be available. Within about six months, I was promoted to manager and given my own store in Daly City.

It was a very narrow store with two levels, and not an ideal location. Next door was Matthew’s electronics and entertainment megastore. Inside the store, customers would be given wine and cheese, along with other hors d’oeuvres. Anyone purchasing a television or stereo system would be given a fully assembled bicycle. Matthew’s had a huge advertising budget, and their television commercials from the 1980s can still be found on YouTube.

One day I visited their store. “We’re not in the Mission District anymore,” I thought to myself as I looked around at one of the most impressive displays of electronics I’d ever seen.

“How could I compete with these guys?” I thought.

I saw this as a challenge and growing opportunity. As a teenager, I worked at my mom’s family business an learned a lot of good lessons about hard work and customer service. My mom and step-dad were two of the most successful business people I’ve known — measuring success by how well we care for and serve others. I knew if I could focus on meeting people’s needs, I’d do just fine managing my own store.

Matthew’s brought in customers from around the area who wanted to benefit from their selection and low prices. Sometimes the line would go out the door. Those who were impatient would visit my store instead.

Occasionally I’d get customers in my store because Matthew’s didn’t have what they were looking for. Sometimes I’d replied customer, “Yes, they have that. It’s near the speakers in the back on the right.” I’d memorized their product line and the location of all their merchandise, so sometimes I knew how to find items that newer sales people might not have known about. In these situations, I’d look to my employees and say, “I’ll be right back.” I’d then take the person over to Matthew’s and help them find what they were looking for — all while wearing my Radio Shack Store Manager name tag. The guys at Matthew’s found this quite entertaining. It helped defuse any competitive spirit between our stores. Eventually I had Matthew’s sending me their customers.

Whenever I didn’t have a product someone was looking for, I would continue the sale next door at Matthew’s.

A challenge for my little store was that to get to it from any distance, a person would drive by a dozen other Radio Shack stores. So, to broaden my store’s customer base, I had to do something extraordinary. Over time, word got around and people knew they could get an extra measure of service at our store. We’d get people from as far away as Oakland who would come to have their technical problems solved.

On one occasion, an elderly woman came into my store in search of a phonograph needle that would play 33 and 78 rpm records. Sometimes finding the right needle for a record player would take some effort. It wasn’t always clear what needle would fit. I’d maintained the policy of putting customer needs above commissions, so I wasn’t concerned that this $1 sale might take considerable time. At that moment, I’d be earning about 15 cents per hour. It didn’t matter. I patiently helped this woman, who was very grateful. In fact, she was so grateful that she wrote a letter to Tandy Corporation Headquarters in Texas. That letter got back to my District Manager.

That was a highlight of my career with Radio Shack, and a good way to start off my professional life as a young adult.

I still think back on everything I learned through these various experiences and try to apply those lessons today.

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What a Leader Looks Like

Having spent most of my career as a technology service and support provider, I’ve grown to appreciate others in the industry. Even if someone is your ‘competition’ you inevitably acknowledge and give them credit when they are doing things right.

At some point along the way, as a consultant you find yourself with an abundance of work to do, or you’re on vacation, or there’s someone outside of your service area, and you need to recommend a business you can trust. One such business is Erb’s Technology Solutions in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They’ve been in business since 1961 and have many satisfied customers.

One day I had to deliver a printer for one of my clients to their facility for some in-warranty repairs. As I recall, back then, the equipment service entrance was on a lower level at the side of the building. I thought I’d take the opportunity to visit a bit with the employee working at the service desk.

The service reception desk is generally not the most glamorous job. The pay isn’t great. Usually a less experienced technician would work at the receiving and pickup area. It’s sometimes an unpleasant job if customers are upset about failed systems, crashed computers, delays in repairs, and/or unexpected repair costs.

I had a good talk with the technician that day. I let him know that I’m an area tech consultant and have been impressed with their business. He was very friendly.

When I asked his name, he told me he was Larry. Then I realized, I’d been talking to the owner of the business, Larry Erb.

At that point I just had to ask… why was he working at the service desk? Usually the owner of a successful business that size has managers who manage the managers who manage the employees.

What I learned is that he likes to have some hands on emersion in the various departments in his business. It gives him an opportunity to evaluate continuous improvement opportunities for better procedures and practices. It also lets him have direct contact with his customers and hear first hand about their experiences with his business.

Leaders are sometimes portrayed as people who are removed from the ‘commoners’ and  inaccessible. It’s assumed that one of the perks of being the boss is that you don’t have to do the dirty work and heavy lifting. You’re able to escape from listening to customer complaints. Yet, these portrayals of leadership aren’t the ideal.

A true business leader isn’t trying to avoid their employees or the customers they serve. A true leader spends some time with their sleeves rolled up, working side by side with their employees and serving customers. This builds relationships and trust. It also helps an innovative leader explore opportunities for improvement — since ultimately that’s what their highest calling is.


Related Media – Audio

The audio below is from 7 April 2003. It’s the story of how this kind of management style became the foundation for Honda’s success — success in job satisfaction, customer satisfaction, product quality, and customer service excellence.

Related Media – Video

The video below is about a Japanese airline industry CEO who decided to give himself a pay cut as a way of sharing the burden when a depressed economy adversely impacted the company’s revenue. This CEO frequently works along side with employees and listens to their ideas, praises, and suggestions for improvement.


 

About This Article

“In 1987, at 23 years old, I had my first experience with leadership and business management as a manager of a Radio Shack store in California. Going from a recently hired sales person, to managing my own store in 6 months was a kind of a record. In the 28 years since then, my interest in leadership and management has grown. I’m intrigued by innovative approaches to facilitating progress for organizations and businesses. Much of what I’ve learned over the years, I’ve applied to my work as President of the Small House Society (2002 to present). I describe myself as a “facilitator” in my work with the organization. I like the term facilitator because for me, that’s what a leader does — empower, equip, inspire, and help people grow in their areas of passion and expertise. So, the above article is inspired by these experiences.” ~ Greg Johnson, 12 March 2015


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