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A good store manager: to find and keep top-quality store managers, retailers may want to redesign the job. (Raftery on Performance).

Clarence Fursett arrived at the store at 6:30 a.m. sharp. A fistful of keys yielded the one that opened the front door to the dark store. Two or three department heads walked in with Clarence every day. They arrived early to collect their thoughts and talk to Clarence ahead of the crescendo of the day's demands.

Clarence's keys jangled on his hip as he patrolled the aisles, clutching the first bad cup of coffee from the break room machine. His eyes took in everything; his mind's eye held a picture of what he expected to see.

When picture and reality didn't match, Clarence noted it on his clipboard. His private notes focused on what was wrong, but his talks with employees often bubbled with praise.

"Cereal and household look really sharp this morning," he might say to his assistant manager. "Most of the other aisles look good too, but cereal and household--Who worked those aisles last night?" he'd ask.

Clarence made it a point to talk to those stockers. Not just "attaboy" praise, but specific comments on what they did right. Clarence always made sure that Jack, the night stock crew chief, heard these comments too.

Clarence was both a coach and trainer in this setting, while Jack was a team captain and teacher. The players knew what was expected and when they performed well or poorly. The communications provided feedback and constant instruction.

Back when stores like Clarence's had regular business hours, employees functioned more clearly as a team. The game officially started and stopped each day. The game plan could be developed, based on the store's pre-game conditions.

Today's stores are far more complex to manage, in part because most stay open 24/7. And they contain a more diverse blend of service and self-serve merchandise departments.

The operational basics of the business haven't changed all that much since Clarence's time. However, the mental approach to this game seems to have gone numb. A store manager used to be regarded as the key decision-maker, even in tightly-controlled corporate stores. He (unfortunately too few women held this position in the past) commanded, he lead, he coached and sometimes he barked, but he always provided a consistent authority figure for employees to rally around.

The store manager now has less time to devote to store conditions or any other single job responsibility. Too many pressing matters diffuse the time that s/he has for any one responsibility.

For example, employee turnover rates are so high that some stores completely replace their crew in a year or less. As another example, stores often receive hundreds of e-mails daily, with more than a few starting out, "This memo supercedes memo such-and-such."

Many more examples of time diffusers exist for today's store managers. No wonder some store operators struggle to attract and keep top-quality store managers. Yet others succeed. Why?

The answer may lie in adherence to a few time-proven job qualities. Sociologists, psychologists and other serious folks have been saying for years that the human reward system is complex, encompassing more than financial compensation.

Still, money is pretty darn important. Clarence got a healthy salary, which put him in a well-respected position in the community. This carried over into the store, where his approval was valued as some vague connection to approval by the community at large.

Today's store manager's salary needs to be well-regarded by community standards as a first step in attracting and retaining qualified leaders to this position. Next s/he needs real leadership responsibilities to be mentally engaged.

Who wants to aspire to the position of "glorified stock boy," as some managers now call themselves? For the few forty/fiftysomethings still managing stores under this cloud, motivation can be a challenge. Others bolted long ago and the twenty/thirtysomethings will leave in a heartbeat, when they figure out where to go.

Maybe they'll stay if they like the job. Some people--the "born leaders" probably--really like coaching a team. Some like the control aspect of running a complex physical plant, such as a supermarket Still others--the "people people"--thrive on providing customer service. Their employees make eye contact and talk to customers.

A good store manager enjoys all three--coaching a team, running a plant and serving customers. If s/he is paid well, but can't do these three things each day, s/he will eventually become frustrated, burnt out and leave.

In Clarence's day, when the supermarket industry was actually growing, corporate strategies blended central and local decision-making. Clarence knew the limits of his authority to be sure. Today, store managers are more likely to know only that their authority is limited.

Clarence was not hampered by time-draining tasks and was given the authority to coach the team, run the plant and serve customers. Otherwise, he might have gone into consulting, instead of managing a highly profitable supermarket for his entire career.

Dan Raftery is president and co-founder of Prime Consulting Group Inc., Bannockburn, Ill. He can be reached by e-mail at
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Author:Raftery, Dan
Publication:Grocery Headquarters
Date:Aug 1, 2002
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