Back before my career in HR had begun and whilst in the early days of university in Australia I worked as a casual employee in a handbag and luggage shop. This shop was in a brand new shopping centre which had been opened at the end of Brisbane's popular Queen Street Mall, and after having initially applied (by handing in a paper resume) to work at the bigger flagship store on the mall I was thrilled to have subsequently been chosen to be part of a small team of four which got to launch this new store - the third of the popular chain to open in the city.
After several months of training at the flagship store, learning the nuances of various leather and synthetic handbags, navigating the huge luggage brand explanation catalogue (who knew suitcases could be made with ballistic nylon - the same material as bulletproof vests?) and getting to know the team there, it was finally time to go and meet my new manager, as well as the assistant manager Lisa and the other casual Betty who I would work alongside at the new store.
The store manager was called Lesley, and from the moment I met her I respected her immensely. She was extremely experienced, in both life and retail, and she was the type of person who managed to bring out a strong desire in me to work hard for her, and alongside her. Lesley was always in the store 30 minutes before opening to prepare for the day, and she would go the extra mile for every customer - which often included her leaving me to entertain a customer whilst she did a mad dash up the mall to collect items we didn't have in stock from the two other stores (to save the customer going themselves and ensure our store got the sale).
She fixed any products that broke and could easily be repaired herself before asking Head Office for a replacement, cleaned and polished minor marks on leather bags to ensure our stock returns were minimal and supplied her own kettle and mugs so we had a nice little team kitchen in the backroom. She did all this in addition to doing a ninety minute bus commute to and from work.
Our store was the smallest of the three stores in the city, and as a result space was at a premium. We had strict Head Office merchandising requirements we needed to adhere to, one side wall full to the brim of suitcase and travel bag ranges, and another wall with floor to ceiling shelves crammed full of handbags which required use of a step-ladder to reach them (even for me, at nearly six foot). In addition we had racks of travel accessories and umbrellas, containers over-flowing with purses and wallets and a section crammed to the brim with small evening bags. There was only room to fit one of most items out on the floor, so we had to constantly re-fill every single item sold by getting another one out of our backroom (which was meticulously organised by Lesley) - because any item not on the floor was a missed sale opportunity.
Lesley was extremely clever, and created numerous efficiencies, such as:
filling every suitcase with the smaller variety (and it with the smaller travel bag) to save space
hiding extra handbags behind large signs so we could quickly re-stock them without needing to go into the backroom
inserting voucher cards into every plastic bag to save us doing it every sale
putting huge tablecloths on our trestle table so we could hide stock underneath it
She took the Head Office rules, interpreted them, and made sure we adhered to them but also made them work for us so our store could be as successful as it could be.
I was lucky enough to receive a lot of extra weekday shifts at our store despite being initially hired to do Friday evenings and Sundays, as we tended to receive a very high footfall over the lunchtime period from local office workers, and I was able to easily pop in between university lectures to support the 11am-2pm busy period. On weekdays we'd receive anywhere from seven to twenty boxes of stock, every day (usually in the middle of this busy period), which were often heavy and needed to be moved away from queues of customers and ideally completely off the small shop floor, as well as getting unpacked and marked manually one by one off a stock list, tagged appropriately and put out either on the floor, or the backroom.
It was not an option to not get these boxes processed, or we'd simply end up with more the next day and get behind. Lesley would simply sign for the delivery, pick up a heavy box and move it, so I'd follow suit. Sometimes the tape on the bottom of a box would break when we picked it up and there would be an avalanche of tiny items like luggage tags all over the floor right in the middle of the lunch rush. Lesley would simply shrug her shoulders, smile, let out her trademark deep chuckle and say "you've gotta have a laugh my dear, you've gotta have a laugh" and we'd frantically clean it up in between serving customers.
She would sometimes challenge me to a race to see who could complete unpacking the contents of their box and marking every item off the stock list first, and once we were done with all the boxes would also never hesitate to immediately take the huge bags of plastic packing and empty boxes out to the rubbish area (which was on another level of the shopping centre accessed via the busy service lift), without ever asking anyone else to do it first. This made me want to be the best at unpacking stock, and the most efficient at taking everything out to the rubbish area in one trip instead of two to save time.
I suddenly also wanted to be an expert at knowing every single piece of stock on the floor in our store so I knew exactly what needed to go where when I was unpacking it and could save as much time as possible. Extra time meant more time on the floor with customers, and that meant potentially more time to make a sale, and ideally up-sell some leather cream or waterproofer for a handbag, or maybe some locks for someone's suitcase. Extra sales meant better performance against our daily store budget, which meant getting congratulations from Lesley, and maybe even winning "Store of the Month".
We had huge sales a few times a year, especially on Boxing Day. This meant Christmas Eve was always spent in the store, preparing for the sale to start the day after Christmas when we re-opened. Lesley always rostered herself on on Christmas Eve, and was in store in the morning even earlier than usual to start working through what needed to be done. She'd assign roles to me, Lisa and Betty, and after close we'd all find ourselves sitting on the floor, eating mini mince pies, with a Best of Christmas Songs CD playing, whilst we painstakingly manually hand marked price reductions in red pen onto the price-tags of hundreds of purses, wallets and handbags. My parents always knew not to expect me home until late every Christmas Eve, because it was just a given that I'd be working late that night, getting stuck with the team in to make sure our store was ready for the big sale come Boxing Day.
I've recently wrapped up nearly eight years in London, working for some of the most in-demand companies in the world and experiencing a variety of different types of managers. Following this time, and as I launch my own consultancy business, I've been reflecting on what it is that inspires individuals to be successful in different environments and what management style has worked best for me to bring out my strengths - and Lesley has definitely come up in my thoughts (in addition to some of the other excellent managers I've been lucky to work with).
She managed to:
create a great working culture - which felt unique to our small store, yet still kept us feeling connected to the bigger company culture
identify all of our individual strengths and motivators, and how to bring those out and translate them into strong business results
develop numerous efficiencies, which made our jobs easier to do
inspire the team and make us feel truly invested in the achievements of our store - which helped build a sense of pride in us for working not just at our store, but for the wider company too
lead by example and create a positive environment by focusing on achieving our store goals, but also having fun
I'm very happy I had a Lesley in my working life, and hope everyone gets to work with someone like her during their careers (and ideally early on in these). I don't know where she is these days and unfortunately haven't been able to find any trace of her online - but now, I'd like to thank Lesley for all the things she taught me - and to this day, no matter what's going on or how bad something might initially seem, I still always try my best to "have a laugh". Who are the managers who've had the most impact on you? Can you pinpoint what it was about them that made them stand out?
Sian Havard is Founder at Milkshake Group, a Brisbane, Australia based consultancy which coaches people around the world looking for awesome careers in tech, and partners with startups looking to create world-class talent strategies. Find us at www.milkshakegroup.com