A Story About Motivating Star Performers (and How I Goofed)

This story goes back to when I was a General Manager for a large department store chain, The Bon Marche (now Macys).

It was the Christmas season, the most important time in retail, and my number one producing Department Sales Manager (DSM) requested a day off that fell on the same day as a very important sales event.  It was for her six year old son’s birthday.

Being a hard driving and competitive store manager who had to obliterate his sales goals, I denied her request and told her she had to work. We had big numbers to make, by god!  She dutifully worked that day but her energy and enthusiasm was noticeably less than normal – a condition that continued on for several months afterwards.

Looking back, I realized what a hypocrite I was.

I had always preached “family first” but denied her the day with her son on his birthday.  She always worked hard and effectively every day and was my top performer is sales, credit, and customer service month in and month out.  But my short sighted quest to make my sales numbers on one single big sale day ended up costing me so much more.

Her morale was dashed and she became disengaged – my number one producing DSM – and I know it cost me more in sales numbers over the long run than what it may have cost me had I let her have the day off.  She remained noticeably disengaged and unenthusiastic about her work for several months after.  Her performance numbers slipped, affecting the total store’s numbers.

Not only that, my credibility was damaged with her and the rest of my store team.  I learned a hard lesson about how not to treat a star performer. I certainly should have allowed her to have that one day off and she would have come back an even a stronger and more engaged DSM because I would have shown confidence and trust in her team and her preparation.

Several months later, I told my star DSM that I used this story in a presentation I gave a at a store manager meeting. She was a bit embarrassed but I could tell it meant a lot to her that I was willing to publicly share my mistake with my peers.  It helped repair our relationship and restore trust.  About a year later she returned from a DSM training week in Seattle and told me that the Director of Stores (my bosses boss) shared my story about her and the mistake I made to her entire DSM class.  She loved the fact the story had such an impact and was being used to help train the managers in the company about engagement.

In my time as a department store General Manager, I found that the Pareto Principle applied in many aspects of my job including my management team. Twenty percent of my management team produced eighty percent of my store’s performance results.  My star performer above was in that twenty percent and by showing insensitivity and a lack of trust in her, I damaged a certain level of her ability to produce the eighty percent of the performance results that she normally achieved.

I should have allowed my Star to have the one day off to celebrate her son’t sixth birthday.  I should have trusted her preparation and her team to make her goals for the day without her being there.  I seriously goofed.  And it cost me.

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