Wednesday, April 30, 2014


When I was a member of the Board of Directors at an employee owned book warehouse, I became enamored of the phrase: living document. What this meant was that if we made some decision or edict and put it into our corporation's bylaws, we always felt safe telling our shareholders, who were also our employees, that it was a "living document." This meant that anytime we wanted we could go back and change our minds. To be more precise, that should be "when our shareholders changed their minds." I was not much of a politician in those days. I tended to bend far too easily to the winds that blew hot and fierce through the warehouse. And in the offices. I was already keenly aware of the division between "labor" and "management," but this was the first time i had encountered a tiered division of responsibility. At Arby's, I took orders, made sandwiches, pulled potato cakes out of the oven, and cleaned the shake machine just like everyone else even though I wore a brown vest and carried a key to the cash register. When I unloaded trucks for Target, even though I was nominally the supervisor of our crew, I crawled into the back of the trailer to grab those Cabbage Patch dolls that were desperately needed out on the sales floor. When I ran a video store, I came in early and stayed late. I operated chiefly as "one of them," but I had this other job to do.
That was the money part. I got more money because I was counting money. I was responsible. If something was missing or didn't get done, I was the one who got the call. I was responsible. This trait worked for me, at least in terms of moving quickly from the entry level positions to the spot with a clipboard. This was what I learned from my friend Waldo. He was a District Manager for Arby's. He was in charge of three stores. That meant he traveled in his company Volvo from store to store on any given day, checking in on us all. He still made sandwiches and pulled burned potato cakes out of the oven, and he gave some of the best customer service to people who just wanted fast food I have ever experienced: "And how many cherry turnovers would you like with that today? That will be only two dollars and forty-nine cents." But when the lunch rush was over, he repaired to the back room where he had his coffee with two milks, grabbed a clipboard and pursued what he described as "creative management." This was the part of the day that he separated himself from the brown polyester masses. We knew not to bother him during these times. Was he busy making a schedule? Was he forecasting sales? Was he trying to remember the hieroglyphic doodles he made during his brief college flirtation with Egyptology? It didn't matter. He was, at that point, the boss.
I tried to remember this as I moved into my management position at the book warehouse. I tried to find time to wander about with my clipboard, but I was far too easily distracted by the work that was going on around me. I was also aware of the way warehouse workers viewed their counterparts on the other side of the wall. Where there was carpet. And climate control. And jobs that involved sitting. Over the years I trained a number of great book pickers and packers who eventually worked their way out from under my thumb and found themselves in swivel chairs answering phones or looking at clipboards of their own. This schism was felt most keenly when we met as shareholders, office and warehouse all crammed into the lunch room at the end of a long day. As a member of the Board of Directors and a warehouse guy I was envisioned by many as the voice of the worker. Or maybe that was just me. That meant when the vote came down from on high to consider hiring a General Manager, a CEO, I found myself in the position of being the swing vote. Our employee company had been run for decades without that top-heavy level of management. We were all in this together, weren't we? Would I be the one who twisted the dial, turned the knob and signed his name to this change in the way things had always been?
All of that life experience flowed through my mind as the case was made by Phil, the head of our Board. I looked out at the faces of my constituency and felt this tiny surge of democracy come over me. When it was my turn to speak, I said this: "I hate to break ranks here, but," and then I proceeded to have my five minutes of Jimmy Stewart monologue. It was as sincere as anything I have written or said in my life, and when I was done I felt two sets of eyes on me: the ones who agreed with me and the ones who didn't. Those who didn't ended up outnumbering those who did, and we ended up hiring the great big manager, who ended up spending a great deal of time in his office, looking at a clipboard. I was out in the warehouse, picking and packing books alongside my employees. I never did get that whole division of labor thing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Arby's provides a company Volvo??