Lessons from My Secret Mentor
When I was in my mid-20s, I was the rock star manager of a retail store in the heart of Oklahoma that regularly did $10 million a year in sales and had 86 employees. Known throughout the larger company as someone who got things done, I considered myself invincible and really started to grow a significant ego. But there was one person who kept me grounded. His name was Ben Ruby, I affectionately called him Obi-Wan under my breath. I just didn’t get this geezer.
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The dreaded boss who’s always right
Ben was my district manager, an Ivy Leaguer from rural Pennsylvania who always seemed to stop by my store at the worst possible time. We would be in the middle of a rush or some other crisis, and all of a sudden I would see Ben walk in. “Great,” I would think. “Now I have this to deal with.” I grew extremely frustrated over time and began to despise the fact he was always looking over my shoulder.
A rising star who thought he knew it all
First, let me take a step back and explain my position within the company at the time. I was an up-and-coming manager who already had a reputation for turning defunct stores completely around. I had achieved much success just a few years into my young career and was convinced I didn’t need a micro-manager. If Ben would just let me do my job, I would be even more effective than I already was. But he simply refused to do that.
Chopping down the ego
Ben never failed to take me down a peg. We battled constantly and seemed to disagree over almost everything. When referring to my rise in the company, he would say things like, “Be careful of the bridges you burn climbing the ladder — you may have to cross them on the way back down.” And when we would reach a major sales milestone at the store, he would want to know immediately what my next goal was.
But I was also perplexed by the responsibilities he gave me. I was his only manager he allowed to do his own line item budget. Just as I improved the Norman store he wanted me to open a new one in Baton Rouge. At the age of 27 this seemed like a mixed message.
The best manager I ever had
I now realize that Ben visiting my store, adding pressure, pushing me for more when I least expected it was no coincidence. He knew he had a great, yet cocky, manager on his staff who he needed to keep in line. By continuing to challenge me, he ensured I didn’t become complacent in my work. As much as I believed I hated him, I also truly respected him and wanted him to approve of the job I was doing.
Advice that has served me well for decades
A good three decades later and despite the fact that I haven’t seen him for years, I now realize Ben was a major influence on my career. In hindsight his wisdom for business decisions was second to none.
Some pieces of advice I’ve used over and over as I’ve worked with countless companies across a wide range of industries. “There’s no place for emotion in a business decision,” he would say — and it’s very true. When making tough decisions, you must be calm, focused and rational, using only the facts to arrive at a sound conclusion. “You’re only as good as your weakest employee”, he would regularly say. “What drives your staff away from work is what makes them excel at work.” And of course my favorite, “If you lead a team correctly, you’ll never fire anyone. They’ll know this isn’t for them before you take that action.”
Those, and many other insights from Ben, has been a cornerstone of my professional career.
What type of manager are you?
If you manage others, there’s a delicate balance you must strike between keeping people motivated and letting them know that you care and are there to help them succeed. For me, Ben was the one person in my life who did both with precision, helping me achieve new heights both within that company and in the endeavors I would take on in the years to come.
Thomas von Ahn – Chief Elephant Slayer – Viral Solutions LLC