Forty years is a long time. Understanding what you have learned about yourself, what you are good at doing and why you do it is very important. When I started my career in management I knew very little. The U.S. Navy was my initial training ground and unfortunately I am not sure it is always the best teacher. What the Navy provide to me was a sink or swim approach to survival (no pun intended) for young men and women. You are thrown out of the boat, given some instruction and left to see if you live or die. It works. In most cases you learn quickly how to swim without much assistance. It may not be the right way to swim or the appropriate way but you learn very quickly that you can handle almost anything. You make it to the life raft, boat or side of the pool.
For survivalist I guess this is a great way to learn but in the management of others it is not. I have worked for three “masters” in the field of management. I also believe that there is only one leading authority on leadership and that is Warren Bennis. My field of selection is small and yet I believe it has served me very well over the past 40 years.
I would like to talk about two of the masters because the third is actively still leading the charge and the other two are not. I would not want to offend anyone in my comments and I have actually talked with one of these individuals and told him I would use him in my book and other writings. Both of these men had the distinction of being great managers because they cared. They also demonstrated a strength of character that is not seen in today’s world of management. This is an unfortunate truth in almost every industry. The learning from great managers has stopped. There are a few who may still practice the art of teaching others how to manage or at least get some affirmation of what it means to manage appropriately, but this is very rare.
The first is Arnie Klukas. I worked for Arnie at Dayton’s (now Macy’s) in Fargo and Minneapolis. Arnie was the Store Manager in Fargo and the Operations Manager in Minneapolis at the downtown store. I was responsible for the big ticket and hard side of the retail business in the Fargo store and the “basement” at the downtown Minneapolis store. Arnie was and still is one of my most admired managers. He always listened, was continuously engaged and cared about this managers and employees a great deal. We often went hunting and took the time to help each other out. He was a great boss and a great friend.
I recall one incident that nearly got me killed in downtown Minneapolis. I was working late. We had several gangs of thieves conduct large group raids in my area and on the first floor of the downtown store. We were told what to do if it happened and not to try and stop them if they came into the area. I was standing by the stairway going to the first floor and heard someone yelling for help. I ran up the stairs and the security guard was just going through the plate glass window with a young black man in his arms. I ran through the doors and grabbed the young man and the guard and threw them to the ground. The security guard had cut through a vain and blood was all over me, the young black man and the street. I yelled for someone to help stop the bleeding on the guard’s arm.
The first woman to pass took off her expensive scarf and tied it around the guards arm. All during this process we are on the ground, yelling for the police. A crowd gathered around us, yelling something about killing the guard and myself. It was a very scary time. All of the sudden the crowd cleared and three police officers came through the crowd, picked up the young black man and then I helped the young guard inside. The police called for an ambulance and I sat with the guard until they took him to the hospital. He, unfortunately, died from the tremendous loss of blood that evening. It was all a terrible nightmare.
The next day I went into work and was told to go to Arnie’s office. As I walked through the door the head of security, store manager, risk manager and Arnie were in his office. I thought I was going to get fired. Remember, I was not to try and stop any attempts to steal our merchandise and I had broken that rule. Arnie did all of the talking. He said, “Jim, did you ruin your cloths last night during the attempted robbery? I told him yes but it was not important. I was ok and would replace them at some point. He then said, “Jim, first go out to the floor and pick out a new suit, shirt and tie and charge it to the store. You understand that what you did was very wrong. You could have lost your life over this type of foolish act. I told him I understood I had violated the policy and expected to be fired. He then said, “You are not fired. You will simply not attempt to stop a robbery ever again and if you do you will be terminated immediately. Am I being very clear?” I agreed that I would not participate in this kind of activity again and left his office. (For three nights in a row the same gang came in, ran through my area and stole thousands of dollars in suits, shirts and shoes. I did not stop them.) As I was leaving Arnie’s office the head of security thanked me for helping is officer but told me that he had died due to his loss of blood and the young man that we had on the ground would be charged with manslaughter, he was 15 years old and would spend a majority of his life in prison for a $5 cap.
I found a suit I liked that cost about the same as the one I ruined, told Arnie what I had selected and brought him the charges. He asked for me to have a seat in his office and he told me, “Jim, everyone except me wanted you fired for your actions yesterday. You did violate policy to be sure but your concern was with the security guard and not yourself and I would not allow you to be fired for helping a fellow employee who was in need of help. I told them that if you were fired, I was also fired. I am very proud of you Jim. You did a great thing yesterday but please do not do that again.” I stood up, shook his hand, thanked him and left his office.
Strength of character; ownership and support of your staff and a willingness to go above the call to make sure that the right thing is happening. Three weeks later one of my 80 year old employees was being held up at gun point and she hit him with a hanger, knocked the gun out of his hand and he took off up the same set of steps I had used three weeks earlier. The store manager wanted her fired. I went the same route as Arnie. If we fired her, then I was also fired. Arnie again stepped in and stopped the process. My employee had worked for Dayton’s for over 60 years. She owned that department. It was hers and she would not allow anyone to steal from her. Strength of character in management is a missing point in today’s workplace. We need more Arnie Klukas’s in the world and I am betting we would not have many Enron’s or World Bank issues to deal with.
My other example is Charlie Keaton. He was the president of our hospital group in Montgomery, Alabama. He was part of the old guard who had survived take overs, purchases and changes in top management within HCA Healthcare for almost 30 years. He was a man who cared about his direct reports. In my first interview with him I waited for 45 minutes for him to finish a call. He yelled for me to come in and sit down and he asked me one question. “What do you think of ___________________?”
I said, “If you expect me to tell you that this person is great then you are looking at the wrong person for the job. I think this person is a joke and incompetent. In fact, this person has never had an original thought that they did not get from another person.” Yes, this person was supposed to get the job and not me.. With that statement Charlie stood up and said, “That is good, you have the job and I agree with your thoughts completely.” That is how we started our wonderful two year relationship. Honesty, willingness to tell the truth and a belief in who we were; strong minded adults dealing with challenges. We did not always agree but we always talked through the issues together and he always supported me, even if he thought I was wrong. He would just tell me later….you were wrong and why.
In my HR position I was supposed to receive a 15% bonus. Not really that much money in those days but when you are taking care of 7 hospitals, 11 home health agencies, 3 surgery centers and 2000 employees as the HR director, any extra funds were important. Charlie informed me that I would not be getting my full bonus because the regional president did not like me. I asked him why and he said, “Because you will not kiss his ass and he loves people to kiss his ass.” I told Charlie that I did not really know this man and for him to make judgments about me was not appropriate. Charlie agreed with some addition descriptive words that helped define this regional president. I also told Charlie I would be happy with any bonus even if it was not the full amount. Two weeks later I received a check for $5000. This was 5 grand of the $15 thousand I was supposed to receive. Charlie apologized as he laid down the check and return to his office.
The next day Charlie came to my office, and laid a piece of paper on my desk upside down; put his feet up on my desk and told me to not say anything about the document and do not talk with him about it. I said ok, he left my office and I turned over the check written from his personal account for $10,000. He had covered the bonus. I jumped up from my desk and ran into his office and told him I could not accept this very generous offer. He told me, “You do a great job and to take your bonus away because this person was a jerk was not appropriate. You are going to take this check and that is the end of the conversation or I will fire you.” I thanked him and returned to my office. Overwhelmed with how much this man cared for me…one of his employees. I have never forgotten him 20 years later and now 4 years older than he was at the time.
This level of support, mentoring, caring and dedication is gone. I am not sure when it left but it has left the American business world. We do not take the time to mentor and guide our new managers. The Old Time managers are too worried about surviving the needs of younger managers. The young managers may already know what is best but that is only for themselves and no one else. I have had a few young managers with a great deal of potential and for the most part I believe they appreciated my efforts. What I know is that taking a stand for what is right, not listening to those who politically want to hurt others and making sure that “real” supportive actions are what it takes to make a difference in the lives of others is what makes a difference. I am always grateful for my short time with both of these men. They taught me that honesty is always the best policy and power only comes to those who really understand that power is not for everyone. Most individuals abuse power and very few understand what it is. The power we all have lies within ourselves to make the lives of others better and knowing what that internal power can do to enhance a person’s life is what is important. Knowing the difference is what matters and both of these men knew the difference and gave it to me….
For my third master and friend, when you read this, please know that without you I would also not be the person I am today. You taught me the importance of character and what that really means…There is a difference