Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Hand of Death part 1

The touch of death can be a desirable power for many. It provides the user with the ultimate tool of revenge, justice, discrimination, pity, care, and closure. In Roman times, crowds would attempt to persuade their leader to allow a wounded gladiator to live or die. It was that leader who passed final judgment, but with a thumb pointed to the Earth or the sky. Throngs of screaming mobs would rage as an executioner would pull the lever on the guillotine which was the final separation of one’s soul from their body. Bill & Ted outwitted Death with a wedgie and a series of board games to get back from the other side.

We all see the face of death, but only in the peripheral view of our consciousness. It’s not that common to stare death in the face, but rarer still are the ones who search for it. I have had the privilege of being witness to two organizations, hell bent on finding death, or so to speak. The first is an all too common story of ego and spiteful ignorance driving a speeding locomotive towards a cliff with no bridge. The story is common due to its unimaginative, predictable, and boring nature. He second is only a little more interesting than the first in large part because of how solid its institution was. Solid in framework, solid in content, and solid in its simple stratification of responsibility.  Yet, last Sunday, it found what it was unintentionally looking for all these many years. Ironically enough, this organization found death, as many do, while looking for a second chance in life.  I think I can offer some insight as to why this happened.

In the late autumn of 2005, I was a newlywed, having been married in June. I had also been promoted to the position of District Manager in the juggernaut movie rental chain that rhymes with Cock Mustard. They had just hit an iceberg in the Atlantic ocean of business acumen and had not completely realized the extent of the damage. The upper level executives in the organization thought that it would be a good idea to ignore technological innovation as it pertains to customer loyalty which then put their employees in the position of playing catch up to the cutting edge competition called, Netflix. The District Managers and Store Managers were under immense pressure to make forecasted sales numbers, which to no one’s surprise were just about impossible. The company didn’t have a great amount of capital to purchase new product for sale. Instead it was pushing the hell out of used DVDs which had a larger gross margin although the top line sales would be lower which would be one of the many reasons why were weren’t making our sales numbers. To make a long story short, the executives at the top level were setting unreasonable expectations in every facet or running a retail business. In hindsight, it looks to me as if they were paving the way for decreasing their managerial employee base without having to worry about severance or wrongful termination lawsuits. I was 7 months into my new position in a District that thrived on new product sales because it was a high income area. The company’s new sales initiatives basically handicapped me before I could even get to the starting line. One of the main reasons for this was what we in the retail world call a labor matrix. A labor matrix tells you how many labor hours you are allotted based on your average sales. When sales go up, your labor hours follow. When sales go down, well, you get the picture. To make matters worse, the company had reduced the amount of labor hours per sales $ which made life very unhappy at the store level. All of this was compounded again and again with high expectations in the image of the store, the day to operation, and the administrative organization. This is one example of how a company may have purposefully or ignorantly steered their business into the face of death. Like the Roman Empire, they spread themselves too thin, and introduced too many initiatives which ended up cannibalizing their own profits. This affected me in that my stores were continuing to underperform. It was a perfect storm of failure and I was the one to blame. 3 of my stores were scheduled to be closed by the spring of 2006 and another 3 were on the docket for later that year. Would it be wise for me to stick it out and see if the new promotion would pan out? Me neither.

 I had just vacationed in Las Vegas for the first time with my wife and some friends and started looking for a new job with my polished multi-unit management resume. I had liked the idea of working in a laid back multi faceted retail environment where I could oversee multiple departments that sold products I was interested in. I found out that Border Books and Music was looking for a General Manager in Chicago. They had been opening more stores and appeared to be expanding their profits. A few years earlier I had a roommate who worked as a Supervisor at Borders in the music section and he was, in my opinion, a total nimrod. Borders was a bit liberal on the side of cooks in the kitchen if you get my drift, but they had started to trim the amount of managers and supervisors in each store so that they had less overhead, which I thought to be a good realization on their part. When I went in for an interview for the position, I knew that some of the questions that would come up would revolve around the reason for my wanting to leave my current position when I had spent so many years to be promoted. In most cases this may be the death nail, but in my case, it was the company that was nailing its own coffin shut.

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