A Dreadful Manager

by Peter Cotton, founder and president of Best Sales Talent, LLC

In my work in executive search, I have personally witnessed (or heard about) the management styles of hundreds of sales managers. I’ve placed many of them in their positions. They may have had different titles, but they were all sales managers.     VPs of Sales, Directors of Sales, National Sales Managers, Regional and District Sales Managers and the like. Many of them are excellent leaders. Some clearly know how to create an environment where the sales people feel highly motivated to go to work every day as well as to go into the field to sell. They create an esprit de corps in their team so that everyone is doing their part to help the company achieve its objectives. In contrast, there are some managers who do a horrendous job of managing people. They create negative environments and a workplace where an employee lives in fear of getting fired at any moment. I’d like to tell you a story about such a manager. It’s a true story. He became my boss many years ago, but I have changed the names in this story.

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A little background is in order. Before I began my business in executive search, I was a salesman for a division of GAF, known as GAF Photo Service. We processed amateur film for the general public. Those of you born after the arrival of the digital age will not be familiar with the routine of taking pictures, dropping the film off for developing at a pharmacy or discount store, then returning to the retailer to pick up the finished photos several days later. It used to be an enormous business with many competitors vying for the business of retailers.

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In the 1970’s the Kodak Instamatic camera and its 126 film cartridge, were king. The Instamatic was a camera that a large segment of the population owned, since it was so simple to operate.   Just point and shoot. No settings, no lens to adjust. No rolls of film to handle. Just drop in a film cartridge. A flash bulb could be placed on top when added light was needed. About 80% of the film we processed was 126 color print film. The balance was 35 mm film or different sizes of roll film from older cameras. But I digress.

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In the early 70’s I was the highest producing salesmen in New England and one of the top salesmen in the country. I worked out of the GAF Boston plant. I had a wonderful boss, Steven, the District Sales Manager, who was originally from St. Croix.  He was a charismatic, positive, happy person. He had a charming island accent that endeared him to many. Steven created an environment that made the work fun. He and I were referred to as the dynamic duo, possessing the same high-energy personalities. We both brought in a lot of business and we became good friends. We still are to this day.

One day, I got a phone call from the sales manager of a competitor who tried to recruit me to his company. I was soliciting their customers, had taken a lot of their business away and he wanted to put a stop to it by having me work for him. He offered me a promise of more money if I would come to talk about working for them. Never having been recruited before, I was naive about what was happening, so I told Steven I had been approached. I was loyal to GAF, and even more so to Steven, who had given me my first chance to get into professional selling. Steven became concerned that I would leave. He told me not to make any decisions until he had a chance to speak to his boss.

A couple of days later, the Regional Manager, Steven’s boss, Ted, called me. He told me that he was very pleased with my performance and that he wanted to know if I’d be interested in moving up in the company. I didn’t hesitate to say yes, but I had no idea what he had in store for me. He told me that he would be “moving some things around” (whatever that meant) and that I was going to hear some good news in the coming days. I had no idea what he had in mind during that call, but I soon came to know. Looking back on this now, I can see that the call from Ted was a classic counter offer. He didn’t want to lose me to a competitor, so he made me a better offer – which turned out to be a sales management role and a raise, instead of just a raise to jump ship.

So I became the recipient of what I refer to as the Great Punishment Reward. I got promoted to be a District Sales Manager. In other words, the company took a good salesman off the front lines where he was producing sales, doing a good job, and made him a sales manager – but without any training or orientation in sales management beforehand, or when he first stepped into that role. It was a sink or swim scenario. A trial by fire. I had just turned 26 years old at the time.

A very brief announcement of my promotion was sent out by Ted in the form of a memo. The subject line of the memo was: The Retirement of Bob Jones. There was a single paragraph at the top of the memo, followed by several unrelated paragraphs concerning plant operations. The memo was mailed to each of the 19 plants in the country, including the plant where I was to relocate. The first paragraph of the memo is below:

 

“As you all know, Bob Jones will be retiring soon. Peter Cotton has been the top salesman in New England. He will be promoted to the District Sales Manager role in the Pittsburgh plant effective next week. Please join me in congratulating Peter.”

 

A few important points about these three sentences, which were life-changing to many people:

 

  1. Although I had agreed to “move up” in the company, Ted had not asked me if I was willing to relocate. I was not consulted and I was not given a choice. He also never told me I was going to Pittsburgh. It was done and could not be changed. But I was smart enough to know that if I didn’t accept, it would be the last time a promotion would be offered to me. In addition, turning it down would be a real embarrassment to Ted, based on this memo. His boss would be unhappy with him and Ted would be sure to remember my turning it down the next time a management position was to open up.

 

  1. Bob Jones was 63 and was holding the job of District Sales Manager in Pittsburgh at the time of the memo. Bob learned of my promotion, and of his “impending retirement,” for the very first time when he read those three sentences. Ted, in what I can only classify as extreme cowardice, DID NOT meet with (or phone) Bob personally in advance of the memo to alert him of the change in management. A change in his job. Bob could only interpret the memo in one of two ways: Either he was being demoted (though nobody had actually said that to him) and he would report to me, or he was being encouraged by those words to announce his retirement two years early so he could leave with some shred of dignity.

 

  1. Despite his total lack of decency and sensitivity by sending out this surprise announcement, Ted was smart. He didn’t want to layoff Bob (a nice way of saying to terminate him) in order for me to take over, because he knew that Bob would file an age discrimination lawsuit against the company. Perhaps Ted was secretly hoping that Bob would resign on hearing the news of my promotion. Regardless of his intent, it was incredibly cruel and unprofessional.

 

  1. Needless to say, Bob was shocked, humiliated and resentful. And rightly so. The two salesmen who reported to him immediately disliked the idea of my forthcoming appearance in town, and were probably resentful of me for taking over Bob’s job, too. News of Bob being replaced was known all over the country. He was getting calls from other District Sales Managers he knew, asking him what had happened. People in the customer service department heard a new sales manager was coming to town and they were all uneasy about it. Some of them came to Bob with questions, but he had few answers. He didn’t know what was in store for him, or them, and he was understandably worried. Rumors started around the plant and Bob began to think I was coming to town to fire him. Even his two salesmen thought that was the case for them, too. They began to talk to one another and they made all sorts of assumptions about me and about what was going to happen. The atmosphere for these three men was filled with anxiety and the weekend between when the announcement became public, and my arrival, caused considerable apprehension for the men and their families.

 

  1. I became a looming great unknown in their minds. What they were able to find out about me, after having made some phone calls, is that I was considerably younger than all of them, single (all the men were married and two of them had children), college educated (none of them had degrees) and that I was a good salesman.

 

 

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          Pittsburgh in 1974 and the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers where they form the Ohio River

 

The result of this is that I was to relocate to Pittsburgh immediately and Ted, a man of about 48, was to become my boss. On Friday, the morning that the memo arrived in all the plants, Ted called and told me to book a flight on the following Monday from Boston to Pittsburgh, with a layover in Philadelphia. He’d get on the plane in Philly and fly with me to Pittsburgh. He said he’d arrange for the salesmen to be in the office on the afternoon of our arrival so they could meet me. Excited and nervous, I bought a new suit, shirt and tie for my “debut.”

 

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                                                                                           Allegheny Airlines (later purchased by US Air)

 

When I boarded the plane in Boston, dressed in my new, crisp outfit, I found it to be a full flight. The only seat I could find was far in the back and the jet engines were right outside the window. When we landed in Philly at about 1:30 PM, Ted got on board for the next leg of the flight. He expressed his displeasure for sitting so far back. During the short flight to Pittsburgh, he purchased two scotch and sodas from the stewardess. While he was drinking, he told me the

Pittsburgh plant was the most profitable out of the 19 GAF plants and that the office manager kept a watch on all expenses to keep them low. I learned there were several major accounts that represented a large amount of the business. Ted told me the names of several of the people with whom I’d be working, but surprisingly, he did not know the names of the salesmen or the customer service manager who would report to me. Then he told me in passing that Bob Jones had been with the company for 10 years and that the salesmen had also been there for a while. He told me I was getting a “stable team” and that I had free will to make changes as I saw fit.

It was the end of May. We were met at the airport late on that Monday afternoon by Frank, a nice fellow who managed the route drivers and the wholesale department. I remember the day vividly. It was unusually humid for May. I noticed that the air had an orange-red, smoggy appearance. Inhaling was a bit uncomfortable. The three of us rode in a two-door car for the 20 minute ride to the plant. Ted sat in the front seat and I was crammed into the back seat with my carry-on bag (the trunk was full of stuff), along with boxes of film on their way to the plant to be processed. I was uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as I would be later at the plant.

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                                                                                                         1974 Dodge Dart

 

Although the car had air conditioning, Frank liked to drive with the windows open. My new suit was getting wrinkled and I felt moist all over from the humidity. I was struck with the intense smell from the steel mills, which were still in heavy production in those days. Frank drove rather fast, weaving in and out of traffic. His erratic driving and the smell of the steel mills made for a very unpleasant, nauseating ride. When we arrived at the plant, I was windblown, sweaty, and sick to my stomach from the ride and the smell from the steel mills. I was understandably nervous about what was to happen and I wanted to make a good first impression.   I didn’t feel as if I would under the circumstances. I had envisioned a very different arrival scenario.

The plant facility was an unattractive converted auto body garage on the edge of a hill, known as “Polish Hill,” overlooking railroad tracks. It had no windows. Many of the people who worked at the plant lived on the “Hill.” They were good, hard-working, down-to-earth people. The film processing lab and the people who ran production were on the first floor. Downstairs, in the basement, was where the offices were located.

 

GAF Plant Pittsburgh

                                                                                         The former GAF Photo Service plant in Pittsburgh

 

On our arrival, I met the plant manager, Linda, a woman in her mid 40’s, who raised her eyebrows on seeing me and gave me a good looking over, up and down. She had been accustomed to an older man running the sales and customer service department. I suppose she thought I was too young.

Ted took me to the sales department office, ostensibly to meet the salesmen. Nobody was there. The room had three old, green steel desks, with a chair behind each. They were lined up one behind one another in a narrow room with wooden-paneled walls and a suspended ceiling with stained ceiling tiles. The room was illuminated inadequately by two fluorescent ceiling lights (one of which was flickering steadily). The office was below ground level so there were no windows. This was in stark contrast to the more modern plant in Boston I was accustomed to that had windows in the sales department and on one side of the plant.

 

GAF Boston

                                                                        The former GAF Photo Service Boston Plant (located in Somerville)

 

Moving to Pittsburgh from Boston was a bit of a culture shock for me. Language sounded different compared to a Boston accent. Their pronunciation of some words was strange to me and they had words for things I had never heard before. I’m sure they thought my accent was strange. Getting familiar with their accents and vocabulary was the least of my challenges. Ted had not asked the sales team to convene in the plant that day to meet me on my arrival. He said he asked Linda to arrange it, but I learned later that wasn’t the case. It’s possible he forgot to ask her, but I think he was deliberately trying to avoid any sort of negative confrontation with him and Bob Jones.

Ted and I were standing in the sales department office.   He turned to me and said something I will never forget:

 

“Well, I guess someone forgot to arrange for the men to be here today. Listen. Here is what you need to do. The salesmen come in first thing every morning at 8 AM. You need to get here tomorrow and show them you are the new boss. Two of these desks belong to the two salesmen and the one in the back belongs to Bob Jones. When you get here in the morning, tell Bob to clean out his personal stuff from his desk and move over to share one of the salesmen’s desks. You take over where Bob sits in the back of the room. Show them you are now in control of the sales department.”

 

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                                                                                              An example of the three desks in the sales department

 

I knew this was so terribly wrong on so many levels. The surprise memo, and the subsequent humiliation it caused Bob, would be compounded by the loss of dignity he would experience if I were to do what Ted said – tell him to clean out his desk. He would lose face in front of the men he supervised and he would go home to his wife as a beaten man. Ted didn’t possess any compassion or sensitivity for either of the two men who reported to him – me or Bob. Ted’s actions were downright appalling.

Ted left me to review some spreadsheets showing account activity and then went into a meeting with the plant manager. I was familiarizing myself with the accounts when without so much as a goodbye, Ted left the plant and flew back to Philadelphia that afternoon. Not sure just what exactly I should be doing I had a choice of staying in the sales office with my head down studying accounts and maps, or walk around the plant and introduce myself to people. I chose the latter and that made for some awkward moments that afternoon.

At the end of the day, Frank gave me the keys to one of the company cars and the office manager told me where hotel reservations were made for me. It was to be my home for the rest of the week. Driving in a strange city with a map was a challenge. GPS devices were not yet available, and the colored beltway system around Pittsburgh was a bit confusing. I got lost on my way to the hotel.

I’d been given three weeks to “get my feet wet” in the job and to also find a suitable permanent residence. The arrangement was that I was allowed to fly home on weekends. Once I found a new place to live, I would be reimbursed for the expense of moving myself by driving a rented 26-foot truck from my apartment in Massachusetts to Pittsburgh. The company would not pay for a moving company to move my furniture and belongings. Since I wouldn’t be able to load a truck, drive 11 hours and unload it by myself, carrying everything to a 2nd floor apartment, I enlisted the help of a good friend to come along with me. Later, when I submitted a receipt to the company for his airfare back home, they wouldn’t reimburse me because “he was not an employee of the company.” So I had to pay for his ticket home.

 

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                                                                                 I moved myself in a 26-foot U-Haul truck.

 

I didn’t sleep well that first night in the hotel. I tossed and turned all night. I was really concerned how things would go the next morning and how things would unfold in my new job and in my new city of residence, not knowing a soul in town. I had no idea where I would be living. I was uncertain if I should get to the plant before the salesmen arrived at 8 AM, or to wait until I was sure they were all there then walk into the office. However, I had no idea how prompt they would be since they didn’t know I was going to just appear, unannounced.

Morning arrive and I tried to time it that I would arrive at the same time as the three of them. I was wrong. I got there first. At precisely 8:16 AM, a man came into the office who was obviously surprised to see me standing there. I instantly realized that I should take the initiative and immediately greeted him good morning and introduced myself.   As soon as I mentioned my name, his complexion turned pale and he became quite nervous. He was standing face to face with his new boss. He was probably thinking: Is he going to fire me? I didn’t tell him anything about me at first, but launched into questions to get him to talk about himself. His name was Paul. He was 56 and was married with two children. He had been a route driver and since people liked him and he wanted to earn more money, the sales manager gave him a chance to become a sales representative.  Based on how little new business he said he had brought into the plant, I categorized him in my mind as a good service representative, but not as a sales producer.

Next to arrive was the other salesman. His name was William. He was also surprised to learn who I was and he also became visibly pale upon hearing my name. I got him to talk about himself and I learned that he was 59, married with no children. He was a short and stocky man who I felt much taller than, even though I was only 5 foot 10 or 11. As he spoke to me he was so nervous he had difficulty expressing himself. He was also a very low sales producer and had been more of a service rep than a salesman.

Finally, at about 8:45 AM, Bob arrived. He stood a little more than 6 tall. Someone upstairs must have told him I was in the office because he walked right in extended his hand and said, “Good morning, Peter. I’m Bob.” I have to give him credit for breaking the ice immediately.  Bob asked me how my trip down to Pittsburgh was, did I like the hotel, and what did I think of Pittsburgh. Paul and William hadn’t asked anything of me. After some small talk, I asked Bob if there was a private place where the two of us could talk. He suggested a small conference room around the corner. As we left the sales office I could tell that Paul and William appeared to be shaking in their shoes as they pretended to look busy at their desks.

This was going to be a really tough conversation for me to have with a man who was 37 years my senior, and who I needed to look upwards at due to his stature. When we sat down across the table from one another we were more equal in height. As with the other men, I got him to talk about himself. He was married for 43 years, was a grandfather, and had served in the Army during WWII. He was fighting for our country and I wasn’t even born yet! He went on to tell me he had been with the company for 10 years. As I listened to him, it was apparent he was a decent person and I could tell he had been deeply hurt by the company (Ted), but he was doing his very best not to show it.

Then came the moment of truth. I told him that I felt what Ted had done was unconscionable, but he was now my boss, and accordingly for Bob, I was now his manager. However, I told Bob he had more experience in sales and life than me and I felt I could learn a lot from him. I explained to Bob that I would do my best to help him keep his dignity in what was a real mess of things. I told him it was not my intent to fire him or to make life miserable for him or the other two salesmen. Furthermore, I told Bob that if he felt that he wouldn’t feel comfortable reporting to me, a much younger person, and wanted to retire early, it was his call, not mine. I would completely understand. However, if he stayed, I would expect the same from him as I would from the other men and myself. We all had to do our jobs and had to share the responsibility of bringing in new business. More business than they had brought in before. After I told him this, the tension and anxiety in his body escaped from him, like air being let out of a balloon which was about to burst. To say he was relieved would be an understatement.

Then we came in the point of the conversation about the matter of the desks in the office. Instead of telling him to clean out his desk, I told him I needed a desk and a phone to work from and I asked him what he felt would be the best solution, since there were four of us now, and only three desks in the sales department. I sort of figured he would ask the two salesmen to share a desk and he would keep his. To my surprise, Bob suggested that I take his desk since he wouldn’t need one now that he was no longer going to be communicating with the regional office (Ted), or the national headquarters in New York City. He said, “That’s your job now, and I give it to you happily. I don’t need the headaches and I’d be better off on the road every day.” Bob was very understanding of the awkward position Ted had put me in and he was being very cooperative. In fact, he was a real gentleman. We emerged from the conference room having reached an understanding.

Managing three men who were from 30 to 37 years older than me was an interesting experience. They lacked the enthusiasm and excitement of going out to get a sale like I had when I was selling in New England. I rode in the field with them and observed their selling techniques. I was able to teach theme a few things that Steven had taught me and they put them to use with some level of success. Even a 26-year old was able to teach them a few things.

Bob stayed on for two more years, brought in more business than he had in a long while, and ultimately retired at 65 with his dignity intact. He showed a lot of class to have stuck it out the way he did.

Unfortunately, William, the older of the two salesmen, violated a strict company policy. He had been drinking at a bar during lunch time and then got behind the wheel of his company car. A customer had seen him stagger into their retail establishment and called me to tell me he was drunk. Because nobody had cell phones back then, I had no way to reach him. Today I would have told him to stay put until I got there to take him home. I had to wait until he came back to the office at the end of the day. Thankfully, William didn’t hurt anyone, or himself, but the liability issue for the company was so enormous, after consulting with my boss and the legal department, I had to terminate him for cause. That was a really tough day for me. His job was his only source of income and his wife wasn’t employed. He was 59 and suddenly out of work. His wife called me that night and pleaded with me to take him back. She cried and I told her there was nothing that could be done. I felt horrible and wished I could have given him a second chance, but there was no way that could happen.

As for Paul, he sort of “got religion” when I hired two younger salesmen to join our team. He began to bring in more business. After Bob and William were gone, he became the oldest member of our team.

I managed for another two years. Then I met the woman I would marry. We both decided that we would resign our jobs, get married, and purchase a franchise of Management Recruiters (my office became known as Sales Consultants of Rhode Island), move to New England and start our executive search firm in the spring of 1977. I’ve been in the executive search business ever since.

Ten things I learned from all this:

  • ONE: Assume nothing. If you are thinking of promoting someone when relocation is involved, have some compassion for the person. Don’t spring it on them. Be sure the person is on board about the specifics of the relocation before telling the entire company.
  • TWO: NEVER let an employee learn he is getting demoted by a company-wide email. ALWAYS discuss it in person. Have some empathy for your employee.
  • THREE: ALWAYS prepare employees for a new manager coming on board by proving complete details of who he is and what will transpire when he arrives. This will prevent all the unnecessary anxiety as well as the rumor mill.
  • FOUR: As a manager, if you say you are going to do something (like set a meeting for people to meet the new manager) DO IT! Not doing it is a sign of an inconsiderate manager.
  • FIVE: Treat the newly promoted person with some respect and consideration. They have a lot to get used to very quickly. It might be sink or swim or trial by fire, but give them a good solid start in every way possible.
  • SIX: Provide for the relocation of your newly promoted person. Don’t put the burden on him to do his own move in addition to starting the new job in a new city while he needs to find a new place to live.
  • SEVEN:ALWAYS make certain that the newly promoted person feels welcomed in his new job by making accommodations for him. Make certain he or she will have a place to do the necessary work. Expecting the new guy to tell the former manager to clean out his desk is highly inconsiderate of both employees and is real bush league management.
  • EIGHT: Everyone has feelings. No need to hurt them unnecessarily. Being kind and considerate to people is always appreciated.
  • NINE: Get people involved in decisions that will surely affect them. They will feel they were part of the process rather than feel victimized by the decision.
  • TEN: Just because the people you are managing are not your own age, you can still enlist their support and input. Remember, age brings wisdom, and if you are the youngest of the group, you can always learn from those who have walked the path before you.

 

Peter Cotton is an executive recruiter with over 40 years of experience.  He is the Founder and President of Best Sales Talent, LLC., a Franklin, MA executive search firm specializing in search, recruitment and placement of the very best sales, sales management and marketing personnel. 

Website: www.bestsalestalent.com 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BestSalesTalent  

Twitter: @pcotton

 

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