Leading from the bottom (with generosity)

Just how do you get yourself to matter in a corporation that thrives on hierarchy (and you’re at the bottom of the ladder)?

Perhaps you might want to go study further, complete a general management course. Or you might fancy finding a different way to climb the ladder. But the ultimate goal remains the same: get to the top one way or another.

My thoughts: leading from the top is overrated!

And it is even more pointless to wait until you get to the top – or are successful in some way – before you bring all of yourself to work.

A few years ago, I did dizzyingly exciting sales work at a clothing store I worked in. And at the time, I was nothing more than the guy who got called in over the weekends. I was an assistant in every sense of the word. The money was not so great (and by that I mean it was only enough to buy me a weekly train ticket, a few sweets and then slowly repay a college debt I had accrued).

However, the satisfaction came from my human relations.

I held dear the conversations I had with my customers who came into the shoes department. My perspective was deceptively simple: I am shy, and this is an opportunity to get out of my shell. The more interactions I have, the better I’ll get at making conversation and connecting with people on a deeper level.

That way, every single customer I spoke with became a distinct individual. As time wore on I learned about their professional lives, children, daily hassles and some confided in me about their fears, dreams and what makes them wake up in the morning. We became friends. Through my interactions – which I always monitored, so I could get better – I eliminated the distance between us. Instead of me being a mere sales assistant and them being mere customers, the relationships got deeper and real.

Inasmuch as they could speak to me about shoes and solicit my advice about which sort of high heels they should buy, they spoke to me about things that worried them. And I appreciated that trust.

I took a lowly ranked job in retail and I humanised it.

One bright December morning – you know it gets hectic in the retail space around that time – I did something simple, yet extraordinary. Our store had two doors so more people could access it and it had till points on both sides. The problem arose when people flooded just one set of till points, because they’re situated near the main door, and leave cashiers on the other side twiddling their thumbs. So I would always monitor the movements and redirect the queue accordingly so as not to have crowding in the store.

I did this absentmindedly for a few times until it became an intrinsic part of my job. And one time – while he was lurking in the store’s corners – the store manager saw me doing this. As natural as I could pull it off. It shone through that I was not doing it for his praise or anyone else’s. This sort of behaviour extended to other departments in that I was generous with my time even to people who came in to buy bras and lingerie, babies’ clothing or kitchen utensils.

I led from the bottom of the corporation!

As a result, popularity sought me out. I became close with a regional manager (what a guy!). My name made its way to offices, to people who rarely visited stores. Important people, if you will – keyword: hierarchy. I remember there was a gentleman who was an HR Director who came into our store in Carlton Centre, Johannesburg CBD, one time and went around to greet the team and then he got to me. My name tag boldly stated my name and I saw a warm yet faint smile on his face; we shook hands and he went on. Only to find out later that he was told about me by the regional manager – well, if I’m honest, after I annihilated a job promotion interview I once had with the regional manager, he made sure he mentioned my name to anyone who could listen in the organisation.

I went from being paid a mere R450 every seven days (I was eventually promoted, though) to having warm and intelligent conversations with higher management of PEP stores. I forced myself into the high ranks of the company. I became a big deal in both my customers’ lives and to the guys who sit in air conditioned offices and visit stores intermittently. In effect, I brought management to my level, to the bottom of the ladder. Where I was creating the action.

To have impact on the PEP business, I didn’t have to leave the shoes department, or the till point.

To turn this over…

Instead of always waiting to go higher in importance, waiting to have more money, more tools, more connections, more opportunities, more everything, before you bring all of yourself to what you do, just what can you achieve if you decided to use the platform and tools you already have?