The young manager of a home improvement store in Wales succeeds by investing in the growth of his team
Through no fault of her own, and without anyone intending it, Colleen Saul's career at B&Q got off to a rocky start.
Having worked for the company briefly once before, and with her new management degree in hand, Saul approached the British home improvement retailer in hopes of landing a management job and ultimately working in the buying department. There were no openings that fit her aspirations, the company said, but there was an urgent need for help in the "revamp" of the store in Bangor, Wales.
"It will be good experience for you," the regional manager told her. And it was. Managing the stock clearance process, Saul got valuable insights into what it takes to remodel and run a store. But in going directly to Bangor, she had to skip the requisite training that management-track employees typically receive in their first four months. She was not offered a management job in Bangor because newly refurbished stores aren't set up to provide the training she lacked.
Instead, she was asked to supervise the gardening department in B&Q's Ellesmere Port store. While that store was closer to Saul's home, she still needed her training. By oversight, in the rush of regular business, or through the reluctance of managers to give her the needed time, Saul could not get those orientation sessions scheduled. "Nobody made provision for me to do my training; they just thought I was basically good to go," she says.
She found herself facing a "sink or swim" onslaught of customers during a holiday weekend in a part of the store that had gone without a manager for three weeks. She was struggling without the basic information that is taught during training: how to account for cash received, how to close the store, how to order more inventory.
"I managed to run the gardening department when I'd never run a department before, but there were things that obviously weren't right, certain things that went wrong because I didn't understand the ordering processes," Saul says. "I managed to keep my head above water, and in my spare time, went to other stores to learn the processes I should have been taught."
Saul was languishing. She was frustrated, wondering if she had made a mistake in joining B&Q. Her self-confidence was diminished. She wasn't making a good impression within the company. "I felt like if I did something wrong, it would be picked up on -- but maybe not necessarily mentioned to me but mentioned to other people. So then I never felt like I was learning properly," she explains. She even considered looking for another job.
A knack for managing
That's when Saul met Simon Gaier, manager of the store in Wrexham, Wales, just six miles west of the border with England. Regional Manager Paul Randles suggested that Saul move to the Wrexham store because of Gaier's well-regarded people skills. If anyone could help her get back on track, he was the one.
"Simon came to see me before I left the other store," Saul says. "He really sought out the best way to work with me; he was interested in what I wanted to do and what my aspirations were." He also said he'd make sure she got her training.
At 28 years old, Gaier is often not believed when he introduces himself to customers as the manager of the Wrexham store. But employees at B&Q say Gaier has a real knack for managing. They describe him in terms common to great managers identified by high scores on the Q12, Gallup's 12-item metric of employee engagement: laid-back and approachable despite an unquestioned commitment to achieving results, completely candid, investing time in getting to know each individual employee's opinions about the job, continuously promoting a sense of team-wide responsibility for the store, rarely missing an opportunity to recognize good work -- in other words, a consummate "people person." (See "Feedback for Real" and "Taking Feedback to the Bottom Line" in the "See Also" area on this page.)
One of the areas in which Gaier particularly excels is in giving his employees "opportunities at work to learn and grow." The 58 people who work at the Wrexham store rank in the top 1% of business units in the Gallup worldwide engagement database on this item. (See "Item 12: Opportunities to Learn and Grow" in the "See Also" area on this page.)
"If I were to move Simon," says Randles, "they'd probably lynch me, because they love the guy." Much of their attachment to Gaier is because he took a store with many long-term employees who felt stagnant and gave them a chance to grow.
Gaier needed his employees to succeed and progress, both for their own sake and to meet the needs of the store. He had a number of management positions open, yet few of the employees had been prepared to assume those responsibilities. He filled the management jobs with people from outside B&Q or from other stores. It was a cumbersome process complicated by the fact that those who were hired from outside the company had to learn the B&Q culture. The move had predictable effects on those already at the store. "They felt very, very disengaged," says Gaier.
"I wanted to do more. I didn't want to just work on checkout," says Ceri Jones, a six-year veteran of the store.
"When we brought the external people in, Ceri was really frustrated and annoyed because she wanted to progress," says Gaier. "But no one had actually done the feedback with her, done the development plan with her, actually spent the time with her." The manager resolved to make sure those already working there -- many of whom had been at the store for a long time -- had opportunities to get promotions in the future.
There is no way to match a worker with the right opportunities, Gaier says, unless the manager has a deep understanding of a person's talents and hopes for the future. Randles called the Wrexham store one afternoon looking for Gaier and was told he was not there. Gaier didn't call back until 3:00 p.m. His boss questioned him about it.
"I want to work with the night crew tonight," said the store manager.
"Why are you doing that?" asked Randles.
"I just haven't done it for a while," Gaier responded.
"That might not seem like a lot," Randles says of the incident, "but, believe me, if I could get all my managers to see the importance of working with the night crew as well as the day crew, our stores would work more smoothly." Turnover is highest among the night crews because they can often be forgotten.
Chances to learn and grow
Through a series of individual conversations with each employee, Gaier learned what each of his 58 employees wanted to accomplish in the future. As with any large group, not everyone wanted to become a manager.
Among those learning and growing in his current position was Mike Jones. The cracked skin on his fingers bears testament to the long career he had as a carpenter before a stroke disabled him. "I couldn't climb stairs," he says. "I can't walk backwards; I lose my balance." As if that weren't bad enough, when he was trying to recover, his former employer called to ask when he was leaving and to inform him he had been overpaid £1.60 (about $3.00).
Hiring Mike Jones and Gareth Ingman, a former building tradesman who lost one of his legs in a motorcycle accident, gave B&Q's Wrexham store two in-house experts on home improvement. It gave these men the fulfilling second careers they had a hard time imagining when circumstances forced them to leave the construction business. Through the transitions, the two middle-aged workers found that chances to learn and grow are not restricted to the young, and that the inside of a retail business is a much different place than a construction site.
"It's so interesting dealing with people," says Mike Jones. "This woman came in one day and said, 'My husband sent me for a whatsit.'" The men learned patience and listening skills as they interacted with people who know much less about completing a project than they do.
Sitting between the two men, their friend and coworker Shereen "Queeny" Evans interjects, "One customer asked me, 'How much wallpaper do I need in my bedroom?' 'How big is your bedroom?' I asked her. She said, 'Average.'"
While computers were not used on job sites, they are integral to running B&Q, so the men learned how to use them. "I learned a lot more about the retail trade than I ever thought I would," says Mike Jones. "It exercises your mind." And the former building tradesmen restrained their job-site vocabulary a bit. "Not swearing," says Jones, is very important.
In his conversations, Gaier discovered that one employee was stretched thin trying to split her time between her job at B&Q and her work at a day-care center. The stress of working two jobs was affecting her sales and her happiness. He drew up a plan that showed if she improved her sales at the store, he would give her more hours, and she would no longer need to work both jobs. "She's now gone over to being the top sales consultant in the store and one of the top in the region," says Gaier. "It was just a matter of sitting down and breaking down some of those barriers."
Ceri Jones had been turned away several times for B&Q's "Fast Track" program that prepares employees to be managers. For that reason, she says, "I was a bit dubious in going to Simon." But he encouraged her to undertake the six- to nine-month program. She still recalls her first shift as "duty manager," taking charge of the store for several hours. "It was scary. It was good," she says, a smile on her face. "Simon told me he was proud of what I'd done."
The discussions helped Gaier solve the succession problem. Once he knew his staff members' aspirations, he was able to sketch out a plan that had one or more potential successors for every managerial position in the Wrexham location. "He has a proper, robust people plan," says Randles.
In the interviews, one of the people who caught Gaier's attention was Adam Williams. A somewhat reserved person, Williams had been working at B&Q for several years, beginning in college, when he worked a four-hour shift ending at midnight to earn pocket money. After college, he began working full time. Like Saul, some of his first experiences were being called in to other stores that needed extra help during revamps. Revamps are a large part of B&Q's strategy to attract more customers and boost profits during a difficult time in the United Kingdom's home-improvement economic cycle.
By the time Gaier first sat down with him, Williams had done a tour of revamps throughout the region, 8 to 10 weeks at a store, then on to the next. Riding the circuit gave him many chances to earn overtime pay, but he didn't feel he was moving in the right direction.
"The two years traveling took its toll on me," Williams says. "I wanted to be based close to home and actually think toward a career." Gaier asked him the same questions he asked everyone else: What did he want to do? Where did he hope to be in the future? Williams wanted to be done with revamps. As chance would have it, just as Gaier was working on repatriating him to the Wrexham store, it went through a revamp. The manager suggested Williams spend this remodeling period in the warehouse, as he would need that experience in the future if he were to become a manager.
"He won't hide anything from you."
As he got to know Williams better, Gaier expressed some concern that without some bolstering, his shy side might handicap him. Williams' assignments on the night shift, in revamps, and in the warehouse didn't put him in contact with nearly as many customers and other employees as a regular day shift on the main merchandise floor.
"Adam was always someone who, if he knew you, if he'd known you for a long period of time, he could talk to you intelligently and he could communicate very well," says Gaier. "But if we had an external visitor to the store or a new manager came into the store, he'd struggle with that because basically he was a little bit shy."
Gaier was direct with Williams. "He won't hide anything from you," says Williams. "If it's stuff that you need to know, then he will tell you. He told me, 'There's no way out of it. You need to communicate with as many people as you can to run a department.'"
Meanwhile, having received her training, Saul flourished over the prior year while managing the gardening center of the Wrexham store. Gardening center sales increased by 20%. Saul knew all the procedures, such as how to track what sold and what didn't. "I felt comfortable with what I'd done, what I'd achieved, and how stuff worked," she says. With the gardening center working well, Saul had the operational experience she needed to take the next step. She was finally in a position to ask about the possibility of moving into the department that buys products for the entire company.
"Simon offered me roles in the store where I could be promoted, but I knew that wasn't the career path that I wanted to go down," says Saul. "I requested to have any chances where I could shadow somebody [in the buying department] and just see if it was something that I wanted to pursue, because I only had a theory of what the job was about."
With some work by the company's human resources department and Gaier arranging for a week of relief from her responsibilities in Wrexham, Saul spent the time learning about the wholesale purchase of home furnishings for the company's 329 stores in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Asia. "It was a really good experience," she says.
"Simon saw things in her that people -- including me, I have to say -- hadn't seen in her," says Randles. There were no open positions in the buying department at that time. Moreover, Saul was needed back in Wrexham, because the store was still going through its revamp. But once the store was fully refurbished and the regional managers came for one of their visits, Saul got her chance.
"They knew who I was because of what I had done," Saul says. "I don't think anybody before had actually gone and chatted with somebody or shadowed someone at the head office. So they were asking about my future career path. I said that I wanted to go into buying, and I wanted a position at the head office. A couple days later, they gave me a call to say that there was a position in Store Closures, that it ran until the end of January, and if I did this, I could make the contacts I wanted with Buying."
Loads of potential
Gaier had seen to the progress of Saul, but because her career path took her outside the store, he made his own job of keeping the management ranks staffed tougher. Now he needed a new manager for the gardening center. He had just the person in mind -- Williams.
Gaier says he knew Williams had "loads of potential." Once he was pulled off the road and given some coaching, he became a tremendous supervisor. As for the shyness, "He can now speak to anyone -- the first time they meet him, he comes across as really confident," says Gaier. "He'll tell them exactly what he's doing, exactly what he's about, what he wants to do, and where he wants to go."
The store manager said he was particularly pleased to hear how Williams handled himself during Gaier's Christmas vacation when the regional managers and directors came to visit. Not only did he confidently lead the tour; he even rebuffed a challenge from one of the executives. When Williams mentioned a particular procedure, "One of the regional managers said, 'Well, that's good, but maybe you should do it a little bit differently.' He was able to say, 'Well, actually, no; the reason we're doing it is this,' and was able to challenge back, which was fantastic!" says Gaier. "That is just such an improvement over the last twelve months."
Williams gives much of the credit to his manager. "I would honestly say that Simon has offered a lot more opportunities to members of staff than what I've seen and what I've heard of other managers that we've had here," he says. "I've been here three years. I don't know any other manager that will stand by you, give you all the time in the world and say, 'Well, this is the plan that I've got for you, and we'll do it over this amount of weeks,' and talk to you step-by-step through what he intends to do. That's why I say the interaction is spot-on with him."
Having moved from a position in which she felt stagnant to another in which she is growing at the same company within just a few years, Saul is able to compare the two quite well. "I'd spent all these years and all these thousands of pounds on an education. I had a brilliant theory but had no practice, and so it was very, very easy to get stuck," she says. "To hit a brick wall -- it's mind-boggling. You don't set yourself up for things like that. It knocked my confidence a hell of a lot. I went through quite a lot of different emotions. I thought maybe I'm just not good at getting on with certain people."
For Saul, Gaier's combination of pep talk, forthrightness, confidence in her, and plan for her future made all the difference. "Working for him, I loved going into work. I loved being in work. I loved all the stuff that we were doing, and it was just really interesting. Results were getting produced, and he was very supportive," says Saul. "He just gave me loads of confidence, and I felt like I could do stuff. I suppose he gave me back the thing that it wasn't me; it was just maybe the situation I was in before."
"I've seen managers come and go," says Evans, an 18-year employee of B&Q. "Simon will listen to you. He's honest. He's trustworthy. You can talk to him in confidence. He's fair to his staff."
The mostly Welsh employees in the border town of Wrexham speak in especially fond terms of Gaier. This is particularly impressive given that -- as Ceri Jones says -- "The Welsh and English don't get on," and their manager is English. "It's not a problem with Simon," she says. "He's just being himself. He's quite approachable. It doesn't bother us." "Unless we lose at rugby," adds a coworker following the conversation a few feet away.
The store ultimately became self-sufficient in replacing managers. Williams, for example, was training his own possible successor should he move to a new position. The staff understood that if they prepared for it, the new opportunities would present themselves.
Although the initiative required a large investment of his time, Gaier found that helping his employees learn and grow allowed him to delegate more and spend more time on other aspects of improving the store. But Williams suspects it's far more personal than that for Gaier. He says, "I think he doesn't want us to fail because he'll take it as himself failing."