Setting The Tone

By Dan Vedda

More years ago than I like to remember—call it post-Woodstock but pre-Yamaha DX7—I worked for a national retail chain when it was the country’s largest retailer. It was the first time I worked for a business with so many employees, so many managers and so many individual stores. The opportunity to observe the enterprise from various angles gave me a real taste of the power of a manager to set the tone for the portion of the company under his or her control.

In those days, almost every department had a manager: women’s, juniors, hardware, stationery, toys…. (This was long before “category killers” and superstores were even an issue). Every manager had a staff, a budget and a merchandising plan. Every department was as different from another as any two families were.
The style of each manager influenced morale and drove success—or the lack thereof. It became obvious to me that the way a manager dealt with training, discipline and workload was more important to departmental well-being than any other factor was. I watched as the cosmetics department became mired in petty infighting—to the point that the time spent making and defending accusations exceeded the actual work accomplished. I saw several hardline and softline departments go rudderless, as the managers spent most of their time in the break room. I also watched a ruthlessly “efficient” manager browbeat her employees daily over byzantine procedures and housekeeping, to the point that they passively sabotaged the department whenever her back was turned.

But I also saw managers who made rank-and-file employees feel important, and I was lucky enough to work for more than one during my time there. Under such a manager, all but the most hopeless individuals worked above and beyond peers in mismanaged departments. There were few scheduling problems. Housekeeping was automatic and constant. Customer compliments outpaced the average.

Above the departments, the store manager set the tone for his or her unit. Some were autocratic, others detached and one spent so much time talking to employees on the salesfloor that you would have thought he was running for office. I watched managers plunge into their tasks the way teams give 110 percent for a beloved coach, and I’ve seen more than a few department heads feel devalued and hopeless. One even admitted to me that she had “cooked the books” (in the days when reports were done by hand) to hide excessive shrinkage, because the store manager at the time always looked for a scapegoat. It didn’t matter that shoplifting was rampant thanks to security staff cuts. The easiest target would take the fall (or so the manager felt).

All of this was in the same store, in the same market and with many of the same employees over a seven-year run. Based on my daily observations, management style was the biggest factor that caused the shifts in morale and productivity.

As I moved to different jobs, I noticed the same patterns wherever I worked. I’ve observed the “evidence of influence” in every company I’ve dealt with in the music industry, as well. What makes this so critical, in my opinion, is that, unlike the collective “corporate culture” of large companies, the music industry is a patchwork of relatively small companies. In our world, the influencer is usually one individual. That person—whether he or she is a retail store owner, a company credit manager or the head of the call center—can have a tremendous effect on the tone and, ultimately, the success of an enterprise, even when he or she doesn’t make large-scale policy decisions.

A lot has been said about why this is so. You can fill a large bookcase (or a Kindle) with just a selection of the writing about management style, effective training and employee morale. Get as theoretical as you want to, but it still boils down to one person and the way he or she interacts with the people of whom he or she is in charge.
The huge retailer I worked for was too large to feel the effects of the various individual managers. Across the company nationwide, all these influences tended to average out. The giant corporation was attuned to numbers—not vibe—and unless the numbers were grotesquely out of line for an entire store, no flag went up. But in an industry as personal as ours is—and one as small—that influence is immense.

The majority of companies in our industry—retail and wholesale—are small enough that one person’s style can positively or negatively affect the character and effectiveness of the company. Theorists can argue the tipping point, but I feel that any enterprise with less than 100 employees is the domain of individual influence. At that size, a difficult person’s negativity can be felt throughout the organization, and a positive manager can be an inspiration to all. “Tone” is more subtle than “corporate culture.” It’s hard to put into a mission statement. But its effect on productivity, customer service and sales success can cause a business to thrive—or to dive.

So, in your company, who sets the tone? Perhaps it’s you; in a slightly larger setting, and depending on the power structure, it could be the sales manager, the CFO or a marketing head. But whoever is flying the vibe, his or her actions should be examined, whether for inspiration or for damage control. It’s also possible that management—you, or appointees—have let go of the reins, which takes the character of the company and puts it in the hands of every person answering the phone or organizing a task. Without direction, things can go astray in an instant. (Reread Lord of the Flies.) If it’s your company, you can’t just assume the tone is on target because sales are OK or because no one’s complaining. What do you want your company to feel like—to its employees and to its customers?

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