The Sopping-Wet Supervisor, A Leadership Story

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I saw the clouds turning ominously dark through my office window and thought “I’d better get going, before it starts pouring.” It was five o’clock on the dot. I liked to stick around at work after five and take care of things I couldn’t deal with during the day when most of my time was spent talking with my colleagues.

I had a pile of things on my desk to deal with, but I thought “If I don’t get out of here while traffic is still moving, I won’t get home for hours.” I grabbed my keys and my purse and headed out the door.

The first raindrops hit me halfway across the parking lot to my car. By the time I turned the key in the ignition, a light rain was falling.

Ten or fifteen other people had the same idea I did and I had to wait in line to make the turn coming out of the company parking lot and onto the street. “I’m too late,” I sighed.

Now it was a downpour, and traffic was stalled. A thunderbolt boomed. “Please God, let this traffic keep moving,” I said to myself.

I set my wipers on their fastest speed but I could hardly see a thing through the sheets of rain.

It didn’t matter, because I wasn’t going anywhere. Along with every other driver, I was stopped in traffic. I glanced to my right and saw a figure walking on the sidewalk, stooped against the rain, without a raincoat or umbrella. “That poor person must be soaked,” I thought. “It’s probably one of our employees.”

I opened the passenger side window to see. Sure enough, a co-worker of mine was on foot, probably walking to the bus stop. I tried to remember her name. I knew she worked in National Accounts.

Was her name Megan, or Maggie? I couldn’t remember. I called to her. “Meg, get in!” I yelled. She turned and saw me. Her wet hair covered her face. She opened the door. “Are you sure?” she asked me. “Get in!” I said. She got in. “There’s a dry towel in the back seat,” I said. “Sorry about the messy car.”

Meg or Maggie was soaked to the bone. “Oh my gosh,” I said. “You must be freezing. Grab that company-logo sweatshirt. Get rid of your wet top.” Meg or Maggie peeled off her sopping-wet shirt and put on the sweatshirt. Nobody would see her changing in the car through the driving rain.

“Remind me of your name?” I asked, and she said “It’s Megan. You said ‘Meg, get in the car!’ and you shocked me, because I didn’t think you knew my name.”

“Muscle memory,” I said. “When I can’t remember something, I go with my instinct and trust the database in my brain. That’s one thing I’ve learned from being in HR. Can you use that towel to dry off your legs? You poor thing, this freezing rain is the worst. Where do you live? I’ll take you home.”

Megan named a street on the north side of the city, normally a fifteen-minute drive away. “I’ve got the heat all the way up,” I said, “but you have to dry off. There might be a baby blanket in the back seat, since that towel looks pretty damp.”

“Thanks for the lift,” said Megan. “It’s fine,” I said. “The weather people didn’t see this storm coming, or at least I didn’t hear about it.” Megan was silent. “So Megan,” I said, “you work in National Accounts, right? How are things going over there? How do you like the job?”

We had moved forward a half-block. “It’s okay,” said Megan. I let that sink in. The company was growing by leaps and bounds. The atmosphere at work was frenzied but jubilant. It was a fun company. “I wonder what’s up in National Accounts?” I thought to myself. “Is something wrong?” I asked Megan. “We have some time. Do you want to tell me what’s on your mind?”

“I don’t know — I just — I don’t feel like I can help,” said Megan, her voice devolving to a squeak at the end of her thought. I turned to look at her. Tears were streaming down her face. “It’s okay,” I said. I turned off the street into the parking lot in front of Appliance King, and parked the car. “What’s the story?” I asked Megan. “What’s upsetting you?”

Megan told me the story. A month before, things had gotten so busy in National Accounts that her manager, Alison, had brought in a temp to help them out. Alison asked Megan to train and supervise the temp, named Elias.

I didn’t remember having seen him. “Elias has been in our department for three and a half weeks,” said Megan. “I feel responsible for him. He’s a fantastic guy. He and his wife have a new baby. I’ve trained him and spent a lot of time with him and he works so hard.”

“That’s great!” I said. “It’s wonderful that you’ve helped Elias like that. What is the problem?”

“Alison says it’s not working out with Elias,” said Megan, trying not to start crying again. “I’m doing my best. Elias is a little bit slow to pick things up. Our environment is so crazy, as you know.

“I have my own job to do and I’m trying to help him learn everything, and it’s not easy. Today Alison said that if Elias doesn’t get his act together soon, he’s gone. The poor guy has a new baby and he needs this temp job. I’m sick about it. I can’t sleep!”

I thought about my co-workers — several thousand people working hard every day and dealing with stuff like the issue with Elias that was keeping Megan awake at night.

Here’s Megan, not an official supervisor but a person with responsibility for another person’s success. She’s sick over it, and I never knew she had that problem, even though my office is maybe sixty feet from hers.

“Let’s figure it out,” I said. “You know Megan, you can always talk to me or one of the other HR people. That’s why we’re here. I don’t want you to lose sleep over work problems.”

“I thought a hundred times about coming to see you,” she said, “but I didn’t know if I should. Elias isn’t even an employee. He’s just a temp.”

I got a notebook and a pen out of my briefcase. “What kinds of problems does Elias run into?” I asked Megan. “Let’s start fresh, and design a training plan for him.”

Megan had a good handle on Elias’ rough spots. “He has to understand the differences between our products,” she said. “That’s the first thing.”

“Can you make him a chart that shows the most important features for each product?” I asked.

“I gave him the product brochures, but they’re technical – they’re complicated,” she said.

“Do you want me to help you make that comparison chart?” I asked. “No,” she said. “I can do it. That’s a good idea. Elias will take it home and study it.”

“What else gets in his way?” I asked her.

“Our customers’ names,” she said. “He talks to a customer on the phone and then he gets their company name or some other detail confused.”

“Does he have access to the CRM?” I asked Megan.

“No, because he only takes messages and calls people back,” she said. “They don’t want to give him an ID just for that.”

“Show him the CRM anyway,” I said. “Give him a demo. Show him how the records are organized. Maybe if you make a paper report of all the national accounts and their contact names, he can use that as a reference. He can flip through it and find out who he’s talking to while he’s taking notes on the call.”

“I wish I had come to talk to you earlier,” said Megan. “I just know my own job. I don’t know how to train someone.”

“Don’t be silly — you’re a brilliant trainer!” I said. “I hire people with fifteen or twenty years of experience and they get just as confused as Elias is. They say ‘Wow, your company hires people and throws them right into the deep end!’ It’s our growth rate. We hired 250 people last month. That’s why the procedures are always changing and it’s so hard to keep up. Elias couldn’t have chosen a better mentor than you.”

Megan smiled, at last. “I can do this,” she said.

I saw a flame in her eyes that I hadn’t seen before. I thought about how shocked and sorry Megan’s manager Alison would feel if she knew how much stress and anxiety Megan had experienced worrying about Elias’ temp-job security.

“We are all so busy, the details slip right by us,” I thought. I wondered which of my HR teammates might be freaking out about some off-handed remark of mine or some energetic disturbance I had missed, right now.

I dropped Megan off at her house as the rain slowed down and then sputtered out. When I got to my house, there were deep puddles everywhere. “You worked late!” my husband said. “I did,” I said. “Leadership training.”

“Weird time to schedule a leadership training session,” he replied.

“I have to remember to give Megan her top back,” I said. “I have it in my car.”

“Sounds like an out-of-the-box leadership training session,” remarked my husband.

I thought about Megan bearing the burden of Elias’ success or failure. I thought about how badly people want to succeed and to help other people when they’re given a chance.

Megan stopped by my office the next morning with her completed feature-comparison chart. I followed her back to National Accounts and met Elias, who showed me a picture of his beautiful new baby. Megan re-started Elias’ training that day.

“Keep reinforcing him,” I told her. “Tell him ‘You’re doing great, Elias!’ He needs to hear that.” Elias came through his re-orientation with flying colors.

There was no more talk of letting Elias go. One day our front-desk receptionist told me “Do you know a guy named Elias in National Accounts? He’s a big hit with our customers. They say he goes the extra mile to help them out.”

I grabbed Elias and brought him to the receptionist area to make introductions. Three months later, Elias was offered a full-time position in Shipping and Receiving. When I left the company, he was the Shipping and Receiving supervisor and Megan had moved into a full-time Training role.

People want to do their best. They need trust and support — nothing more complicated than that. God Bless Megan for reminding me that everybody has a burden and that easing someone else’s burden is the greatest contribution we can make.

I’ll be grateful to Megan forever for the leadership lesson she taught me in the middle of a rainstorm on a dark night after work. We never know where our lessons will come from – but as long as we stay open to them, we know they’ll never stop coming!

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