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FIELD NOTES: The Cream Pie School of Management

A couple of weeks ago, I related a story about my experience in a college accounting class. Accounting wasn't the only business class I took that quarter, though. I also had Introduction To Management. It was not a challenging class, and the textbook was unintentionally humorous at times, beginning with the very first paragraph:

So you want to be a manager. Or do you?

Actually, I very much wanted to be a manager. I wanted to be in charge, to run things, to be respected for my business acumen. Needless to say, that delusion lasted about ten minutes in the real world, and I quickly came to understand the "or do you?" part. 

My first job after college was as an assistant department manager with the BEST Products retail chain. I worked under a department manager named Molly. Molly had a very distinctive personality and management style. In her early 30s, she exuded an air of detachment, as though she couldn't quite believe this was what her life had come to. On the other hand, I was enthusiastic, perhaps overly enthusiastic, about the job. It wasn't so much that we didn't get along; we just didn't mesh as a team. In the end, it didn't matter because I only worked under her for a few months before being promoted to manager of a different department. 

That promotion resulted in a friendly rivalry between our two teams and culminated in a contest over the Christmas season of 1987 to see which department could sell the most extended product warranties. 

Honestly, it was a sucker bet, as Molly was in charge of Camera/Electronics, and I was in charge of "Main," which encompassed sporting goods, seasonal, and toys. It's inherently easier to sell an extended warranty on a television than on a Barbie Dream House. My "secret weapon," at least in my mind, was that bulk item pick-up was part of my department, so even if Molly's people sold them the television, my team would get the last shot at upselling them.

It was a reasonable thought, and might have worked had the Camera/Electronics people not suddenly been so diligent about selling the warranties upfront. My team was instructed to ask, as they helped the customer load the oversized item into their car, "now, your salesman told you about our extended warranty program, right?" We sold a few that way, but not nearly enough. 

At the end of the contest, Molly's department won by a fair margin, and I dutifully accepted the consequences. Molly and I had agreed that the winner got to throw a cream pie in the face of the loser at a storewide meeting. The pie tin and can of whipped cream were quickly procured, but for whatever reason, Molly dawdled about setting a date. By the time we got around to scheduling the pieing, weeks had passed, but I cheerfully kept my end of the bargain, and with most of the store's employees watching, Molly rubbed it in, both literally and figuratively.

I knew I was getting a face full of whipped cream, but I didn't expect that the can of whipped cream, which was supposed to be refrigerated, was left out over the intervening weeks and was rancid, curdled slime. Some of that goo got up my nose, and everything smelled like sour milk for the better part of a week. 

There was no rematch. A few weeks later, Molly left to take her "dream job" as an auto insurance claims adjuster. 

Given that experience, I was perhaps more equipped than most to understand a controversy that erupted at Lakeside-Danbury High School a few years later. An honor student who won a school contest to throw a pie in his principal's face was expelled and threatened with criminal charges when the principal complained that he did so a little too enthusiastically.

In a contest to benefit the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, students could buy 50-cent chances to throw aluminum pie tins filled with whipped cream at teachers and the principal in a school assembly. The student who won the opportunity to pie the principal threw it in her face and was returning to his seat when the principal made a fuss about how hard the pie was thrown. She claimed that the impact "snapped her head back," and she proceeded to expel the student for "assaulting a faculty member."

Obviously, I wasn't there, and this was long before such events were captured on iPhones and uploaded to YouTube, so it's maybe a little unfair for me to pass judgment, but unless her nose was broken or she suffered a concussion, my take, having once been in her shoes, is she needed to laugh it off and be a good sport. That's what an effective manager would have done. By asserting her authority as principal in such a petty way, she forfeited the respect she was trying to engender.  

I understand now that management, and leadership in general, isn't about being "in charge," it's about being responsible and accepting the consequences of your actions. That's a hard lesson that sometimes requires a little pie in your face.

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