When Best Buy employee John Pershing graduated from college in 1996, he was fully prepared to unpin his employee ID tag for good and embark on a career in architecture. But that all changed after a talk with his store manager.
"I had even given my two weeks' notice," he says. "But then my supervisor took me aside and said, ‘I'm not going to make a pitch for you to stay, but I want you to know that I believe in you, we believe in you and here's what the future of Best Buy looks like.'"
The store manager then went into detail about what Pershing contributed to the store every day. "His humility about it, combined with the specifics about my contributions, really helped change my mind," Pershing says.
Start the Conversation
Pershing stayed, and today he's the company's vice president of retail operations, responsible for implementing this same type of empathetic approach to store management, an approach he feels boils down to one key ingredient: Relationships.
"The key to building relationships is through real conversations with customers," he says. "Store managers need to stand outside and talk to customers as they walk out. A lot of retailers do customer and employee surveys and benchmark that way, and that's fine, but what's really amazing is how many insights you can get just by having direct, personal conversations with the people you're trying to serve. It cuts through to the root of everything you want to know about the customer experience."
Walk the Line
With employees, Pershing recommends an even more in-depth approach, suggesting that management training include walking a few miles in the shoes of line-level employees.
Take, for example, a district manager responsible for 10 to 12 Best Buys who spends two hours on the job with a car-stereo installer. "This gives the manager a chance to have a genuine conversation with that employee about what it's like to work at Best Buy, to pick up on exactly what's going on with morale in the store and how that person feels about coming to work every day," Pershing says. "This kind of experiential learning is much more powerful than anything you can learn from classroom or Web-based training."
Pershing cautions that this relationship-based approach to employee management will succeed only if the manager has the proper attitude.
"The intent and why you're asking these questions is really important," he emphasizes. "Your goal needs to be to truly improve the environment and enhance that employee's experience of working in your store. This is a major transformation from the old management leadership model where you're always looking for what people are doing wrong."
Meet the New Boss
Retail managers should approach employees with "a small mouth and big ears," Pershing says, seeking first to understand. This should be the case even in stores where morale is low and where traditional managers would focus on rooting out the bad apples.
"I'm not sure there are so many bad apples as there are environments that increase the stress of a situation," he says. "That's why, when confronted with an underperforming store, the first thing the leader needs to do is look in the mirror. Often when people feel alienated, it's because management hasn't provided adequate communication, and that critical one-on-one relationship with the supervisor has fallen through the cracks. When you address the shortcomings of what you've been providing, everything changes."
Pershing suggests that this approach to employee relations can help store managers create, maintain and consistently improve employee morale as well as store performance. And this belief, he says, harkens back to those early experiences as a line employee that helped him decide to stay in retail.
"My success with Best Buy has been rooted in people believing in me, and I see that in stores today as well," he says. "When you see a store operating the way we envision it to run, you'll see a store leader truly believing in and wanting the best for her people -- not because of profit or sales, but because she's built genuine relationships. That's the kind of win-win you want in every store."
Learn more about retail careers.