By Gordon Hecht

Not unlike today, 1968 was a tumultuous time in the world. But since my world consisted of sixth grade at John Pearl Elementary School, most of it didn’t affect me.  Yet I still carry the lessons from one dramatic event that school year into my business career.

We didn’t think of it as restrictive: The rule concerning which cafeteria table we could sit at was not a choice. Just like a prison queue, we lined up for a hot cooked lunch and everyone sat in the order that they entered the line. It was the way it was, and no one ever challenged it.

On a crisp October day, I ended up with the last seat at the “bad” kids’ table. I missed getting a spot with my nerdy bookworm friends and ate my tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich among hoodlums known for crimes like smoking in the boys’ room and sticking gum under their desks.

It may have started with two milk straws up someone’s nose, or a bilabial fricative imitating the later effects of the prunes that served as dessert. But at some point, things got out of hand at that table. Food was thrown, wedgies were given, and the cafeteria monitor sent everyone at the table to the principal’s office. And even though I did not participate in the shenanigans, I was included.

We each gave our name to Mr. Evanish, our principal, who informed us that the offence would be duly recorded in our “permanent record.” Though not having been previously besmirched, I was now marked as a criminal forever.

Sure, it’s a school days lesson from back when gasoline was 29 cents a gallon, but I still see the same scenario played out in business settings today — essentially one or two people bending company policies, and their managers deciding that a store/department meeting is required to address the situation.  Sometimes, I believe, there is a general meeting to avoid an uncomfortable face-to-face meeting with the offenders.

You may have experienced these typical situations:

  • A couple of people in the department are causing problems due to tardiness; a meeting is called for all staff to discuss the value of being prompt.
  • Accessory sales are below par due to poor performance by two sales associates. The manager calls a sales training meeting on how to sell accessories.

The general outcome is that the people who are performing well are miffed about the meeting and the people who are below standard aren’t listening at all.

I am never opposed to sales training; worthwhile training designed to add or sharpen skills should be an ongoing practice. Selling is similar to riding a motorcycle: When you think you know it all, it’s time to hang it up or else you’ll probably get killed.

Same thing goes for rolling out policy changes. Your entire team need to get the updates at the same time.

But general staff meetings to address sub-par performance by finite members will be non-productive to the point of being counterproductive. In most instances your staff knows who is hampering performance and is waiting for you to address it.  Most retail sales teams know who is going to be terminated two weeks before it happens.

Being a leader means rallying the team and sometimes identifying the weak links, and either fortifying them or cutting when needed.

About 51 years after the Great Lunch Table Debacle, I was able to reconnect with a few of my fellow inmates.  No one else had a memory of that day, perhaps because of their many visits with Mr. Evanish. Amazingly, they all have successful careers. Billy is a building contractor, Mike manages a large real estate portfolio, and Jimmy has a custom order business that allows people to select and obtain a variety of items that will soon be missing from warehouses, homes and garages.

Gordon Hecht is a business growth and development consultant to the retail home furnishings industry. You can reach him at Gordon.Hecht@aol.com.