Lehman’s culture: People who need people

A great system with lousy people translates to a bad result, according to Bruce Breckbill, vice president of direct sales for Lehman’s. Operations and fulfillment is all about people, he said. “Value people over systems. With work, you can improve your skills in dealing with people.”

During his session at the National Conference on Operations & Fulfillment in Orlando, FL, last month, Breckbill, a former middle school teacher/administrator, basketball/baseball coach, spoke about how his professional and personal lives have always involved communicating with people. Breckbill was hired at Lehman’s — a Kidron, OH-based purveyor of hardware, home goods, and gifts — in 1999 and was promoted to his current position in 2005.

Being a proficient operations supervisor requires considerable skill and patience: “It’s an art,” he said. And through his past history, Breckbill has “developed an education about people.”

He highlighted four themes for better management: get the right people, understand the people you have, value your people, and improve your self-awareness. “If people don’t fit your culture, let them go,” he said. Finding the “right seat” for people is integral to a company’s overall efficiency.

Supervisors should be careful about their own sense of humor so as not to offend the sensibilities of coworkers. When speaking of conflict, Breckbill said people either avoid conflict, seek it out, or deal with it in a healthy manner.

“Know what you are and what your employees are,” he said. “Know your strengths and weaknesses and your employees as well. Help determine their position in the company based on that.”

Reward smart behavior, he said, and keep expectations high, or else “people will dumb themselves down if it gets them something. Rise to your expectations. Don’t stoop to others’.”

Breckbill prides himself on the fact that Lehman’s employs a “bottom up” business climate, rather than a traditional “top down” structure, where plans and policies are dictated from the executive office. And Breckbill doesn’t just talk the talk. “People doing the work have the best ideas,” he said.

What’s more, Breckbill often asks workers, “What can I do to make your job easier?” On a list of things to remember, he said, are workers’ names. “I see everyone every day,” he said. “Ask questions. Be interested. You will learn amazing things. You need to treat people with respect. Say ‘thank you’ and don’t worry who gets the credit.”

Still, Lehman’s focus on people is a constant pursuit. Breckbill listed some supervisory points to remember: Don’t sweat the small stuff; make workers feel special — at Lehman’s, every worker has his/her birthday off as a paid holiday; delegate whenever possible; empower people; and keep them informed.

Be honest about your weaknesses, he said. Breckbill told a story of an applicant who spewed his strengths when asked how they related to the position, but when asked about his weaknesses, he replied: “I don’t know.”

If you don’t know what your weaknesses are, Breckbill said, you’re not ready to be a supervisor. “Be observant, watch reactions, listen carefully, and get honest feedback from people of equal status,” he said.

Everyone can change something, he said. “Change one thing, not 10,” he said. “When that one thing becomes second nature, choose another one.”

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