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Marconi: Hey Boss, Do Your Employees Know You?

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In the spring of 1978, I went to work at a new-car dealership in Westchester County, New York. I assumed this was the next logical step in my career development. I didn’t expect the stress-filled work environment and the employees' animosity toward the owner, Mr. K (not his real name). When he would come out of his office, I could hear a few technicians mumbling insults such as, “What the hell is doing out here? Why doesn’t he stay inside his office where he belongs?” After working at small auto repair shops where the boss worked side by side with the employees, I was shocked at what I heard.  

Before I continue, I want to mention that due to the sensitive content, some details have been changed to respect the privacy of certain individuals. 

About three times per week, Mr. K walked around the shop. He pointed out and complained about all that was wrong and voiced his comments to the service manager. He would then point his finger at one or two techs as he whispered to the manager. This did not go over well with anyone, and it hurt morale. We never knew what Mr. K said, we just assumed it wasn’t good.   

That summer, all the employees were invited to the annual company picnic in an upstate New York Park. It was a hot, 90-degree day. I sat down with my wife at one of the tables. A little while later, Mr. K arrived and sat at our table. My first thought? “Oh no, why did he choose to sit next to me?”  

Mr. K was dressed in his usual white, long sleeve dress shirt and dress pants. You could tell he was hot and uncomfortable. After about an hour, he unbuttoned his sleeves and rolled them up slightly. I looked over at his left arm in amazement. On his arm was a tattoo, which looked like the tattoos people got when they were put into concentration camps during World War II. Mr. K saw the look on my face and said one word, “Auschwitz.” One of Adolf Hitler’s notorious concentration camps.  

After a minute or so, Mr. K told me a little about his time at Auschwitz and how he was separated from his family, never to see them again. After the war, he made his way to the U.S. and started selling used cars. He eventually saved up enough money to buy a new-car dealership. Mr. K didn’t say a lot on that hot summer day, but what he did say had an impact on me, and I walked away with a completely different view of him.  

We are all shaped by the experiences and events that have occurred early in our lives. While I never completely understood Mr. K or agreed with his management style, I did gain some respect for him that day at the park. This may be an extreme situation, but there is a lesson to be learned here: Shop owners, do your employees know you?   

A big part of being a leader means the people you expect to believe in you must realize there is a human side to you; that you are not all about business. Your employees must know that you care about them as a person and that what they do each day matters to the company’s success.   

I know some shop owners tend to avoid creating deep relationships with their employees, but there is nothing wrong with your employees understanding more about you and the events in your life that helped shape who you are. We all have a past and a story to tell. Tell your story to your employees.  

Don’t think this is important? Well, what are your employees mumbling about you when you walk out of your office? 

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