Managing By Manual

During my last quarter of college, I applied for a job as the manager of a large chain of gift stores. As part of the application process I was asked to take a series of written tests. I was told these tests would “quantify my potential” to become a successful manager.

I didn’t question the test at the time. I was tired of living on Ramen Noodles and Campbell’s soup and couldn’t wait to earn a paycheck that would cover more than the bare necessities plus a few games of pinball.

Yet even then, “quantify my potential” didn’t sound right. How could any test quantify what I might become? Sounded like Tony Robbins speak.

There were no materials to help prepare for the test. The only instruction I was given was to answer each question honestly. I had as much time as I needed.

As I made my way through the multiple choice questions, I began to see the same question asked more than once. Some questions were asked four or five times with the only difference being that the answers were tweaked just slightly.

One question I recall went something like this:

If you confirmed that one of your employees was making long distance phone calls on the company’s line, would you:

a) Ask the assistant manager to deal with the problem.

b) Give the employee a verbal warning.

c) Consult the Manager’s Handbook

d) Fire the employee

With a few exceptions, each questions had at least one clearly wrong answer such as A in the above example, followed by two that sounded good and one confusing option, such as C.

About an hour into the test, I decided the whole process was a fraud. Some management consultant had convinced an HR manager with too big of budget that giving this test would weed out poor managers.

In most cases, I selected the answer that required some action and/or common sense. I would probably warn an employee who made long distance phone calls but I’d fire someone who took cash from the register. I finished the test and awaited the results.

A few days before graduation, I was offered the job. My first job out of college would end up challenging me in ways I never thought possible. I’d never been a manager before and wasn’t sure how to act. To showcase my newfound title, I wore a freaking tie on my first day of work which I promptly slammed into the cash register during my first hour of training.

I was shocked to find out that I was responsible for 15 people right out of the gate. I had no idea what I was doing.

So I winged it.

I hired students who loved to work with the public. I found a great assistant manager who enjoyed digging into the details of the business, which was not a strong skill of mine. We had pizza. We had parties. We worked late and supported each other. Basically, we had a lot of fun while selling a lot of cards and gifts.

Not once did I crack open the manager’s handbook. It sat there on my desk gathering dust like an outdated phonebook.

At my first manager retreat, I had dinner with the manager who gave me the employment test. She’d recently been promoted to regional manager and was kind in her words towards me. She complimented the performance of my store and my team. And then she said something that stunned me.

“I’m glad we hired you even though you failed the manager test”.

I didn’t know what to tell her. She went on to explain that my answers did not trend towards the corporate. My decision to select the answer that required action on part of the manager was the wrong strategy. To score high, I needed to select the answers that required the least amount of decision making and common sense. The best answers were of the “advise HR” and “consult the manager handbook” variety.

Since that time, I’ve come to appreciate the backing of a strong HR department when dealing with serious matters. Large companies love to create to large manuals. But manuals don’t make a good manager.

When it comes to managing people, I’ll trust my instincts over any manual.


One thought on “Managing By Manual

  1. When faced with situations such as these, it's amazing how quick I can work myself into a lather. But when I follow my instincts like you did, it generally works out pretty well. Good post.


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