Whenever I have gone through the interview process for a new position, I have consistently been asked the following question:

“What is the most successful accomplishment you have achieved in your career?”

Without hesitation, I can describe the team I worked with in Chicago in the 1980s, not because there weren’t numerous times after that, but because this was the first time I was part of an experience that taught me the leadership skills to carry forward for years to come.

In 1986, I was working with a fashion manufacturer in Kansas City as their Unit Sales Manager. When an opening became available, I was offered a District Manager’s position in Chicago. This was the first time the company was willing to put a woman in this leadership role in the third largest market for the organization.

When I arrived in August, with five months to fiscal year end, the Chicago District was at 40 percent of their quota. There were multiple vacancies in the sales rep, merchandiser and unit manager positions, and the independent brokerage firms were not engaged in meeting their contract requirements in the grocery chains in the four-state area. The situation to some would have been bleak at best, impossible at worst. Being a “Red” personality type, failure was not an option in my mind.

After taking stock of all the areas that needed immediate attention, I set out to massively hire and train new personnel in all the vacancies in 30 days. Next, I met with the independent brokers and gave them 30 days to fulfill their contract obligations or we would end our agreements. I can remember during the hiring process, I looked for that “spark” or as some would call it, “fire in the belly.” And it wasn’t about finding the most experienced; I was looking for people with heart, integrity, and grit.

Once the positions were filled, we completed training for over 80 people in an intensive two-week window. Then it was time to get to work… all of us. I rode with each new rep and worked hand in hand with merchandisers to clean up damaged merchandise, set up store end caps, and create new relationships with each of the store managers. It required getting dirty, digging in back rooms, cleaning out shelves, and restocking new merchandise.

We also scheduled headquarter presentations to all the major accounts booking promotions, introducing new products and rebuilding relationships in order to maximize sales during the holidays. These also required taking the risk to allow accounts to return damaged merchandise and take the negative hit to sales revenue.

By November, we were rounding the corner and seeing sales pick up to nearly 85 percent of quota – a huge gain and effort by everyone on the team. Yet it was now going to take a mindset shift to “we’ll do whatever it takes, with integrity, to hit our goal.” This team of highly passionate, dedicated, motivated, people all had specific values in common:
  1. They genuinely cared about the end result the team was going to achieve together.
  2. They were willing to go out of their way to help each other whenever it was needed.
  3. They congratulated, encouraged, and recognized each other’s difficult accomplishments.
  4. They loved the challenge ahead and refused to settle, but sought breakthrough as they focused on building and maintaining relationships on all fronts.
  5. They trusted and respected themselves and each other.
  6. They were fearless and had fun even when the work was extremely taxing.
  7. They never gave up.
It was an honor, one that keeps me humble to this day, having the opportunity to work alongside this team. I learned a great deal from them and because of this experience, I have proof that when you bring together a group of individuals, multi-talented, from different ages, cultures, educations and experiences and they see the vision, and commit to the outcome, the impossible is achieved.

How did the team end up at the end of the year? We surpassed our quota and hit 105 percent.

What I Learned
  1. Build trust with those on your team by being trustworthy.
  2. Be clear in the vision and the work required to achieve the goal.
  3. Encourage and recognize accomplishments along the way.
  4. Each individual is vital to the team, make sure you tell them.
  5. Give them the space to be creative to achieve their results.
  6. Work hard and play hard alongside your team, get in the trenches.
  7. A fearless mindset is contagious – be contagious.
  8. Respect and maintain integrity, anything less is not an option.
  9. Honor your team and their commitment to their family – don’t burn them out.
  10. Be sincere in your praise and genuinely reward their efforts.