Rochelle Discovers Mentoring

images-2“My car is messed up; I’m in debt; I don’t have any money; but the grocery store loves me. I think I’ve made progress,” Rochelle told me a couple of days ago during our weekly interview. She had been the only one in her three-month training program to be promoted to the position of Central Cashier Supervisor. She had also been placed in a training program for people who have shown promise for advancement within the company. She did all this even though her economic and family life is still quite chaotic. She was able to do it because she is a strong person, and she has had support from the managers within her company. They have mentored her.

One day, when feeling extremely stressed by problems at home, Rochelle decided to speak about the situation to one of the managers at her job. She had told me about her stresses earlier, and I had suggested she tell a manager at her work. She was being scheduled until midnight frequently, and her children’s grades at school were falling; she wasn’t available to help with homework. Rochelle was working far more late, late shifts than other people. I asked if she had made her scheduled availability as “open” for the days she got scheduled until midnight, and she agreed she had. I told her that was the problem; she needed to make her store aware of the problems that had caused. When she discussed it with her managers things got corrected, plus she also got praise about what a good job she was doing. She got encouragement even from the store manager. They all told her they could see she had a real future with the company.

The company Rochelle works for is known for its success in the grocery business, but it is also known for being pro-active in the promotion of women and minorities. I had heard that while I was getting an MBA and trying to figure out where I wanted to work after my degree was completed. I didn’t go with that company, but the woman who was my class president did. They are not unfamiliar with mentoring people from backgrounds similar to Rochelle’s into success stories; they are not unfamiliar with single mothers trying to balance work with child-care. I have had the experience of being mentored in large companies and it made all the difference in the world. My mentors guided me towards success and promotions. They were direct with the criticism when needed but also generous with praise when deserved. I think this is too often missing today, and Rochelle is very lucky to have found support within her job, if not within her family life.  The importance of mentoring cannot be stressed enough. Good parents mentor their children, and good companies mentor their employees.

Rochelle Begins Saving Money

images“Here’s another $8,” Rochelle said, holding out her hand.  We had talked about trying to save money now that she was working full-time.  She started by giving me $20 from her January interview money two weeks ago, then added $5 more the next week and now had added another $8.  Right now she puts it in a piggy bank at my house that must be broken to remove the money.  It is an old Mexican folk art bank in my Mexican folk art collection, and I have no desire to ruin the bank in order to remove the money.  She isn’t earning any interest, but there is really no interest earned in a bank savings account these days anyway.   In three weeks Rochelle has saved $33!  “And I’m not missing the money,” Rochelle said. I had hoped she would see it that way.

“Does the grocery store have a profit sharing or 401K plan?” I asked.  I knew they did and thought it was supposed to be a fairly good one.  Rochelle didn’t know the answer, but we went to my computer and looked it up.  After she has worked full-time for one year she can join their 401K plan.  The company will contribute $1.63 for every $1 she saves for up to 2% of her wages.  The webpage then showed what a $10/hour employee would save over 25 years saving at a rate of 5%.  Rochelle will not reach her year anniversary until next November, but I wanted her to be aware of what savings can do.  401K plans need to be monitored to truly benefit the employee, but I can teach her that later.  Right now she is seeing a light at the end of a tunnel; I wanted her to see the possibility of even more light.

I remember Rochelle asking me what I spent money on when we both worked at the department store.  She rarely saw me spend money during store sales, though most of the other employees did.  The employees usually bought things on their department store charge card to get a discount, but then didn’t pay off the charge bill which carried a 24.99% interest rate.  If I did buy something, I always bought it with my store charge card but paid it off in the next transaction.  That way I got the discount but didn’t risk having to pay an interest rate.  I was not that smart when I was Rochelle’s age, however.  I too didn’t pay my charge cards in full then.  Rochelle is learning about money and debt.  “I wish I knew all this earlier,” she told me.  I wish I had learned it earlier too.  She seems excited to have money in the bank and to think about the future.  Having good things to mention about Rochelle’s life journey is refreshing .  Everything, however, is still very precarious. Nothing has changed with childcare, nor transportation, nor with her mother’s health.  A problem with any of these things will bring on another crisis. But for right now, Rochelle is able to think about the future.

Rochelle Gets Promoted

imagesRochelle called me last week with great news!  “I got promoted to full-time with benefits,” she told me excitedly.  “And I got another fricking raise.  I am just so excited.  I told them I would be happy to work Christmas and Thanksgiving, but I don’t have to.  I like my job and I like the people I work with.  I am getting an 11% raise this time, and I’ve only been working for the company for 6 months.  I’ve received two raises and a promotion.  I’ll be making the same pay as I made at the department store when they closed, but it took me 7 years to get there.”  Rochelle could hardly believe that her hard work had paid off so quickly.  I wasn’t surprised, but I was thrilled for her.  I had always heard that this privately held grocery store chain was a great place to work.  I had graduated from The McCombs Graduate School of Business at The University of Texas in 1981; the woman who was president of my class at the time also decided to work for this same Texas grocery store.  When I asked her why, she had explained that it had a reputation for great management and excellent training.  I haven’t kept up with this woman, but it seems that she was correct.

Rochelle came over for another interview three days later.  There were new problems with her eldest daughter; she had removed her from her middle school and enrolled her in a charter school the same day she had received her promotion.  Normally this would have been a major crisis in Rochelle’s life, but the praise and another raise and a promotion to full-time hours with benefits made her able to take all that in stride.  “I just might be on my way,” she told me.  “They really like me there and they tell me I have a future with them.”  She worked hard at the department store too, but it made no difference in her economic status.   No one had taken her aside and mentored her.  Her raises were small and there had been no chance for promotion.  Not only was I happy for Rochelle, I was also gratified to see a company treat its employees so well.  Good companies realize that it is actually their employees who must come first and not the customer.  Customers are treated well when the employees are treated well.

The news of her promotion is the best news Rochelle has had in the year or so that I have been interviewing her.  It doesn’t solve all her problems; her pay is still low, but it is a huge step in the right direction.  She is very proud of herself and she deserves to feel that way. She wants to be self-sufficient.  She wants off food stamps.  She wants off her housing subsidy, and she wants to be able to afford health insurance.   She isn’t there yet, but she has made a huge step forward by starting to work at what appears to be an employee focused company.

Creating Job Loyalty

images-2“You are always so bonded to your workplace,” said my sister, Jessie, in about 1982 or so.  I had started working for Foley’s Department Store at their Houston headquarters after receiving my M.B.A from The University of Texas that prior December.  I thought that was an odd comment.  I loved my job, had a great manager and mentor, plus it was fun and challenging .  My previous job had been managing two pet stores that were owned by men who were also supportive of me.  I only left that position because I had been there ten years, there was no longer a future for learning, and so it was time to move on.   I went to graduate school and was hired by Foley’s.

In those years, though owned by the old Federated Department Stores, Foley’s was still a local chain.  “The” state wide chain of department stores that oozed a Texas ambiance.  Macy’s tried to enter the market but fairly soon closed most of their stores.  A Texas store understood the market, and Macy’s buyers and other executives didn’t.  The C.E.O.s during my tenure at Foley’s were all Texans.  Well-versed Texans with lots of retail background:  Laskery Meyer and then John Utsey.  I remember looking forward to the “Christmas Visit” that John Utsey always made.  Sure, we in the stores freaked out a bit, but Mr. Utsey walked through the stores and said “Merry Christmas” to the salespeople and managers.  I’m sure he may have talked a bit of shop with the store manager, but we had all worked very hard and “Good job and Merry Christmas” being said by the C.E.O. made it all seem worthwhile.  The last time I may have heard that was in 1987.  I left the company in 1988 when it changed into The May Company, and everything I had loved seemed to change.  I no longer felt my skills counted, nor did I seem valued.  I went back in 2001 and stayed until retirement in 2010, but I was just putting in time.  I was no longer bonded to my company.

Rochelle, a person I have been interviewing for the last year, and whom I posted about last week on the Macy’s Alumni site, has worked for a large, privately held grocery store for only three months, and at her newly opened store for only three weeks.  “I have more good news,” she told me last week.  “My manager gave me a letter and it was from the head of the company.  He told me what a great job I was doing.”  I told her that was wonderful and immediately assumed it was a form letter.  “I’ll bring it to the next interview,” she said.  “I think I want to frame it.  This is special.”  I told her to bring it and I would get it framed properly for her.

“Here it is,” she said when she came for her weekly interview.  This was not a form letter.  This was a personal letter from the C.E.O of the grocery store, and it said,  “Attached is a photograph of you with one of my favorite friends.  Thanks for taking such good care of him when he was in your store recently.  Although I have not yet visited your store, I hear great things about it.  Thank you for taking such special care of our customers.  All the best.”  It was signed by the head of this major Texas grocery store chain.  Enclosed was a photograph of Rochelle and the customer.  He is a 95-year-old man who was with his son and buying beer “for the first time in twenty years,” Rochelle was told.  The son took the photograph and sent it and a note to the C.E.O.  When Rochelle checked out the 95 year old man at her register, she made sure to ask for his driver’s license. “ He absolutely loved that,” she said while laughing.

This is what builds company loyalty more than anything.  A personal touch and the recognition of a job well done.  It seems to have vanished as companies have merged   into the behemoths they are today.  John Utsey and Lasker Meyer, the C.E.O.s I knew at Foley’s, are now long gone.  Foley’s became Macy’s.  It is rare that hard work is recognized by such a letter except, occasionally, by a customer.  I know I stopped being loyal and bonded to my company when the mergers and buyouts started happening in the late 1980s.  As the companies grew larger, the commitment to the employees left as well.  Rochelle is lucky to be working for a company that seems to understand good management practices.  She is still new in the job.  Her life is difficult, but I know that right now she is filled with pride in her work and good feelings toward the grocery store she works for.   Building loyalty should be a huge company goal, and it is really so simple.  As simple as “thank you,” “good job,” “Merry Christmas,” or a personal letter from high up the chain of command.

I do a weekly blog about my interviews with Rochelle called “Rochelle’s World:  the life of a single Black mother in the culture of poverty.”  She is paid for the interviews by my sister, Jessie, an anthropology professor.  Last week’s and this week’s topic, however, relate directly to my experience working for Foley’s/Macy’s as well as to Rochelle’s experience in retail.  I thought it relevant so have posted it directly to the Macy’s Alumni site as well as to the blog.