The Day I Almost Got Fired for Being Stupid

Smart managers are humble about their skills.

Thirty-one years ago, I was named a branch manager for Grainger at the tender age of 24 after about six months of training. Since this promotion typically took three years of training, I felt pretty special. Someone told me that I was probably the youngest branch manager in the history of Grainger. I didn’t know if this was true, but I loved the sound of it. I told a lot of people as if it was a fact. It was possible, right?

I was really good at winning sales contests between branches and I decided this was more important than any other skill a branch manager could have. So, when I was promoted after nine months (Just nine months! Look at me go!), I walked into the Billings, MT, branch very sure of myself, despite the skeptical gazes of a veteran team that had been serving an enormous geographic area for a long, long time. Judy, our office manager, was particularly unimpressed. 

But I did my thing and, pretty soon, we not only won some sales contests, but we also had a great February that I decided was probably the branch’s best month ever. Just like the “youngest branch manager ever” thing, we weren’t really sure, but that didn’t stop me from saying it. I took the team out to dinner and we posed for an Old-West style, black and white photo — except we held power tools instead of pistols. 

Meanwhile, Judy was constantly nagging me about my lack of attention to operational details. It was the stuff that seemed obviously unimportant, like reconciling the cash drawer, making bank deposits on time, maintaining time cards and getting inventory cycle counts done. It really bothered Judy that I didn’t spend time on that dull work while there were exciting sales opportunities to pursue. 

The Reckoning

Back in those days, every new branch manager suffered an internal audit sometime in the first year in the role, and my number came up. Two young, single guys (like me) from corporate came into town and I showed them a great time. We went out to restaurants and bars and they were almost no burden to me as I went on selling while they plied through our paperwork and reports.

At the end of the week, my boss, Dennis, flew up from Denver for the internal audit report. My two new friends reported 11 pages of operations failures and finished with a recommendation that he find someone else to run things in Billings. It occurred to me that whether or not I was the youngest Grainger branch manager ever to get hired, I was certainly going to be the youngest one ever to get fired.  

After the auditors left, Dennis sat back and looked at me. 

“What are you going to do about this, Ian?” he asked.

I replied, “I’m going to apologize to Judy, tell her she was right all along and ask her to teach me how to operate this branch.” 

Dennis nodded. “Good answer,” he replied. “You can keep your job for now. I’ll be back in a month to audit you myself.”

Judy – bless her heart – held no grudges, accepted my apology and took me under her very experienced wing. I spent the next month in a crash course learning all the stuff I would have learned if I’d paid attention to it while I was in training. Thanks to Judy, when Dennis came back a month later and redid the audit, he did not find a single violation. 

Finding Perspective

This was an inflection point in my career. I finally put my own skills in perspective: Just because I was good at certain types of work did not make those things more important than the stuff that was hard for me. Selling is great, but if the branch can’t serve customers, it doesn’t matter how much demand you create. 

Judy’s skills were different than mine but at least as important. I also had to admit that maybe the reason I was promoted so quickly was due less to my talent than the fact that Grainger had decided to double its branch network in a few years. Just about every trainee was expedited through the program and I simply stumbled into some good timing. 

To this day, I thank my lucky stars that Judy was there to help me when I needed it. A year or so after this event, I was promoted to a big branch in the Chicago area, where I wound up catching the attention of someone in the marketing department and I eventually wound up as Grainger’s marketing VP. I even made friends with the auditors because I realized that they had done their jobs very professionally and I deserved both the results of the audit and their recommendation, too. 

Everyone with a long career has their Judy, Dennis and others who helped them along the way. Now I surround myself with people who have a wide variety of skills and I work hard to ensure they respect each other’s differences. Such a team is truly greater than the sum of its parts. 

Every now and then I hire someone who has a lot of potential but is a little full of himself about his skills. At some point, I sit him down and say, “Let me tell you the story of the day I almost got fired for being stupid and how a woman named Judy bailed me out.”



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