Respect: You have to earn it before you get it Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s signature line, “I don’t get no respect,” always garnered a few good chuckles. As a leader, however, if you find yourself in this same predicament, it’s no laughing matter.

Most executives usually try to do the right thing. They carry out their responsibilities, weighing the pros and cons of their actions and decisions.

Way too many executives think that their people will somehow recognize the angst they endure before gaveling an action into effect.

People cannot, however, understand why you do something simply through osmosis. This is where communication comes into play. How many times have you made an important decision and just filtered it down with what I call the “so be it” method? Sure, sometimes mandates are a part of being a leader and some are popular and others aren’t.

Throughout my career, I’ve learned a number of lessons about respect. The most important one is that respect can be earned in many ways, and most times, it’s simply a reflection of your attitude and actions, rather than what you actually say.

When I was a young CEO of my retail, publicly held, Fortune 500 company, I participated in what are known as Wall Street security analyst field trips, in which an underwriter organizes an excursion that takes portfolio investment professionals on the road with CEOs of similar businesses. One such trip was a bus tour of retail stores in Providence, R.I., visiting each respective CEO’s store along the way. The tour included a 45-minute walkthrough, led by the CEO of the chain explaining why his or her operation was the best on the planet.

On this particular tour, everything was running late and my store was the last stop. As the bus arrived, my watch told me there was a huge time problem because participants had planes to catch.

As we entered the store, it was spotless. All of the employees were wearing their “Sunday best” and you could literally eat off of the floor. The leader of the tour whispered in my ear that I had 10 minutes to get the message out. As I rushed 20 portfolio managers through the store, talking faster than the pitchman on the classic FedEx commercial years ago, the dejected looks on the employees’ faces were apparent. My tour ended almost faster than it began as I walked backward out of the store continuing my pitch.

As we boarded the bus to the airport, I felt lousy. I knew the employees most likely had suffered acute gastrointestinal distress while preparing their store for “show time.” As the bus barreled down the freeway, I realized this was a defining moment for me. Using my cell phone I called the store manager and told him to get in his car, catch up to my bus and quickly get me back to the store. Instinctively I knew that I had to show this store’s employees that I respected them and their work.

When I returned to the store, the employees gawked at me with eyes bigger than saucers. I then spent about two hours walking the store, aisle by aisle, with all of the employees in tow, asking for their input on everything they do. I missed my plane, had to stay overnight and ruined my schedule, but it was worth it.

Word of this encore visit spread through our 1,000 stores faster than Grant took Richmond. In no time, this infamous visit turned into a celebrated success and became a part of the company’s history.

You, too, can pick your own time and place to recreate a “respect event” that will speak volumes about how you do business. This can be achieved by arriving at meetings on time and ending the meetings as scheduled. It can also be reflected by not piling on the work just because you decided you needed something on your timetable without consideration of what else is currently on someone else’s plate.

Respect is contagious and can start a cascading trickle-down effect. Your direct reports will begin to increase their respect for subordinates — and even you, if you’re lucky. It’s not only the right thing to do, it is the right way to build a business and create a positive culture.

If you feel you just “don’t get no respect,” you can improve your business persona by following this golden rule — “To get respect, you first have to give it.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind wellness chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Mr. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Read Michael Feuer's previous column