Random thoughts on things I have learned over time

I shared this with my Senior Leadership team tonight then thought, “Why not share it with everyone”?

When I managed Radio Shack stores I had this crazy-ass District Manager. His name was Charlie, and he was about 4’2″ tall in his lift shoes. But his personality was huge. So huge in fact that he was on 60 Minutes – for selling water filters that did not filter. He went to jail for several years. Mike Wallace buried him. That was several years after I worked for Charlie.

That made Charlie a bad guy, but not a completely stupid guy. He taught me a lot of really simple lessons, like, “Do you teach your employees how to dust?”. Man, I thought that was a retarded thing for him to ask me – we ALL know how to dust, right? Turns out, we do not. I was in Marin County – my employees were 17-22 year old kids of the rich and famous – the kids who had parents that thought they should “learn to work” – but they had never dusted a damned thing in their life. They would start dusting on the bottom shelf – they would not move merchandise to dust under it – they had no freaking clue how to dust. I had no clue they had no clue. Charlie was smart! And I learned to never make assumptions about what people can or cannot do.

Charlie is the guy that gave me the keys to a million dollar/month store after being an employee for just three months – and he told me, “Run it like you own it, but never forget you don’t”. I did just that. I have taken that advice through a dozen startups and two public companies, to include Rackspace. It works.

Once, while Charlie was in my store, I had a customer come in and ask me for a drill. “We don’t sell drills, sorry”, I said. Charlie followed the customer out the door and then led him back in, took him to a section of the store, then led him to my cash register. I rang up a $2.99 awl, which was probably a 90% profit item. The customer did not need a drill – he needed a hole. Charlie was smart that way.

Charlie is the guy that asked me what the difference (in 1980 dollars) was between making 700K a year in baseball and making 100K a year – 10% more effort – a ten percent better batting average. That has caused me to try harder for the last 30 years.

Charlie is the guy that chewed me out for 20 minutes about not having a “lighted and magnified” headset in stock – when I should have had 5 according to my inventory levels. My excuse was that I thought they were stupid, and “nobody ever buys them”. To wit, Charlie replied, “Then you should have five of them!”. Hard to argue with that kind of logic – that actually was my first lesson in supply-chain management. I was 23.

Charlie also had a fake front tooth that was prone to fly from his mouth as he gave his “Hitler-esque” ‘motivational’ talks to us. Once at DisneyLand, during our annual manager’s convention, I caught the tooth in my beer cup – from about 15 feet away! I waited several days to give it back – see – I was a PITA even then. 🙂

The most important thing Charlie taught me though was to live up to what you are asking others to deliver. He failed to. He chased money over all else, and it cost him everything.

Charlie was smart – but he had a bad moral character. Charlie wanted to win more than anything. Charlie wanted Charlie to win. Decades later I realize that Charlie was teaching me for one reason – so he could win bigger – NOT so I could win. Charlie was short-sighted. Charlie was greedy. I know I win by creating winners. Charlie never learned that.

Not sure what my point is here. It is part “doing what is right is better than winning at all costs” and part, “there is something good and bad to learn from everyone – learning to differentiate the two is what is important”.

Mostly, I think – he taught me how to take the best of Charlie – and mix it in with the best of intentions – and to use both to benefit as many people as I can – because over time, that is how I win. I win by teaching the right lessons and for the right reasons.

And no – nothing at Rack caused me to write this – Charlie just asked to link to me on LinkedIn, after almost 30 years. So these thoughts came to mind.

And it made me smile – because for all of Charlie’s faults – he taught me a lot of lessons that are still important to me today. To ask the right questions. To not assume. To know who I work for. To know how I win (by honestly helping others win instead of making me the focus). To listen to customers and understand that what they want and need does not always match what I think they should want or need.


  1. Lucretia Pruitt says:

    “Run it like you own it, but never forget you don’t” is solid advice. I just happen to like your insights about people.

    Wisdom is often limited to certain areas of our lives – we can be so insightful in certain areas of our lives only to have a blind spot in others. It sounds like Charlie was just as vulnerable to that human condition as the next guy. What makes you someone I really love listening to Rob is that you’re able to learn from someone else’s mistakes. You’re able to cull the good from the not-so-good and apply it down the road.

    That, and you’re just a genuinely good guy.

    • Awe – thank you. I am just trying to learn, as most of us are. The fact I am in a position to be forced to learn a lot quickly is magical 🙂