Ruby in Houston

Old as my grandmother, but some of the teenagers could barely keep up with her ...

As a young man, fresh out of school, I had the amazingly good fortune to work with a delightful lady named Ruby Shane. Ruby was about 3 times my age when I met her yet had more energy and all around enthusiasm than many of her co-workers, most of whom were even younger than her new manager. Ruby has been gone from this world for quite a few years now. This is for you, Ruby, wherever you are. And thank you again for being there for the new guy.

Right after getting my Marketing degree from NIU (Northern Illinois University) I went to work for my stepfather. By this time he had established a chain of cafeteria-type operations in shopping malls throughout the country; he offered me a job managing one in Houston, Texas.

This was a big deal for me: I’d been slogging through the snow in Illinois for quite a few years now. Here I was, off to a whole new life in a whole new city. And as a “boss” no less. I had worked in food service during my undergraduate years, including some limited management experience, but this would be the real thing.

There were actually two operations at the location I was to take over, with something like 30 or 40 employees in all. Not an enormous operation but considerably larger than what I was used to – and now I would be in charge. Plus, of course, I had moved to a new part of the country where I didn’t know a soul. I was excited about the opportunity but at the same time pretty apprehensive – was I going to be in over my head?

I never found out exactly what happened to the former manager but there were rumors about alcohol and related issues; it seemed that he had pretty much been out of the picture for quite some time, at least a few months. The operation had deteriorated but it was holding together – Ruby was acting as an unofficial (and unpaid) manager to keep the place going.

Ruby was somewhere in her 60s when I first met her; one of those seemingly ageless Southern women that can pretty much do whatever needs to be done. Even better: she had the most delightful attitude and overall approach to things – people liked her, trusted her, and respected her. She was no pushover – if one of the staff (most of whom were part-time, local high school or college students) slacked off Ruby let them know about it in no uncertain terms. But she was fair.

So here I come, young wiseguy from the North, fresh out of school – and the owner’s kid (well, stepkid) no less, to take over. I found out later that many of the employees, including Ruby, were somewhat apprehensive about my arrival. Not knowing what to expect I think they were ready for just about anything.

Frequently, when a new manager takes over an operation, he or she will rather quickly begin making changes and more or less throwing his weight around. The stated purpose of this is usually to let everyone know who’s in charge. This has always struck me as kind of stupid, as well as disingenuous – employees are generally well aware of management changes.

I not only did not feel any need to make any big production about the fact of my newly-minted authority – I was grateful, extremely so, to have Ruby there while I figured out which end was up. I realized right away that Ruby had the respect of the employees. If I could make an ally of her it could very well help me enormously in my quest to learn the operation and eventually improve things.

This might sound somewhat manipulative but it wasn’t. I genuinely liked Ruby from the start, and I could tell immediately that she was doing a terrific job under far from ideal circumstances. My approach? It was simple: I was completely honest with Ruby about my plans and how much I needed her help, and what a great job I thought she was doing.

I also got her a raise and title so she was officially an Assistant Manager. I asked her outright if she resented the fact that they hadn’t made her the manager. She laughed and assured me that she wouldn’t have taken it if they had offered it. I am pretty sure she meant it.

We decided that Ruby would continue opening the place in the morning and staying until midafternoon or so; I would come in around lunch time and work until closing. Of course, as “the boss” I could have simply taken the somewhat preferable day shift and let it go at that, but there were some good reasons for the approach I took instead.

For one thing, much of the deterioration of the business had occurred during the evening hours. Ruby was great but she was only one person; she usually left in the midafternoon after working a full shift. From then on the place was pretty much on automatic pilot. And it showed.

By working the evening shift I would be able to get an idea of what the problems were and take steps to correct them. Not rocket science, it seemed like an obvious approach.

But a larger benefit was that this made it clear to Ruby (and everybody else) that I was serious about valuing Ruby’s help and being willing to do what it took to improve the operation. Ruby had family at home, and she was getting on in years; she was pretty adamant about not wanting the evening shift. If I had insisted I would have either lost her entirely or at least lost much of her good attitude and cooperation.

I could have just worked the day shift myself along with Ruby – which I did, from time to time, but these were the exceptions. This would have left the evening problems pretty much in place, and would likely have given me the reputation of a talker rather than a doer. Not good.

The great thing I learned early in my career about dealing with people was this: if you are fortunate enough to be in a situation where both parties are genuinely doing the best they can, with a reasonable amount of goodwill and consideration for the other person, the situation can just keep working more or less indefinitely. This was how it worked with Ruby.