How to Clear Your Building When it’s on Fire
Four steps to a strong leadership foundation
On a clear Spring day, our store was buzzing. The fitting rooms were full, and customers leisurely browsed through the store in search of attire that would fit the new season. Early afternoon light poured in from the giant windows that wrapped around our building.
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As I helped a cashier finish up a transaction, I noticed a firefighter approaching me. He wore a uniform, but he wasn’t in the whole firefighter coat and helmet. He had on a t-shirt, work-pants, and was carrying a walkie-talkie.
“Hi,” I greeted him.
“Hey,” he said softly. “There’s a fire next door, and we need you to clear the building as soon as possible, okay? Like, when you get a chance.”
I thought he might be kidding at first, because he was so mellow about it. Then, I quickly realized he was serious.
“Oh, um, okay, for sure,” I told him. “I’ll let the staff know.”
We deal with crises daily in retail, some bigger than others. Still, when you’re a confident leader and your communication is on point, you can guide your team through anything. Throughout my twenty-five-year career in retail, I’ve witnessed a lot of crazy stuff. As I became a more practiced leader, I learned how to guide people through instability and care for myself.
I cleared my bustling 10,000-square-foot building in about five minutes. Here’s how I did it and what set me up to do it so quickly.
Presence on the floor
It was my hour to run the floor, so that’s what I was doing. I guided my team, rezoned people, watched for breaks, and talked to everybody. I wasn’t in the back checking email or cleaning the break room; I was on the floor.
Leaving things for another time can be challenging, but you must. Sometimes when you dash to the back, something catches your eye, and you want to take care of it immediately – wait to do that. Delegate it to someone else, or do it when you’re not running the floor. Running a floor well means being present, in the moment, with everyone there.
I’d worked with my team for a couple of years, and they trusted me. Trust is evolutionary. It will take some time, but you can speed up the process with some focus. Quick ways you can build trust with your team:
- Listen (without interruption)
- Follow through
- Work alongside them
- No favorites allowed. Have a favorite drink. Do not have favorite employees.
Presence is where trust is forged. If you are present with your team through the good and the bad, they will trust you. It doesn’t work out too well when store leaders try to manage a team from their office.
They will trust you quickly if you treat them equally and do not shy away from the hard work they do (climbing ladders, sweeping floors, etc.).
Tell your team about everything. If you have to cut hours, tell them why. Transferring out product? Tell them where it’s going. Leaving the store to walk the mall and recruit? Tell them that too.
Personal stuff about people, keep confidential. Everything else is just information about how a business works. Anyone can learn that. If your boss calls, any leader that answers the phone should be able to answer her questions.
Trust your leaders with the information about the business. They need to know it and can handle it accordingly.
Whether you realize it or not, people are watching you all day. Your staff is watching you to see how to talk to customers, other team members, and how you handle stress. They want to learn from you.
If everything in your day calls for running and yelling, your team may not take you seriously. When something actually is a big deal (like the store’s on fire), they may not move with urgency or listen closely.
When you remain calm, your team remains calm. That is the ultimate goal. As soon as the firefighter left, I lowered the music in the store. I told my team over the walkie that the fire department had asked us to clear the building.
“Tell your customers, put anything they’d like to buy on hold, and offer to take phone numbers. We’ll call them when we can reopen.” I said.
The staff calmly alerted our customers, and they left in an orderly fashion. Some were bummed out and asked to buy their items quickly, but we apologized and said no.
“For your safety, you gotta go.”
Afterward, we camped out in front of the store (firefighter’s directions) until we were cleared to go back in. The store next to us had a small electrical fire. Thankfully, the fire turned out to be minor, with little damage. I was proud of how the team stepped up, followed directions, and safely got everyone out of the building. Your team will develop good habits when you practice solid leadership skills daily. Good habits lead to the best possible outcome when facing a crisis. Be present on the floor when it’s your hour to lead sales. Develop trust throughout the team. Communicate with your staff about everything possible and remain calm. These four key points will be the foundation for any situation that arises.
Sure, some days will feel like the building is on fire, even if it isn’t. That’s okay; you can handle anything with a solid leadership foundation.
Article written by Kit Campoy Kit is an experienced retail leader, now turned freelancer. Kit can be contacted here.
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