You’ve probably never heard of Byron Lionel Kohlbusch from Hermann, Mo. He wrote plenty of “poison pen” corporate memos but never any famous business books. Byron was a gifted manager, who groomed great salespeople in unconventional ways. This Thanksgiving, as I reflected on my career, I was grateful for the lessons he taught me.
Here’s how he navigated spittoons, distracted driving, newbie employees, and other workplace dynamics.
Be creative with what you have
Byron led The Travelers’ Employee Benefits sales team in Knoxville, Tenn. Our sales territory included coal mines and logging camps in East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. We had white-collar clients, too, but let’s just say most sales reps in our company were not requesting a tour of duty in Appalachia. They wanted Philadelphia, White Plains, N.Y., and San Francisco — areas sizzling with big, glamorous companies.
Our territory called for some creativity. Jack, our top salesperson, took his clients and prospects on hunting trips instead of wining and dining them. With Byron’s permission, Jack removed the speakers from the rear dashboard of his company sedan to create breathing holes for hunting dogs. Jack’s dogs traveled in the trunk during his sales calls. His spittoon, perched between the driver and passenger spots on the front bench seat, added to the unusual aroma in the car.
I’m quite sure chewing tobacco and hunting were not in the sales training manual. It was also against the rules to modify a company vehicle.
Adjust rules to fit your business environment
Big companies often have extensive rules and procedures, created by someone in a home office in a different city. For example, we had a strict dress code — suits and ties for men; suits or dresses for women. I showed up to an insurance agent’s office in a black suit and pumps. He shook my hand, looked me up and down, and said, “You can’t wear that. Not with my clients. They won’t trust you. If your company makes you wear that, you need to keep jeans, a flannel shirt, and work boots in the car and change at a gas station before we go to appointments.”
Byron taught us to throw out the rule book (not ethics, just procedural-type rules when they don’t make sense for the situation). And he covered for us by defending our rule-breaking in witty, barbed memos to our home office.
Let young employees fly the plane
Byron also believed that you can’t learn to swim properly just by watching a swimmer or flapping around in shallow water. I had only a year of experience when he gave me the file for his largest account and said, “I’d like you to handle this client’s needs. I have only one request of you. If you have a question or don’t understand how to do something, don’t guess. Don’t try to muddle through it. Ask for help. Got it?”
I was simultaneously exhilarated and terrified. What if I did something wrong that caused Byron to lose the account? But I quickly found my sea legs and became a proficient swimmer.
Laugh about mistakes
Though Jack was our star salesperson, he may have held the record for most company car accidents. In the era before GPS devices, Jack looked at a file folder for directions to his next appointment, turned the corner while reading, and hit a parked car.
I don’t remember Byron getting angry with any of us, for anything. We made business mistakes, driving mistakes and personal mistakes — including ones that might have been career-limiting elsewhere. He asked us what we learned, what we’d do differently next time, and moved on. The stories only lived on as office lore that we’d chuckle about in the months and years to come. The lesson? It’s OK to fail. It’s part of learning.
Be a family
Our whole sales team would go out for morning coffee at least once a week, sometimes once a day. We laughed together, shared funny tales from our personal lives, and talked about the hard stuff, too. When you know each other, you can tell if someone is having a down day. You cheer for each other and celebrate each other’s wins. And you want to help each other.
Happy Thanksgiving, Byron Kohlbusch! You taught us employee engagement and how to be flexible. I am grateful.
What about you? In the comments, tell about a manager who made a difference for you. What lessons did you learn that you are grateful for today?
Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, unabashedly challenges the status quo. Read her posts at Lead Change Group and check out the free “straight talk” manager assessment at ManagingPeopleBetter.com.
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