Growing up in Memphis, having the right pair of shoes is essential when you are a teenager in school. It could honestly be the difference between being able to hang with the cool kids or getting “checked” the entire day. Checking is a creative- and merciless- way of making fun of someone. One place I always went to get new shoes was the Footlocker in the Southland Mall. The store manager was Michael Thomas, a 6'6" ex-college basketball player who was great at connecting with people. He was very funny, one of those people who never met a stranger. He always knew that most of the people who came to his store did not have the money to pay for many of the shoes he sold, but he always found a creative way of making sure there was an affordable option for everyone, whether it be finding an obscure coupon or finding shoes that may be old but still name brand. He had a heart of gold and was just a joy to be around. Can you imagine someone 6'6" jumping around making people laugh as if he was a clown? That was Mike.
One day when I was 14 and getting a new pair of shoes, my mom asked if he would hire me for a job at Footlocker when I turned 16. “Of course!” he said before adding, “Dominic is a good kid. I think it would be good for him. I can’t be the manager here forever.”
I was thinking to my self that this would be a dream job. I would know when the new shoes came out before anyone at school, and I would get a discount. My mom thought he was just saying that to be nice. I, on the other hand, was thinking, this is going to be great! The day I get that referee shirt is the day I will feel like I have arrived. For two years, anytime I went to the mall I checked on my job. “Mike, you got me when I turn 16 right?” I would say. “I’m waiting on you,” he would respond.
I told everyone I knew. Friends. Family. My teachers at school. I even brought a friend from school because he didn’t believe me. “Hey Mike, tell him that you are going to hire me when I turn 16,” I said. “I already have your shirt in the back!” he said. I gained instant friends after word got back to school.
Then, the day finally came. November 6, 1998. I went to Footlocker and filled out my application, a few days later I had a formal interview, and about two weeks after that I was hired. My first day on the job was Dec 2. 1998. I will never forget that day because I was so proud of myself and I knew I would do a good job. I finally got my shirt. A few minutes after my shift started, Mike pulled me over to the side because he wanted to have a chat with me.
“Dominic, I hired you because you are a decent and smart kid. You are the type of kid that will do something great one day, and I want to be part of that story you are writing for your life”, he said. I stood there nodding excitedly. However, I was always curious how he noticed all of that in a socially awkward black kid who came in occasionally to buy shoes.
I found out quickly that working at Footlocker was more than just getting shoes from the back for people to buy. I had to learn how to conduct transactions, maintain the stockroom, understand how to read the SKU’s to bring out the proper shoe, and even adequate sell tactics to offer value to the customer. Let’s not forget the reason why you only bring out one shoe when people are thinking about buying Jordans. I figured that one out the hard way. I was terrible at everything in the beginning. Eventually, I got the hang of it. Then, I got good at it. So much so that I became one of the best Footlocker sales associates in the city. The company would give out these gold coins worth $50 to associates that went above and beyond when it came to customer service. They were super rare to get. I received seven of those coins in my time at Footlocker. I don’t need to tell you how proud Mike was because he had given me the job and his hunch about me was confirmed.
While I became an excellent employee, my grades at school started to suffer for it. It came to a head one day at work. I had gotten my report card, and my grades were less than stellar. My parents were very disappointed. I came in on my scheduled day and, when I got there, Mike told me to meet him in the back. When I got back there he seemed different. At this point, I had known Mike for about four years and I had never seen his face make the expression I now saw. It was akin to the look a disappointing father would give a son (as if my own father wasn’t scary enough). The fact that he was 6'6" didn’t help.
“Dominic, I heard your grades have been slipping a bit,” he began.
“Yeah, a bit but I will fix it. No problem,” I answered.
“Oh I know, give me your shirt!” he said.
“Excuse me?” I exclaimed.
“Give me your shirt! You are suspended until your grades are back at an acceptable level.”
The job that I had coveted, that I loved, was simply… gone. So with that my days at Footlocker were over…temporarily at least. As I walked to the car, I kept thinking to myself, “How did he know? Why would he care? I’m his top salesperson!”
Out of desperate teenage necessity, I pulled my grades up, and a few months later I was back in stripes. I was so glad to get my shirt again. I missed the discounts, the customers, and my paycheck. My first day back there was Mike, the fun-loving, joke-cracking boss I wanted to remember. We didn’t talk about the reason for my suspension throughout the day, but I knew we would because he had scheduled it so that he and I closed. Closing the store implied several specific duties. Sweep the floor. Straighten the shoes. Refold the shirts. Normally, Mike would immediately count the money in the drawer and prepare bank deposits. On this night, he said that could wait. Mike explained that he was disappointed in me for letting my grades slip and that it was my mom who told him. The flash of anger and betrayal I felt subsided quickly, replaced by shame.
“Dominic, I may not be one of your parents but I am responsible for your development, both here at work and away from it,” he said. “Maybe you will be the manager of this store or even go on to be CEO. Maybe you will decide to do something else. Either way, you have to understand that there are certain things in life that have to be of higher priority than others. Right now, school is more important than a part-time job at a shoe store. Even if we have to take a dip in our sales, which we did, I would never sacrifice your education because of that.”
It was at this point that I understood that Mike was not just trying to make me a great employee, he was teaching me about being a professional and a leader. There were two lessons I took away from Mike that night. The first lesson was what he told me about priorities but the other one I wouldn’t understand until I got older. Great leaders do not only prepare you for what they need you to be at that moment, they also prepare you for when you leave them or even to surpass them. Far too often I see people in leadership positions only develop people sufficiently to make themselves look good. This selfish brand of leadership not only fails to foster a culture of growth but it can also lead to resentment and very low morale.
On the other hand, Mike’s brand of leadership creates a culture that inspires loyalty because it is clear that he is invested in the person and not just in how the person in that role benefits him. Mike was an excellent leader to have in my first job. As an entrepreneur, I have drawn a clear distinction between a leader and a boss. I rejected the latter. As I coach leaders in businesses, schools and other organizations, I will always consider myself under Mike’s leadership coaching tree. I guess he did end up being part of this story…in more ways than one!