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What A Hardware Store Taught Me About Business And Leadership

I was recently asked in an interview about my business role models. Several names came to mind: Stephen Covey for his principle-based leadership, Mary Kay Ash for her clear priorities and perseverance, Marcus Buckingham for his relentless pursuit of strengths-focused workplaces.

But two people I consider among my greatest role models aren’t names you’ll find on the bookshelves or in case studies. Joe & Flo were exceptional examples of how to lead a business – and a life – in a purposeful, difference-making way.

They were also extraordinary grandparents.

My grandparents owned a successful hardware store in northern Minnesota for years. When I turned 13, I lived with them for the summer and “worked” at the store – with my end-of-summer paycheck being a new bike. I learned a great deal about retail operations that summer, but the more significant lessons sinking in wouldn’t be realized until much later.

Many of their customers would come in daily, or several times a week, sometimes only to purchase a few nails or a sponge. These customers, whose order might total 15 cents, were treated with just as much respect and consideration as those buying lawn equipment and lumber. My grandparents knew them by name, asked about their children, and truly made their shopping experience a welcoming, enjoyable time of connection.

People walked away feeling better than they had when they walked in. Not always common in the hardware business, but standard practice for Joe and Flo.

I’ve come to realize that their business – just like any of ours – was so much more than a hardware store. It was a place for connection, a community-building space, an opportunity for individuals to feel like they mattered – like someone cared. Because my grandparents truly did care.

This was not a strategy for business growth. This was a way of life.

As an entrepreneur myself for over 10 years, I marvel at how – despite the trends and innovative ‘new’ practices uncovered each year – my strongest business lessons return to the basics of connection I learned from my grandparents.

I imagine that if I could talk with them about this now, they would tell me something like this: We each have an opportunity every single day to let others know they are important, that they matter. Treat each person as a fellow human being first, a friend second, and then a customer.

Whether you are a leader in your business, home, or volunteer organization, this guiding principle can serve you well. When we focus on making a true connection and raising others up, we can uplift one person at a time – and ultimately change the world.

How do you make a connection with those you serve? What will you do today to let each person you encounter feel like he or she is the most important?

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