Why You Should Hire Retail Managers Instead of Harvard MBA’s

I didn’t graduate college. 

I enrolled twice at two different schools, but never finished the first semester either time. College just wasn’t for me.


I was learning so much more at my job in retail than I was in the classroom.

Today I will argue why I think recruiters should be focusing on hiring retail managers instead of graduates of fancy MBA programs. 

Retail managers are among the hardest working leaders out there and they need a full tool belt of skills to succeed. I would hire a retail manager to lead my business over a graduate of an ivy league MBA program any day and you should too.

They use Influence without authority

Although there are currently talks of raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour (which I disagree with) the current mandated minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Working in retail teaches you how to influence and motivate a teenager working their first job, without using authority. 

Try and lead these employees as you would in a company with folks making north of $60k per year and they just won’t show up for their next shift. The pay check isn’t the motivator for them coming into work. Instead the culture you create is what keeps them coming back to work. Retail employees can get a job making $7.25 per hour or more anywhere they want. To be successful you need to inspire them and help them reach their dreams.

“EntreLeaders understand that ultimately the only power they can use to grow a quality team is the power of persuasion. Persuasion is pulling the rope and positional leadership is pushing the rope. And we all know you can’t push a rope. If you want employees, then boss them around; if you want team members, explain why you do what you do. If they won’t do what you ask, explain it again and again. Then, if they are simply contrary, they have to work somewhere else. But don’t lead with threats and fear.”

EntreLeadership, by Dave Ramsey

They have real world marketing experience

While Harvard Business School is teaching its student’s marketing in a classroom, the retail manager is learning it in real time.

“The objectives of this course are to demonstrate the role of marketing in the company; to explore the relationship of marketing to other functions; and to show how effective marketing builds on a thorough understanding of buyer behavior to create value for customers.” Source: Harvard Business School MBA Required Curriculum

Walk past the same stack of computer monitors on Black Friday more than once and none have sold? The retail manager knows they need to quickly change the signage or move the bulk stack into a different location. They don’t need to conduct a SWOT analysis as the cohort at Harvard is learning in their strategy class. Instead they will conduct a quick experiment and get immediate feedback. 

The Harvard student is sitting in his The Entrepreneurial Manager (TEM) course while the retail manager is building an end cap to help move the new fitness watch that isn’t selling, leading a team of over 100 employees, and strategizing how to hire more females and bilingual employees to the team. While doing this they are keeping their labor spend within a few minutes of their target and managing the budgets on individual line items on a PNL of over 25 million dollars per year. 

They are experts in customer service

I think that everyone in this country should be required to work a customer service job for a short time. A retail manager intersects with thousands of customers every single day and quickly learn which behaviors work and which do not. The trouble with a classroom is it’s all theoretical. 

While I was working at a store in Benton Harbor a customer was raising their voice and using profanity against one of my co-workers. Since I noticed this was happening I quickly approached the customer to diffuse the situation. I told the woman that I was going to be helping her now, asked her to please not use profanity or raise her voice in my family friendly store, and asked her, “What can I do to help you?”

How did she respond?

She started screaming and punching me in the chest.

These are the types of scenarios you only encounter on a retail floor and I bet they don’t teach that one in schools.

They’ve hired thousands of employees

Over the course of almost 20 years in retail I hired thousands of employees. Not all of them were good and many of them turned out to be awful. Due to the seasonal nature of Thanksgiving through Christmas and the typical turnover in the retail industry, I hired on average 50-100 new people per year. And this isn’t uncommon. Managers in most industries hire one or two new people per month.

Retail managers have the experience to know if someone is going to be a good fit within 30 seconds. When I conduct an interview I know before we even make it into my office if I’m going to hire them. The interview is an opportunity for me to confirm my hypothesis or for them to surprise me. That’s it. It is basically a formality, but becomes a great opportunity for me to inundate a future employee with my company culture.

No one can accomplish more with less labor

Retail managers are not only excellent judges of talent, but they can can spot an employee wasting company time from across an entire building.

They know how to optimize their labor. Gone are the days when a retail store is full of ten employees per department. Nowadays, one employee has to perform the job of at least five. Employees don’t get to sit around and wait for customers to find them. They have to stay busy. Managers use cliche phrases like “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean” and encourage their team to use downtime checklists to stay busy. 

Since leaving retail and beginning to work as a consultant I’m often fascinated at how much time the employees at the companies I work with waste. Decisions that would be made in retail on the fly while standing up are debated over for weeks. They spend half or more of each day sitting in brain storming meetings where everyone leaves without any decisions being made and discuss the same topics without taking action every week.

This would never fly in retail. Retail managers know how to make a decision quickly and to stick with it until it is proven to be a poor one. They know how to handle a complex customer issue, answer a quick question, write a schedule, train a new employee, dust a baseboard, plan a new product launch, and sit on a conference call… All at the same time. 

Retail managers are expert coaches

Only the military does a better job than retail managers at training their employees. Ask anyone in retail which departments they’ve worked in and you’ll have to wait a while for them to list of practically every department in the building. It is impossible to be a successful retail manager and not know how to perform every job function. The truck still comes and needs to be broken down and received even if your warehouse employee calls off sick, you need to be able to fix complicated customer service issues even when your customer service manager is on maternity leave, and you can’t neglect a customer that has questions about remote starts just because your car installation technician went home for the day.

This experience allows retail managers to lead by example and constantly be learning something new. The culture in retail encourages everyone in the building to learn everyone else’s job responsibilities and the customer are the beneficiaries. 

It’s true that retail is often a sink or swim environment, but for the interested employee there is always someone around that can teach them the ropes and help them get up and running. A retail manager is an expert at spending 30 seconds coaching and employee resulting in them doubling their productivity for the rest of their shift. They can grab an employee to shadow them for the sale of an entire kitchen package while keeping an eye on their entire building. 

Try to find someone that works harder

During my career at Best Buy I was scheduled six ten-hour days per week from November through early January. Many crucial weeks such as the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas I was scheduled for 12 hour days. 

There is not an employee in the building that can point their finger at a manager in retail and say that they are working longer or harder than them. Is that the same in your industry? 

The good news is there is so much work that needs to be done in a day that these days fly by and you end up working a couple hours longer than you were scheduled. The MBA students would crumble under this work schedule and a retail manager does it every single week.

While MBA students are quoting Cal Newport’s Deep Work principles (which is a great book!) the retail managers sold and rang out ten TVs, hired four employees, wrote a KPI email to their district staff, lead a team meeting, and rearranged four end-caps. Finishing all of this and more without even breaking a sweat. 

“The big deal here is to remember that the very things you want from a leader are the very things the people you are leading expect from you. You must intentionally become more of each of these every day to grow yourself and your business. And to the extent you’re not doing that, you’re failing as a leader.”

EntreLeadership, by Dave Ramsey


For almost two decades I managed retail PNLs of more than 20 million in annual revenue and lead teams of 100 employees. To this day the Best Buy values run deep within my veins:

  • Learn from challenge and change
  • Unleash the power of your people
  • Show respect, humility, and integrity
  • Have fun while being the best

My team was lead without the need for authority. Rarely did I write an employee up or threaten their job, instead I learned how motivate them in different ways and create an environment for them be excited to come to work. I launched, marketed, and sold new products ranging from smart watches, GPS devices, and iPhones to washers and dryers, TVs, and remote starts gaining real time feedback on what worked and what didn’t. 

The value of good customer service was a lesson I learned through the millions of customer interactions my team facilitated and I had a great group of employees because like all retail managers I had the opportunity to hire and train thousands of employees.

For those of you in the terrific position to choose leaders for your company I suggest looking for a retail manager to hire. And for the reader that is debating going back to school to get a job in business, think about taking a job in retail instead. You will not only get paid, but you will learn valuable leadership skills that will transfer to all industries.

What about you? Do you agree? Please share your thoughts in the comments below! I read them all.

Feature image courtesy of Mike Petrucci.

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