‘If you have a seat at the table, speak up’

Ann-Marie Campbell rises from Home Depot cashier to a top job.

Starting out as a part-time cashier at Home Depot, Ann-Marie Campbell climbed the ladder at the world’s largest home-improvement chain to become one of its top executives.

Fortune magazine listed Campbell, president of the Atlanta-based retailer’s Southern Division, as one of the 50 most powerful women in business. She runs a unit of nearly 700 stores, 100,000-plus employees and more than $23 billion in annual revenue.

Campbell, 49, was born and raised on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. What she learned there from a family member provided the foundation for her career. And what she learned after relocating to Miami — including from critical, eye-opening mistakes — built that 30-year career.

Q: Who helped shape you early in life?

A: I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, as the youngest of four children and the only girl. My father died when I was only a year and a half. He was killed in a car accident when he was 26.

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My mom was 22. I spent most of my time in an all-girls, Catholic boarding school or with my grandmother. Because my mom got widowed so young, my grandmother was more of the parental person for me.

My grandmother was divorced and she had 10 children herself. She never finished high school. She started selling lace on the side of the road and then grew that into a multimillion-dollar business — a retail store selling mostly furniture and appliances.

When I went home from school during Christmas and summers, I was always in her store and under her skirt.

Q: What did she teach you?

A: She was a powerhouse to me. She got up early and stayed up late. I learned a lot about commitment to family and commitment to winning. She had very high standards.

When I was 7 or 8, she asked me to order children’s shoes for the store. She gave me last year’s list to use and then I called in the order for about 30 or 40 pairs of shoes.

The next day, she looked at what I had done and got upset. I didn’t account for a year of growth that the children would experience between last year and this year.

“You always need to think ahead,” she said. “Think about your customers, connect with them and pay attention to details.”

That lesson has been key for me in retail.

Q: Any other lesson?

A: She instilled a lot of confidence in me.

I learned that you can accomplish so much, no matter what the limitations may be. You just gotta believe to achieve.

Q: After graduating from boarding school, you went to live with your mother in Miami and attended college. What happened?

A: I got a part-time job as a cashier at Home Depot in North Miami Beach on April 1, 1985.

I didn’t expect to be in retail all my life, but retail was ingrained in me from my grandmother. I enjoyed interacting with people and I got opportunities.

Q: How did you take advantage of those opportunities?

A: One day, a vice president came to the store and a big group of employees huddled around him. I didn’t know who he was, but I went over.

He asked a question of the group — I don’t remember what it was — and everyone just stood there.

So I raised my hand and said, “I have the answer.”

Later, when he was walking out of the store, he asked the manager who I was. That’s how I got on the radar.

The lesson is that so many people who know so much just stay quiet. If you have a seat at the table, speak up. Put yourself out there.

When you are in a group, you are there because you can add value. Before a meeting, make a commitment to yourself that you’re going to do that. Don’t go with a negative tone.

Bonus questions

Q: How did you begin to rise through the ranks of such a big company?

A: That vice president would periodically ask the store manager about me. I got a job as a department supervisor in paint, supervising much older and more experienced men. They were upset that I got the job and they didn’t treat me right.

My way to deal with that was to show them I could do the job. I mixed paint, did the other required things, and worked very hard to become part of the team.

It impressed them that I could do all the parts of the job and I earned their respect.

I learned an important lesson from that. Positions can command authority, but the best way to lead is to earn people’s respect. Focus on the purpose of your job, not your position.

Q: Did you have trouble leading others who may not have had the drive that you did?

A: Initially, it was tough for me to adapt as a manager. I had unreasonable expectations of others. I was impatient. I made tons of mistakes.

When I was a store manager, I got a 360 evaluation. I got good boss feedback, good peer feedback, but I got hammered by my direct reports. I read the comments and literally cried.

They said I had them under so much pressure they didn’t have time to breathe. They said I was too moody.

I held a staff meeting and listened to them for three-and-a-half hours. I never interrupted or defended myself.

Then I told them my commitment was going to be to trust them, which I clearly was not doing.

Q: What happened?

A: I pulled back and gave them space. The environment got lighter. I learned how to trust people to do their jobs.

A year and a half later, I was promoted to district manager because those guys and gals did exactly what they knew how to do and made the store so much better.

Q: What’s the takeaway?

A: What works for you individually doesn’t when you are leading a lot of people who come from different backgrounds and experiences.

Every person or store cannot perform at the same level.

It’s about building a team and giving each member an opportunity to maximize their performance. It’s about creating winning cultures.

Q: How did you rise from middle management to get a job running a third of the company’s stores?

A: You can’t do it alone. You have to have sponsors who believe in you. If I need a sponsor or mentor, I ask.

When I meet with my boss, I talk about my team. I don’t self-promote. I’m very intentional about promoting members of my team.

Finally, in meetings, if there are 10 middle managers there and only five speak up, why would a leader select a person that is not engaged, even if he or she is a good worker? Doing your work well is just the ticket to the game. It’s not the game.

Q: What criteria do you use to promote managers?

A: The higher up you go, the skill set shifts. It’s not just about working hard.

I look at four things as people try to move up through the organization:

— Do they have a results orientation?

— Do they have the ability to select, retain, assess and manage talent?

— Do they have the communication skills to get buy-in for a vision?

— Are they self-developing as the marketplace changes?

Q: What did you learn from Home Depot co-founders Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank?

A: I learned a lot from Bernie about getting people to commit to something bigger than themselves.

He was such an inspirational leader. He always said when he talked to supervisors and managers: “You are the Bernie. You are the person who makes a difference in that associate’s life.”

From Arthur I learned that individual performance only creates stats. Focus on making sure you have a winning team. That creates sustainable brands.

Campbell’s remarks were edited for length and clarity.

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