I Think You re Playing God

I Think You're Playing God

Gale Duff was married to her first husband for nearly 21 years. Swept off her feet and in defiance of both parents and friends , she had married an excellent dancer who was headed for a noncom navy career. Despite her promising high school record, college was never an option as she gave birth to three boys and established as many new households in her first six years of navy life.

Then she was alone, her husband off on a noncombat tour of Vietnam. Shortly after his departure , her father passed away. As Gale was an only child, her mother offered to move in and help with the children. This allowed Gale to begin working. When her husband returned from Nam and they were transferred to Columbus, Ohio, on a recruiting assignment, she had made a fateful decision. She would always love and find time for her boys, but she now felt the need for some kind of careersomething that would help her grow as a person. It was in this frame of mind that one day she looked around the J. C. Penney store where she was working on the sales floor and thought, "Am I already there?"

Because of the peripatetic military life, she knew she must join a national company. More important to her was the company's reputation. She had grown up equating the Penney name with quality goods, affordable prices, and thoughtful service. But it was after becoming a Penney employee and absorbing the company's values that she became truly captivated. A career with the J. C. Penney Company seemed like the answer.

Unlike many of her colleagues on the floor, she made a point of studying the organization. She was struck by the company's core values, its long and storied history of doing the right thing. Even to the extent that it may have been unpopular or uncomfortable or even costly, the company came through. Its people seemed to come through. There seemed to be fundamental unity at every level. And, abetted by a record of social responsibility, JCPenney had won a place in the lives of millions of Americans. To Gale, this seemed to resonate among the company's " associates "and, in particular, the so-called Penney people, those talented individuals who had dedicated their entire careers to the company and its principles. A Penney person, she decided, was what she wanted to be.

The problem she faced was that the company accepted only college graduates into its management trainee program. After preliminary screenings, all applicants with potential were finally interviewed by managers of larger Penney storessuch as the man who ran the Columbus store where Gale presently worked. His name was Charlie Collins, and he would not soon forget Gale Duff's frontal assault.

"I'm only seeing you, Gale, because of your record in this store, which is outstanding."

"Thank you, Mr. Collins."

"But I'm afraid we have to turn down your application because you don't have the educational requirement."

"Why? Why do you?"

"It's the policy, Gale. I didn't make it, but I have to abide by it."

"Do you?"

"What do you mean?"

"I thought Penney managers had a lot of power."

"We do. To a point."

"What point is that, Mr. Collins? Is it the point where you have to turn somebody down that you know would succeed as a Penney person, turn her down just because of some stupid technicality?"

Collins drew a breath . "The point, Gale, is that we have reasons for rules. They don't just drop out of the sky."

"Well, I didn't just drop out of the sky, either. I walked into this store and performed as well or better than any management trainee you've ever had, because you can't get better reviews and appraisals than I get."

"That may be true, and I'm sorry, Gale. But my hands are tied."

She rose and insolently pointed at him. "I don't really think so, Mr. Collins. I think you're playing God and I don't think it's fair at all! And I had thought that this was a fair company!" Without another word, she turned and marched out of Collins's office and past his puzzled secretary.

A moment later the manager appeared in his doorway wearing an odd smile. "Well," he sighed, looking in the direction of Gale Duff's exit. "There goes someone I suppose we're going to have to bend some rules for."

Some weeks later Collins shook her hand and said, "Welcome to the program, Gale." He nodded and said, "So, we did reach out for you finally, didn't we? That's what Penney people doas I trust you will yourself some day."

"I will, Mr. Collins. Thank you." The year was 1969 and she was 28 years old.

Gale was a star trainee from the beginning. And a lucky one as well. Because her faulty application had made waves through the district , regional, and even New York personnel offices, her name was known. As a result, her stellar appraisals won her better and more frequent reassignments.

Bill Howell (as he was then known) had risen up through the Western Region and in 1979, now in New York, was keeping an eye on Gale Duff as possibly the best emerging talent in the West. She was presently in charge of women's merchandising for the region's 300 stores. And, he knew, she also had a problem with her immediate superior in Buena Park, Bill Hovey. Duff had learned a lot from Hovey, who was a superb merchant. Their relationship otherwise had always been touchy. The boss was quite demanding, which was fine with Duff because she loved to respond to challenges. But Hovey was also frequently unreasonable in his demands, wanting everything to turn on his whim and by his clock. That was not so fine.

Every week, Gale had to spend Monday through Thursday on the road visiting stores in all of the region's districts. It was lonely , demanding work and difficult for her as a mother. Complicating this were office messages piling up in her absence, half of them marked "Important" or "Urgent." The first thing she tried to do on Friday mornings was return the calls, but complicating that was the presence of Hovey. The boss would often pointedly look in on her during these calls, catching her eye and gesturing obviously at his watch. Clearly, he felt that he , not her call list, should be Gale's immediate Friday morning priority.

But she was working for Hovey, advancing his agenda and policing his districts and, in her opinion, responding to a slew of important and urgent messages served him better and took precedence over the man's latest musings. One Friday morning it all came to a head. Hovey camped in her doorway and began tapping his watch and loudly clearing his throat. On the phone, Gale finally said, "Hey, I'm sorry, but something has just come up and I'll have to call you back! " And she slammed the receiver down. Then she stood up and seethed, "What is it, Bill?"

He pointed at her stack of messages. "The message on top, Gale, said to please see me ASAP."

"And I was going to see you ASAP."

"But there you are gassing on the phone instead."


"What would you call it?"

"Doing my job, that's what I'd call it."

Hovey was getting hot under the collar himself. "Well, we would seem to have a little communication problem, wouldn't we?"

"Yes, we would," she burned.

"And I can't help but be struck by an irony, Gale." Hovey was a man who liked the sound of his own voice. He continued , indicating her telephone. "A telephone, of all things, seems to be the cause of this communication problem."

As if all at once possessed of a radiant truth, she regarded him with an almost grateful expression. "Oh. Well in that case, there really isn't any problem at all. I apologize. I was returning store calls, which was a mistake. So here! " She turned quickly, reaching down and yanking the phone cord out of the wall with both hands and yelling " Sorry! " Then she grabbed the phone, turned, and threw it at Hovey with all her might. He ducked aside as the instrument put a hole in the Sheetrock inches from the doorjamb.

Besides good reflexes, Bill Hovey had other redeeming qualities, including a nicely skewed sense of humor. He now straightened up and exaggerated shooting his cuffs. Then he said, "Well, and aren't we being a little edgy today." He then turned and paused by a wide-eyed secretary, saying, "She just threw the phone at me"as though he had just realized it. Not knowing what else to do, the secretary began to laugh . Hovey returned to his office laughing. And Galenow with the missile in her handsappeared in her doorway laughing.

Not long after this (and possibly in self-defense), Hovey recommended Duff for promotion to the anchor store managing job that was such a necessary career stepping-stone.

Celebration of Fools. An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of JCPenney
Celebration of Fools: An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of JCPenney
ISBN: 0814471595
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 177
Authors: Bill Hare

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