Tuesday, March 31, 2015

See You At The Top: A Ken Smith Story

I thought I'd lost this last week... and Kellie found it for me.
It brought back some memories. 
I remember approaching him with care as I contemplated how best to mention that the newly announced date of our corporate meeting conflicted with the date I'd requested off for a family vacation. I'd booked the date with friends, and we'd already put down a deposit for a water-front house.

His response to me was immediate and very in-my-face, "That's fine. We don't need you there. Why would you think we'd need you there?" I was stunned. I was the only person to represent the meat and seafood sales of 17 stores. But, according to him, my presence was not necessary. 
The Training I missed.
The slogan was, "See You at the Top."
Ironically, it featured a volcano
I thought maybe he was being sarcastic and trying to guilt me into voluntarily giving up my vacation. But, vacations were hard to come by, and unless he expressly asked me to surrender it... I would hold my ground. I just said, "ok, you're right. Thank you." I tried to walk away, but he said, "Thank me? Thank me for what? I didn't do anything for you."

This man busted my chops like no-one else ever has. He was relentless. I had to learn to eat crow, take public humiliation, and keep my mouth shut. Even if I was right, I was wrong. I lived to make this man look good, even though he made me feel like an angry idiot most every day.

I don't know why... but somehow, I think of him with fondness.  Even if he was a sadistic narcissist. I respected him for his passion. His drive maniacal. He pushed us to be our best. He would not let us see ourselves as second best. He believed himself to the best, and since we were his, we had to be the best as well.

This is a mild representation of my relationship with Ken Smith, District Manager of the Kroger Company, Cincinnati Division. Every conversation I ever had with the man was confrontational. He absolutely shocked me each time I spoke with him. I told myself that it was just his way of professional development. I sincerely wanted to be liked by him. 

I admired Ken Smith. He had been a minister, and he seemed to be a man of high integrity. It was apparent that beneath his caustic and abrasive exterior, he cared for people. I kept telling myself that deep down he like me. After being transferred from our division, I emailed him twice but he never responded. I figured he was just busy. Then I found out that he was responding to the emails of other folks on our team... just not me.

I had to accept the reality that Ken Smith honestly did not like me. I recalled conversations we'd had... he once told me that my problem was that I was too much like him. He told me that I "stepped on my own d***." I was never shy about telling him when I disagreed. He taught me humility. He taught me how to yield to authority. He taught me tact.

There are very few items here in Guatemala that I brought from the U.S., but I made room in my suitcase back in 2013 for a silver coffee mug. It was from Ken Smith. We did a Christmas exchange. He bought for each of his district coordinators. Everyone had personalized gifts... scarves, ties. I had a Starbucks gift card for $20. I was the only person with a gift card.

Ken thought it was funny.

I took that card to Starbucks and I bought a metal mug. They had a special... buy the mug and get a month's free coffee. The following Monday I walked into our district meeting and I made a scene in front of the whole group about how much his gift meant to me... not only did I have a great mug, but Ken's gift would give me free coffee from Starbuck's every day for a month. The value of my gift was over $150.00.

I still have that mug today, and every time I sip from it, I think of you Mr. Ken Smith. Even though you busted my chops every chance you got, and even though you didn't like me... I thank God that I crossed paths with you. God used you to refine me, to take some sharp edges off of me.

You were the type of boss I hope to have only once in a lifetime, and yet I cannot deny that you had a positive impact on who I was to become. You may have been like the King of Babylon, punishing Israel... but like Isreal, God used you to shape me into who I needed to become. 

I don't know if that was your plan, but I chose to think that it was. I am indebted to you Ken Smith. I offer you my home in Guatemala. God is using us here, Ken. You helped me get here. Should you ever want to come down and spend a week, you can stay at my house for no charge. I would love to have you on my turf.

And I'll serve you coffee. In a metal Starbuck's mug. 

Oh... you looked ridiculous this day.
Thank you for this.

P.S. The vacation was fabulous. Thank you.


  1. The see you at the top training/photo is hilariously ironic! God has a sense of humor! The fact that you weren't in this photo... The volcano in the pic, was just a hint...a wink from God, of things to come. On another note, thank God for people who shape and mold us into who we need to be!

    1. Yes, isn't it though? I look back at this and I see God smiling. He has indeed given us His favor in this endeavor.

  2. Chad,
    You and Ken had an odd relationship. It got awkward a lot. That picture of him in the chicken custome brought back some fond memories...

    1. Joe... "It got awkward a lot." Oh man, did it ever.

  3. All I can say is you exemplify the fruit of the Spirit...way more than I ever would. I work with him now but not as directly as you did, so hopefully my fruit won't be found to be on the ripe side lol