Be Gumby: Leadership Lessons From The Container Store

Do you remember Gumby?

You know…the adorable green clay figure who could bend and stretch every which way. Made famous by the (at the time) amazing power of stop motion clay animation.

The general premise of the show, which ran for thirty-five years, was that he always managed to find himself in a difficult situation. But, of course, he stretched and bent his way out of every predicament.

That’s who The Container Store wants their people to be. One of their mantras is “Be Gumby.”

It’s a memorable way to remind their team members to bend over backwards for their customers and each other.

I’d never heard of The Container Store until a recent trip to Indianapolis. As the name suggests, it’s an entire store dedicated to…you guessed it, containers. (Men, I know, this makes no sense to us, but my wife loves it. And I will admit there are a few cool things in there…you know, manly type things.)

Retail is a tough business. I like to joke that I worked in retail once and that is why I haven’t worked in retail twice. (Hat tip to Mitch Hedberg for the inspiration for that joke). The average retail worker might have to deal with out of stock items, angry customers, credit card issues, and countless other issues in a single hour. All while on their feet and often with no break for hours.

It’s often an environment that lends itself to rude workers and poor service.

The norm: Lip Service

While many companies brag about their excellent service, most of it is “lip service.” What little service you might actually receive feels forced, as if delivered by a robot. But when Garrett Boone and Kip Tindell founded The Container Store in 1978, they wanted something different. No robots, thank you. And definitely no rulebooks.

They give their team members freedom. Freedom to make decisions. Freedom to trust their gut. Freedom to solve customers’ problems. Freedom to succeed. Freedom to create raving fans.

It starts with training

In the average store, customer service reps receive seven hours of customer service training. Seven. Less than one full day is devoted to training them on how to handle angry customers, solve problems, and create happy customers.

At The Container Store, it’s 241 hours. Thirty entire days. That’s thirty-four times more than the average store.

But this training isn’t indoctrination. It’s not procedural. Remember, their mantra is “Be Gumby” and they threw out the rulebook more than thirty years ago.

This training is all about empowerment. Team members learn together and grow together.

Open leadership

The leadership at The Container Store also does something else that sets them apart in a dramatic way:

They share all of the company’s financials with their team…their entire team.

This creates an environment of open leadership, something that I feel is critical to a company’s success today.

When they bring on a new team member, they are bringing on a new partner in their venture, not just an employee. They add people who want to be a part of something big and exciting.

Knowing the details of the company like that further empowers each team member to understand how his or her role affects the company. The feeling of unimportance diminishes and teammates work together in greater ways.

The bottom line

What’s the result of all this investment in training, flexibility, empowerment, and openness?

How about these nuggets:

  • The average retail company has 50% annual turnover. The Container Store’s is 15%.
  • They’ve been on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list more than ten times.
  • Since its founding more than thirty years ago, they’ve experienced double-digit growth every single year. How many other $700 million-plus a year companies can say that?

In short, by empowering and informing their team, The Container Store has created an army of passionate, effective, and loyal advocates for the company.

Are you creating the same environment for your team? If not, what do you need to change today?

This is a guest post by Matt McWilliams. Matt is from the south but reluctantly lives in Fort Wayne, IN. He blogs about personal growth, business, and leadership at and tweets at @MattMcWilliams2 (don’t forget the 2 or you get an egg).

By the way, I’m always looking for guest posters. If you would like to guest post, you can find the guidelines at An Invitation To Guest Post.

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