MARCH 1990

What's the best way to break in a new executive? Put him to work on the shop floor. If you ask Henry Nasella, he'll tell you few experiences can match it for letting a manager see the company's problems firsthand.

Nasella had been a supermarket executive for two decades when he became president of Staples Inc., a $200-million chain of 40 discount office-supply stores with headquarters in Newton, Mass. He knew nothing about the office-supply business, so he spent a couple of weeks of his first month on the floor of one store, unloading delivery trucks, stocking shelves, and working the cash registers.

"I got a good handle on what we did well and didn't do well," says Nasella. "The things we didn't do well came through loud and clear."

When he took over operating responsibility a week later, Nasella was up to speed on how the business worked -- a process, he says, that would have taken many months if he had stayed in the office.