Monday, July 16, 2012

What took you so long?

Nobody was surprised; “Why did it take so long?” Is a question that I have heard more often throughout my business life than any other. People in an organization know who should be let go, under most circumstances; people in an organization have been shocked that the “slackers” or “troublemakers” have been allowed to keep their jobs for as long as they have. Keeping the problem employees around a firm creates a real disincentive for all the others on many levels.

Recently a friend of mine took over a company that was down and out, truly on its last legs. He was brought in by the Board to "turn it around". It was pretty clear to him right from the start who the keepers were and those that were “destined for other opportunities”. Even though he knew what had to be done, it didn't stop him from foot dragging because he wanted to be sure, he did not want to rock the boat too much after all, he was the new guy.... Hello!! This company was on the verge of going broke!! Brought to you by the same people that you just inherited!

Ok, I think you get the idea, so let's move along. There is always one person that stands out among the rest when you come into a new situation, usually they strut around with a feeling that they are untouchable, they didn't get the memo or don't care that there is a new sheriff in town. They actually believe that you can't touch them, they have some special relationship with someone or knowledge that can't be replicated. In short, they believe the firm cannot function without them.

So my friend goes on and on about this guy, how he is passive aggressive, but that he keeps promising that a big transformational deal is just a few steps away; meanwhile, he constantly does everything to keep my CEO friend out of the loop. My friend keeps hoping that this gentleman will quit, realizing that he does not belong anymore. In the end, there was no deal, just a ton of smoke. My friend followed the smoke for a while, wanting to believe. He knew in his heart of hearts this guy was a fraud and bad for him and the company. Yet he did nothing, day after day, week after week, month after month, doesn't make sense does it?

Why, when we know intellectually, in our gut and in every one of our bones what has to be done, can we not bring ourselves to do it? Is it that we just aren't that sure – that we have let these people into our psyches and therefore doubt our own instincts? Is it fear of what happens if I do fire them? Could it be all of the above? Is that what separates great business leaders from mere mortals? Is that why it really is tougher to be the boss vs the Monday morning quarterback? Is that why trading on paper is much easier and more successful when done without the emotions of real dollars?

Back to our story, finally something happens that is so flagrant that my friend can no longer ignore the obvious, he had to step up and fire him. Hooray!! He did it and every single person in this small company came to my friend and uttered those true words spoken over generations..."What took you so long to get rid of him? He was really bad for the company."

My friend felt good, proud that he had done his job, just took him 16 months and it's exactly what he knew after 30 days of being with the firm. My question is, “How much damage was done during those 16 months??” Did the others see the new boss as decisive or weak? Did the Board care about the firing, or were they just worried about the long-term financial results of the organization?

Firing people is not easy, most of us take no pleasure in it. Personally, it is hard to do; on one level, we want to believe that we are such good managers that we can turn people around. On another level, we become involved in people’s lives around our work place, we hate the thought of affecting someone’s families with our actions. Just think of George Clooney in “Up in the Air”, who wants to be the cold, callous grim reaper?

The troublemakers that need to be fired are easy to spot, maybe difficult to finally follow through as my friend experienced, but obvious. What about the more subversive ones? We know they are out there, but have a harder time pinpointing them. Those are the tough ones, everyone else in the company knows who they are. The troops are asking themselves whether you have the gumption or power to get rid of these dark forces. In either case, the rank and file sees all and knows all. They are the ones that have to deal with these subversive forces on a daily basis. So why don't we trust them more?

In my previous life I saw this all the time and as I rose through the organizations, I may have even fallen prey to that unwillingness to act on what I believed. Did I get too complacent, was it much easier to just turn away and move on?

I had already “made it”; it wasn't like I was still trying to impress others with my managerial skills. But, had I lost a bit of my drive? I can think of a time, when I went to work at a new firm that I knew someone should be fired but chose to look the other way since it was easier. It is hard to be diligent at every turn but, that is why great managers excel. These are questions that you should ask yourself. Or do you know the answers and are just too afraid or lazy to make the changes you know you need to make? It's much harder to always keep culling. That's what great organizations do.

So ask yourself the question, “Do you have people that you know need to go? That everyone knows should go?” I bet someone came to your mind immediately. So, what's stopping you? I've have had people tell me if they had one card to play they would use it on someone in their group who everyone knows should be gone. So? They can't make it happen, the company deems it too expensive to let the person go regardless of the damage and expense it is doing to the firm. The real question is, “How can they afford not to have the most loyal, competent workers possible in the organization?” Corporations use money as an excuse all the time but it's a poor one.

Everyone is better off when a non-performer or troublemaker is let go, including them. At the end of the day, it's about the whole team not just one person. Do your review, you're the only one standing in the way, the rest of the people are right behind you. Go ahead, make your team’s day, get rid of the dark forces!

1 comment:

  1. Ah Jim the memories of talking with you back in the day about just this issue - they are like cancer