Few experiences drain a person’s emotions more than a divorce. The loss of trust and common vision evokes a devastating sense of grief that I have endured only three times in my professional life — when I made the decisions to terminate once-valued and loyal managers and then carried out my decisions. In each case, because of my strong feelings of commitment, I waited too long to make the call — and jeopardized the well-being of both the company and the individuals involved.
In one case, T joined Evolutionary Technologies International (ETI) after I fired M, a key contributor who attempted a palace revolt in order to secure a senior management position. My action was not popular with many of M’s allies, and those allies lobbied the board against both T, who would assume leadership of the group, and me. During the first 10 months of T’s ensuing tenure, the group suffered significant morale and attrition problems that ultimately resulted in a 25% loss of T’s staff.
T persisted, and his patience and decency finally won the team’s loyalty. However, ETI grew aggressively over the next two years, and as T’s group mushroomed from 20 to 50, his management skills began to falter. I realized that while T had reasonably good technical skills, he struggled to help his managers juggle priorities and make trade-offs as the number of projects he managed increased. T resisted making judgment calls without reviewing all of the details himself, and he did not empower his managers to drive decisions themselves. As a result, we fell hopelessly behind on a major product-development project.
I repeatedly encouraged T to modify his behavior, telling him that he must delegate responsibility if he ever hoped to take on increased responsibilities. He claimed that his people were incapable of management. T continually reassured me that everything was on track, yet failed to take the necessary steps to effect real change. As we repeatedly missed product-release deadlines, morale and cooperation between groups fractured. Eventually I had no choice but to ask T to leave.
While working toward that decision, I experienced many of the emotions associated with divorce — frustration, irritation, and anger that a person to whom I owed my respect and commitment had failed to hold up his end of the deal. I also felt guilty about firing someone who had demonstrated loyalty to ETI and to me through his past service.
Similar internal conflicts plagued me when I was forced to fire the other two formerly productive managers. In each case, I delayed making the decision until it was evident to everyone that termination was the only option. My procrastination not only affected business deadlines and morale, but left the managers with a profound sense of failure.
Reflecting on these experiences, I have identified three major symptoms that alert me to these problems:
It’s always someone else’s fault.
Managers must effectively resolve conflict by prioritizing resources, addressing unhappy customers’ needs, and resolving communication problems across working groups. I keep my eye on managers who blame their conflict-resolution failures on colleagues’ skills or ethics: “I can’t delegate management tasks to anyone.” “The customers are unhappy because the salesmen set their expectations improperly.” “So-and-so doesn’t prioritize his time effectively.” When I hear these excuses the first time, my initial reaction is to resolve the problem any way possible — to help the manager better manage her team members and negotiate cross-functional meetings for employees who do not report to her. This is sometimes a dangerous solution because the manager in question may no longer feel responsible for the problem.
The problems never change.
Managers have likely reached the “Peter Principle” when they chronically blames a group’s failure on a set of problems beyond their immediate control. The company may indeed need to address serious problems — for example, the products may be missing key features for success in a particular market. However, if a manager cannot come to you with potential solutions, then she is likely not open to working collaboratively and is no longer valuable to the company.
I grow repeatedly irritated with the person in question.
Oftentimes, managers tend to hope that, with minimum effort, employees with performance problems will simply “shape up.” If, after receiving support and advice, a manager returns to me with unchanged complaints, I express my irritation and hope that my gruff behavior will cause the manager to rethink her own. By behaving this way, I abdicate my responsibility to the company in much the same way that the manager in question has.
Every company should have standard processes for communication and for recognizing when a group is failing to meet its goals. As a company matures, the nature of its communication and troubleshooting tactics changes because the founders are no longer able to attend to every detail. During those growth periods, leaders are sometimes slow in recognizing necessary management changes. Senior managers should develop a personal set of warning signs that signify when a manager should leave. Then they should address the problem swiftly and humanely through frank discussion, which — if handled improperly — can open the company to the risk of litigation. In the next column, I will discuss techniques for establishing patterns of communication that can help when the time comes to terminate an employee.