When It’s Your Job to Vote Someone off the Island
I wanted to fire him. But I didn’t. Then I did. Here’s the story of that journey.
I was twenty-eight and managing the development, support, and training organization of our company. I was a new manager. I knew I needed to learn this discipline so I could advance and someday run a company.
I read lots of books and would always engage in conversations on this topic with more experienced business people. My goal was to become a great manager and business leader.
Ultimately, I wanted to be a CEO.
One of the key people on my team was Mike. He seemed a lot older than me at thirty-six years old. I hired him to lead our customer support and implementation organizations. He impressed me with his maturity and experience.
After the honeymoon period was over, I noticed his team’s performance was lacking. In our regular weekly meetings, we discussed my observation. He had some excellent reasons for why this was happening and how he was addressing it. Over time, the team went from bad to worse. I put Mike on a performance plan.
There was something about Mike that bothered me. He was a very likable guy, but I had this suspicion that he was telling me what I wanted to hear. He wasn’t being honest with me. I knew he had concerns with our relationship and his performance, but he never expressed them or asked for help. He always said, “I’ll handle it.”
Then I began noticing Mike’s peers were not working with him. They didn’t say anything negative about Mike, but they never said anything positive either. It appeared to me they were isolating him like he had a disease or something.
I knew I had to do something.
I was a young and inexperienced manager. How do I fire a guy who is older and more experienced? I didn’t want to make a mistake. So Mike continued to work for us until one day I had to face the facts. We were not a better company because of Mike. We were worse.
The next morning I called Mike into my office. I said, “This is not working out. You need to move on.”
He said nothing.
It was awkward.
He closed his notebook and left my office.
He went to his desk, filled a box, and left.
It was over.
I had a great sense of relief. I'd spent so much time working with Mike, defending Mike, worrying about Mike’s family. I also was worried about what his peers might think. But I was also concerned, quite selfishly, who was going to manage Mike’s people. It would have to be me until I found a replacement.
The next day, I got a call from Mike.
He said, “Thanks for making the tough decision to let me go. When I walked out of the building yesterday morning, an enormous weight lifted off my chest. I didn’t realize how much stress I was under working at your company. I didn’t like what I was doing, and the more I tried to like it and do well, the worse it got for me. But I didn’t want to admit failure.”
I wish I could tell you I always got a call like that from people I fired.
Sometimes, not often, it was ugly. But the positive in every firing was this, the people who worked with and for the person always told me, “You did the right thing.”
I learned people don’t vote people off the island like on TV. We watch reality TV episodes with such high interest because we know it needs to be done, but we don’t want to be the one to do it.
Early-stage companies are usually filled with less experienced people just like I was. We want to be one big, happy family. I hear founders say, “All I want is for everyone to just do their job.” No one wants to manage others. We just want people to do what’s right.
But people are people.
We get lazy.
Have family problems.
Have other priorities in life.
Get hired into the wrong position. Get promoted into the wrong position. Are not interested in acquiring the skills. Can’t keep up with the pace of the company. Fall into addiction. And many other reasons.
When this happens, it becomes the responsibility of the leader to vote them off the island. It’s a tough decision, but it has to be made by someone. That someone is you.
Then there was the time when my boss voted me off the island. But that’s another story.