When being “good” at firing people is reflected back at me
I’m good at firing people. That isn’t something I am proud of, but I have been presented with two shining examples and another unrelated one, which has taught me the lesson.
My family likes to joke that I am a “rapacious capitalist”. One of my father’s favourite ways to rib me was to throw back in my face a line I gave him whilst in high school, “somebody’s gotta make some money in this family,” I was reported to have said. This was in response to my frustration at being surrounded by unrealistic, idealistic, maddeningly fake hippy people, academics, public servants, advisors—in short, people who could tell themselves they had values in part because they didn’t dirty their hands on the tills of capitalism.
Business practices, the things we get up to in corporate life, have remained a mystery to all of them, to the family of my parents’ generation on both sides—including all of their siblings, my aunts and uncles, but also to my brothers and sisters, not one of whom could be said to have done a day’s work in a corporate setting, no matter the size of the company. On their side they mistake this for values. The concept is absurd, but one they cherish.
Thankfully, some of my cousins harbour capitalist tendencies, and we find each other at family gathers, our little bubbles around us—we are like little oil droplets coming out of a liberal emulsion, and we find each other, huddle in the minority, and find things to talk about because talking about anything with anyone else is like being constantly judged. Indeed, when the rest of them find two of us corporate types hanging out, the ribbing starts. “Plotting how to take over the world are we?” You get it. The jokes never stop.
And yes, I would say that my life has been incomparably richer than almost all of theirs. And I don’t mean money–I have always been a bit of a financial wreck, a bit boom and bust. What I mean is that I never let ideology or some present views of people stop me from listening to them, trying to appreciate them, to understand them.
One of my family’s favourite ways to tease me is about firing people. The brutality of it. And they make the connection between the action and my character—I fire people therefore I must be an awful person. Nobody ever gets fired in their world, ever, so they think that firing someone is an unspeakably barbaric act. It is, but sometimes it is necessary. That part doesn’t compute.
A word of explanation. The nature of my work requires firing people. Redundancies. Lay-offs. Dismissals. Terminations. Retirements. Letting people go. That’s the nicest way to say it. I prefer the word “firing” for its brutality. Not because I like the brutality, but because it is important to respect the word, and recognise just how brutal the action is, no matter the pretty language it is decorated in. Call things for what they are, don’t sugarcoat them.
It is solace for some to know that I too have been fired. The first time it happened I told myself (and delivered it as a joke to hide the hurt) that everyone should get fired once—if you didn’t you were doing something wrong. The second time it happened I realised that once was enough. The third time? Well, now I can joke that I seem to be making a habit of it. The beauty of it? I can see quite clearly on the receiving end who does it well, and how they do it—and who doesn’t, and why. Especially since every time I have been fired it has not been performance related, but because I have the temerity to scalp the boss. I wrote about the book The Five Personality Types [review here] and noted that my stress default personality is the “Aggressive” type. This type respects competence above everything else, because emotions have been unreliable to the caregivers in our lives. We challenge our bosses. Relentlessly. The good ones thrive on it, channel it, know what to do with it. The weak ones fire me.
In my career, I have fired not just a handful of people, but thousands. There is no “nice” way to do it. The best is to offer respect, and to not be cheap with those leaving. And when you are dealing with large numbers of people going at once, it is very difficult to offer dignity…but not impossible. It becomes a question of organisation and delegation, not just of action, but also of compassion. I draw these lessons from those I have had in one-on-one situations and have been able to apply the lessons of those experiences to a more general situation. Doing it right is more important–the process matters more than the outcome–for all parties.
Now, I will digress. I love going round the pub and having a pint with my mates. I am not really a beer drinker (lager), but I do love a pint of hand-pulled, classic English bitter, flat, served at cellar temperature. A pub that does this well has my custom. Especially of a summer’s eve, in the city or out in the countryside, there are few things more pleasurable than good conversation without the burden of expectation…something that only a friend, over a pint, on a balmy summer’s eve can give. Thankfully there are many such places to go, and also thankfully, enough people appreciate them that the good ones are having a Renaissance.
Not too long ago I was with two of my siblings, one of whom is the arch anti-capitalist, having never really worked a day in his life. Ahh, the values. The other, an observer, but one all too familiar with the core family theme of anti-capitalism, and the distasteful general regard towards what I do. It is not often that we are in the same town, so we try to take advantage of these moments to catch up. Why you ask? Self-flagellation. We met this time so that I could take them to one of my favourite pubs.
The night was calm, the pub was busy as it should be, and the people were spilling out onto the street and all around. Just as we walked up, a man accosted me.
“Do you remember me?” he asked. “Do you remember me?” He stepped in front of me. And I looked, trying to place him, finding that I did recognise him, but wasn’t sure where. He remembered my name, and then told me where we knew each other from. “You fired me from X.” That was a decade earlier. My brothers sensed trouble and put themselves between him and me. It is nice at times to have burly siblings! Especially when we are such delicate flowers. My brothers just looked at each other, as if this was so on character for me—we can’t even go out together and not be confronted by the debris I have left behind in my wicked corporate life! They laughed, like it was some surreal but already known video…”this is unreal,” one said with a laugh. “I know right,” the other agreed, relaxing into what was happening.
“You changed my life man,” he said, “getting fired by you was the best thing that ever happened to me.” I was still a bit dumb-founded and I hadn’t said much other than to recognise and place him. One of his friend’s chimed in, at first shaking his head, as if to apologise for his friend, “yeah, he talks about you all the time. Nice to meet you,” he said extending his hand. I shook it. “Yeah man,” the interlocutor went on, “the things you said to me, totally changed my outlook on life.”
“This is interesting,” my observer brother said, “what was it that he did or said that makes you say that?” My anti-capitalist brother just laughed nervously and shook his head. He was always on a quest, looking for insights, knowledge, taking the intellectual path.
“Personal responsibility,” the man said, “goals, being true to myself. Not just working for the sake of work, not going through the motions, but finding my talent, finding my passion, and not letting anything get in the way.” That night, he hugged me a few times, especially the more he had to drink, but mostly I heard about what a wonderful career he had had, how he started his own business, how successful it was, and how well and truly I had changed his life. It was a weird but unexpectedly enjoyable evening, and my ribbing siblings got to see inside my world in a way they could never have imagined. His friends kept coming over and teasing him, but reinforcing the basic message of how getting fired had given him the motivation of his life.
And why did this work out for this person? Because I took the time. I gave him all the time he needed way back then to understand where and how he had come unstuck. And I treated him with dignity and respect.
A second example comes to mind as I recently called someone who I fired to ask him to become my boss. Trust. At the time, firing this particular person was necessary, and was possibly the best decision made as part of an overall business rescue. He was a veteran of company and industry, one whose knowledge was priceless. But there are times when our history, knowledge, and position conspire to prevent us from taking action that the company needs to thrive. We get comfortable. His talent was not a question, it was timing and motivation. Everyone looked to him for guidance and leadership. No change was possible without his blessing, but even with it, no change was proving possible. It was time to move on. I flew across the country to tell him in person. I allowed a day, with the possibility of a second day if he needed it. I sat down in his office, and told him outright, “this is it.” And we spent the rest of the day talking about how to make it alright. We crafted a message together, we crafted a package together, we found a way to make it okay, as best as can be done. And while it stung him deeply, what also began to flourish, was a friendship and mentorship relationship born in that moment that has now blossomed back into us working together again. And I note that his health and his demeanour are substantially the better for the intervening time.
What did I really do? I helped him find suppleness, an ability to flow into what was happening. I have seen so often when someone chooses to resist what is happening. It is such a natural reaction. My effort is always to help the individual over that resistance, so that they can begin the healing process even before they have fully registered what just happened. Sometimes they want to sue, they always feel it is unjust, and absolutely, when you “give your life” to a company, spend decades toiling there, getting let go is eviscerating…They say especially for a man–and especially one who made it to the C-Suite…I don’t know if that is fair, because I think it would suck no matter who you are. For my part, I try to get into their head, to understand, and to talk them through it, to help them find peace quickly. Having been through it on the receiving end several times has definitely made me understand it better.
The third and final example was not firing someone, but effectively opening the door to self-awareness. At one point in the middle of my career I worked in a company that was very big on the mechanics and processes around performance evaluation and personal development. They took it very seriously. I was often given the “difficult” cases, because my colleagues knew that I would take the time to get to the “truth” and that I would not shy away from finding the right path for the individual and the company. I won’t say that they were cowards, especially when the person being reviewed was well-liked, but…
The difficult decision in this case was to promote or not to promote. While nobody wished to say it outright, not promoting was the right decision. It was a difficult message, and one that we took a long time to talk about openly in relation to his goals, fears, life plans. People have always opened up to me. Maybe because I don’t judge. Maybe because they sense my own fragility. Who knows—I have never figured it out, but I do know that I am a collector of people’s confessions. And he was no exception. I recommended “do not promote” and my colleagues all agreed on the recommendation–no pushback at all.
He quit shortly after. Some people, his colleagues and friends, didn’t like me because of it. But I’ll never forget the happiness and warmth in his face when I bumped into him two years later on a street corner. He was so full of life, of joy, all creases had left him. He was so proud, and he wanted to tell me like I was Daddy, and I listened and was truly happy for him. [This isn’t prison guard syndrome is it?] He recounted the beautiful things he had been doing. And he reminded me of our conversation, the painful but truthful feedback that he had absorbed and acted on. And how in that moment he realised that he was not pursuing his true path. He had decided in that moment to become a novelist. The night I bumped into him was just after he had submitted his second novel. He was so grateful to me. He thanked me for “freeing” him. It was moving. Today, he is a very well-known writer with several best sellers under his belt.
I didn’t do any of that. But there is a common thread in all of this. Give people their dignity. Be respectful. Be humble. Listen. Feel. Learn. I am no grandmaster at any of this. But I do know that because I submit, I feel these things. I aspire to suppleness, to bending, to being able to change, to grow. To cross thresholds of pain, no matter how many there are, and to find something positive in them. To lose the ego. To let go in service to our fellow man.
Yes, I walk into the voting box. And I probably pull the same lever as the rest of my dogmatic siblings, but the path I take to get there is one that feels supple and right and filled with dignity and respect for my fellow humans. What do you do when you have to make difficult decisions, have to swallow bitter pills, or worse, have to force others to do so? Do you dress up the pig and put lipstick on it and say it is something different?