These may be the most feared words in any corporation. Unfortunately, it has become a too often used phrase in American politics, intended to impart the image of a strong and decisive leader. But, if you are a competent manager you know that these words are the opposite – they are an admission of failure to be used rarely and humility. I write the following with the concern that some aspiring managers may fail to understand the significance of these words.
Great leaders attract the best people, have trust in them and receive trust in return. They build a team of collaborators who support one another and have very low turnover as a result. The words “you’re fired” may never be heard!
A Few Truths About Firing
First, two laws of human relationships:
If you want to be a good leader, you must first be a good human being! Your behavior reflects your values. Good human beings have good values, and if you have good values you treat others with dignity and respect. You will not gain respect if you are incapable of having respect for those whom you seek to lead.
Second, loyalty, like love, is gained when it is given. If you dismiss others easily, you will also be easily dismissed by others. If you demonstrate loyalty to others, you will likely gain loyalty in return. Loyalty is never “owed”, it is always earned.
Those of us who have been in positions of responsibility for any period of time have had to confront the unfortunate act of firing an employee. It is the single most unpleasant thing you will have to do as a manager. Why is it unpleasant? Because you know that you are inflicting pain on another human being, and if that is not painful to you, then you lack empathy, which is an essential quality of any leader.
Here are some rules of firing to consider:
- Hiring is more important than firing. If you hire well, you will fire rarely. Every firing is an admission that you did not do a good job of hiring the best people. The cost of replacing an employee is generally considered 150% of their annual compensation. When you must dismiss someone, you have incurred a significant cost to your organization.
- It is your job as a manager to develop, direct and lead your employees to the right behavior and performance and likely avoid firing. If you must fire someone then you must admit that you have either failed at hiring or failed at developing and directing that individual.
- Dismissing someone from your employment should never be a surprise to that person. Letting someone go is the last act in a process that, if done well, will correct most poor performance. This is an issue of justice! Yes, I said “justice.” It is unjust to be picked up by a policeman and thrown into prison without any knowledge of the crime. Likewise, it is unjust to fire someone who has not been given every reasonable chance to correct his or her poor performance. I go into this in some length in my course on Giving and Receiving Feedback. In short, here are some keys:
- Effective correcting and development solves most problems. You must be absolutely frank and honest with the individual, sharing the exact behavior you see as problematic and instructing them in the desired behavior.
- You must then give him or her feedback in very short order as to whether they are succeeding or failing to conform to the desired behavior. Give them the facts, the data on their performance. Give them feedback again.
- Reinforce effort and progress, not merely the final desired behavior. Human beings learn through behvior shaping, successive reinforcement of approximations toward the desired performance.
- You must go through this feedback/learning cycle several times in order to establish that the individual is either incapable or unwilling to perform. Only after repeating this cycle several times should you then warn the individual that if their behavior does not change, then you will have no choice but to terminate their employment.
- These steps of correcting, feedback, and warning must be documented in writing to both the individual and to your human resource manager. In most countries there are significant legal issues that may arise from firing.
Assuming there is still failure, consider how you go about firing someone because that act has an impact on many others in the organization.
And When You Do…
- NEVER fire someone in public or humiliate them in public in any way. If you do, you will not be trusted by others and you will lose their loyalty.
- NEVER fire someone by twitter, email or other electronic means. Let me put this in the bluntest terms I can think of: If you aren’t man enough (or woman) to sit down and confront the individual face-to-face, you do not deserve to be in any leadership position.
- When you sit down with the individual you will remind them of the previous feedback and the final warning. You will then give them the facts on their performance and why it is not acceptable.
- Now have empathy for the individual. Help him or her consider that they are still a good person, but they simply do not fit this job. Surely, there is some other job where they will be more successful and where they will be happier. Ask if they have considered a different position. You are in the power/parent position, so help them to find a path toward their own success. In the rare times I did have to fire someone, I have had them come back to me and thank me for how I let them go and how I guided them. Believe it or not, firing can be a positive experience for the individual.
I was CEO of a consulting firm for twenty years. When we hired employees I told them that no one had ever been fired for making a mistake. I made mistakes, we all made mistakes. You could only be fired for two reasons: First, outright dishonesty – dishonesty within the company or dishonesty to our clients. Second, you could be fired for your failure to learn. I did have a case in which we had given someone very explicit feedback three times in regard to the same behavior, behavior that caused our client to ask for that consultant to be removed from the assignment. Each time he blamed the client rather than accepting responsibility. He could not, or would not, learn.
If your company makes the above guidance the norm, you will have dedicated employees who are engaged in continuous self-improvement, and you will be respected as a trustworthy leader.
I am going to write a series of posts on leadership issues I consider extremely important. I would like to have your undivided attention for just a few moments. There is a dominant theme that runs through all of my online courses and writing and it is the primary task of a leader, the “one thing”, the task that is most important at this period of our history.
I am very concerned with the state of our leadership and those of us who have made a career of studying and writing about leadership have a duty to speak up.
You might remember the movie City Slickers and that wonderful character played by the great actor Jack Palance. He tells his city slickers that the secret of life is just one thing… what that is, is for them to figure out. Well, I am here to tell you the one thing, the one most important thing for you to be focused on if you want to be a successful leader, whether in business, or in any other field.
Leadership is the process of creating unity of energy and effort by instilling a devotion to a worthy purpose, a purpose that uplifts and ennobles those who will follow and sacrifice. In the end, there is no sacrifice, only the gift of worthiness.
The Unity Principle
The concept of unity is critical to understanding leadership in this age. This is true in a country, a company, or a family. Every great leader has distinguished himself (or herself), not by dividing and tearing down one group to benefit another. Rather, by creating unity out of diversity.
There is a wonderful letter from a common soldier at Valley Forge in 1777 when George Washington’s troops were cold and hungry. He wrote that he had trouble understanding what he had in common with so many of the other soldiers, some of whom only spoke German, and some Dutch, and others who spoke a dialect of English he could barely understand. They were from Pennsylvania, or Maryland, or Georgia, while he was from Connecticut. There was no “United States”, there were only diverse states, comprised of immigrants from diverse countries with diverse food, language and religions. And, it was not at all clear that they belonged together as they starved and one third went through the freezing winter without shoes. The genius of George Washington was to unite them, despite apparent differences and self-interest, into a unified force dedicated to a common and noble cause. That is what true leaders do!
Alexander the Great was a Macedonian who united the Greek cities as one state and led them on a march that conquered what was at that time, all the known world. When Alexander conquered Persia, he wore Persian dress and made the leading Persian generals, once commanders of a great and proud Persian Empire, generals in his own army. He conducted a marriage of one thousand Greek soldiers to one thousand Persian women to symbolize the unity of his Empire. His genius was not only as a battlefield commander, and he was that, but to create unity among diverse and ancient enemies. Unfortunately, on his death there was no system or structure to maintain that unity, only the personality of Alexander. It quickly disintegrated.
Abraham Lincoln’s first and primary mission on election to the presidency was to maintain the unity of his Nation that was rapidly disintegrating. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful book, A Team of Rivals, chronicles his cabinet comprised, not of those who most agreed with him. Rather his cabinet was formed of rivals who would disagree and inform his own views. It was the creation of unity of those around him, those who would disagree, that informed his decision making.
A strong leader is not one who enforces conformity and loyalty to his personality. A strong leader instills loyalty to principles, not personality. A strong leader is strong enough within, to allow the clash of differing opinions around her.
The history of the human race is the history of ever expanding circles of complexity, diversity, and collaboration. It is the expansion of commerce and influence based on trust. Building walls to keep out those who are different or those who are in need is not only contrary to the American tradition, it contradicts the inevitable march of human history. No matter what any individual or politician thinks or fears, we are moving toward an age in which national borders have little meaning as our economies merge into one global economy. This leader recognizes that the game of commerce is nonzero-sum, not a zero-sum game. Global collaboration has not weakened any country. It has led to an increase in aggregate wealth and reduction of conflicts.
During our last elections both candidates campaigned against the Trans Pacific Partnership trying to appeal to those who fear globalization. That partnership would have opened markets to U.S. farmers and manufacturers that until now have been closed. Having withdrawn from that, Japan has led the renegotiation among the remaining eleven countries and this partnership will be signed in March, leaving the United States to be excluded. Today Japan signed a trade agreement with the European Union. The United States is being left out in the cold, by our own ill conceived choice. Our withdrawal has been a gift to competitors as we have disadvantaged ourselves. At the same time our farmers have seen a collapse of soy bean and other commodity futures as we have created a tariff war that will inevitably damage our own economy by increasing costs and reducing opportunities for expansion.
The imperative of unity is not only in international affairs. It equally true within companies. Some years ago, I was conducting a workshop at Intel with the senior management team. I watched as Any Grove, the legendary founder and CEO made a statement, to be followed by a young manager who raised his hand and said “Andy, you keep saying that, and it keeps being wrong”, an astonishing statement by an audacious young manager to a legendary and powerful CEO. I watched as Andy turned around in his seat and said “OK, what do the rest of you think”, and for twenty minutes I lost control of my workshop.
I stood there in awe of the frankness and honesty of the conversation, true dialogue, and I realized that this young and audacious manager must have known that he was not ruining his career by challenging Andy Grove in an open forum. Why? Andy Grove was a scientist, a physicist, and the company had been built on science, intellectual inquiry, and this is what Andy Grove valued most. He didn’t value subservience or obedience, the certain signs of a weak and fearful leader. He valued the pursuit of truth that comes from intellectual challenge! This is leadership in the knowledge age.
The ability to lead frank and honest dialogue leads to unity of understanding, unity of thought, unity of energy and effort. This is the task of the leader and it is what is needed most in our companies, our country, and our world. We need to find and elect leaders who are devoted to principles, not promoting their personality. We need leaders strong enough to listen and learn, to engage in the nonzero game of world commerce and culture.
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, is undeniably one of the great entreprenuers of our age and is rightfully in the same league as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and others. He is a pioneer in solar energy, launching rockets into space and returning them in a remarkable display of engineering, and is set on upending the automotive business with this all electric Teslas. Recently, however, he has been struggling to meet production goals for his mass market Model 3. This may turn out to be a significant lesson in corporate culture and leadership.
Elon Musk has a vision of a highly automated factory, dominated by robots and artificial intelligence, reducing to near zero the human factor. He believes that his vision of the factory will be his competitive advantage. Musk took over the manufacturing plant that had been NUMMI, the joint venture between GM and Toyota and was the great experiment in taking an older unionized workforce and transforming them into the most productive auto assembly plant in the United States. It proved the application of lean manufacturing in the United States and that it was not dependent on a Japanese workforce or a workforce that was indoctrinated in a greenfield operation. But, Musk has essentially tossed aside the lessons of NUMMI in his belief that he has a superior idea. He recently said…
“The competitive strength of Tesla long-term is not going to be the car: It’s going to be the factory. We are going to productize the factory…
I am, of course, biased. Virtually all of my consulting and training, particularly my new Lean Leadership and Lean Culture course, are all about the human side of lean management which is entirely derived from the lessons of Toyota. My “House of Lean” is designed to reflect the belief that successful organizations are about equal parts technical systems and social systems. The core lean principles of Respect for People and Continuous Improvement are all about people, the social system. If Elon Musk is right about his future factory, the significance of the people side will be minimalized. I doubt it, and so far, the stumbling of his manufacturing facility is not supporting his hypothesis.
John Shook of Lean Enterprise Institute recently said the following:
“The tools required to run a great factory aren’t merely math and engineering, but psychology and sociology. Social psychology and neuroscience. Organizational development and system dynamics – with “system” referring to not only the technical side, which Elon and team will figure out, but also the much more complex social side. The social side is difficult in its own right – add the technical complexity of orchestrating the operational execution and timing involved in gathering and assembly thousands of parts that arrive at exactly the right place at the right time in perfect (down to the minute) precision for thousands of humans to choreograph themselves to the precise (down to the second) rhythm and you’ve got a social-technical challenge of epic proportions.”
Jeffrey Liker, author of the Toyota Way and other essential books on lean recently wrote…
“In my view Elon Musk has adopted an untenable mechanistic philosophy that will need to change if Tesla is to be successful as a mass producer of vehicles, no matter how well designed. He will need to discover basic values that underlie operational excellence like developing people, building culture, continuous improvement, visual management, and work teams owning their processes. In short, he will need to learn about, perhaps the hard way, lean management. Sitting back and counting your money while marveling at digital systems humming along sounds like a dream vision, but it is not reality. Mass production is hard work.”
It should be remembered that Roger Smith at General Motors invested billions of dollars in the dream of a highly automated plant and it resulted in failure. Until Musk or someone else demonstrates the viability of super automated plants, the people skills, the knowledge of lean management, team leadership, problem-solving, and continuous improvement, will remain the proven basis for success.