Archive for March, 2012

You’re Fired! And that’s ok…

Business, for all it’s technology, products and innovation, is at its core a study in human behaviour. It is about frameworks that bring like minded individuals together to provide a needed service or build a coveted product. The motivation that drives us as individuals within these frameworks ranges from altruism to the pursuit of covering our basic human needs. The fabric of the framework is strengthened when performance of the individuals, no matter the motivation, moves the whole forward in a predefined direction (identified as success) and is weakened when one of more of those individuals cannot or will meet the agreed performance expectations.

As a leader there are times that we need to remove people from our business to ensure that the fabric of the whole remains strong. That removal may come in the way of economy driven layoffs or it may come as a result of poor performance. Both types of departures are necessary but neither are easy. No matter the reason for severing a working relationship the good leader never forgets that there is a human element at play – the characteristics that define us as good leaders are exactly the same as those that allows us to feel empathy even as we deliver the messages that most people don’t want to hear.

When faced with having to layoff or fire an employee my personal test is “can I look myself in the mirror knowing that I have done the right thing?” It’s about leadership integrity.

Over the course of my career I have delivered both types of messages. The layoffs are personally more taxing in that it is difficult to give the impacted employees a sense of control of their own destiny. The layoff message is rarely personal (at time because we are legally obligated to keep it that way) and as such it is difficult for the impacted employee to own the message. It is difficult for them to wrest control out of a situation that is not about their personal performance, that they perhaps have not seen coming and that leaves them vulnerable during an economic time that new jobs are scarce. As a leader in these situations there are three key things that need to be done

1. the message needs to be delivered in a way that allows the employee to understand that today is their last day. It needs to be direct.

2. the employee needs to feel that they are respected and that their contributions have been valued. A leaders role is to allow the employee to walk away with their dignity intact. This is the key element in allowing them to start the process of moving forward.

3. all remaining employees, including you as a leader, need to be given the opportunity to “grieve” through the process. You are only human.

If you have cared for all three steps, and knowing that this was something that had to be done to sustain the business, then it makes the process while a difficult one, an acceptable one.

I would argue that a performance related departure or a “firing” is not that different. At the end of the day the message needs to be understood and it needs to be delivered with dignity. The termination discussion is not the place to dwell on the ongoing performance issues. That should have occurred well in advance. And that, in an exceptionally long winded way, gets me to the main point of this post.

The only way that firing an employee for ongoing performance issues (effectively taking those gross negligence, illegal etc activities out of this argument) is “ok” is if the all of the following have occurred:

1. performance expectations have been clearly articulated.

2. the employee is aware that they were not meeting performance expectations

3. you as a leader, have provided the necessary coaching, tools and opportunities for the employee to reach a successful level of performance

4. you as a leader have made yourself available – clear direction is of no value if you are not accessible during the implementation

5. the employee clearly understands the potential consequences of not meeting the expectations

If you have done your due diligence and given the employee the opportunity to move towards success, and they choose not to succeed or ultimately are not capable of succeeding then the termination path is the right one to take. The discussion will not be a surprise and quite frankly if the process was done effectively many have already started to look for other opportunities.

If you have not done your due diligence and covered all of the above five elements then the employee should not be fired. You are putting your organization at risk if you have not stepped up to the plate. You have to show that it’s the right thing to do and that you have done your job as their manager. I have no tolerance for heavy handed managers who feel that they are omnipotent, able to hire and fire at whim. That is not good business and is definitely not good leadership. Managing performance that may end in a termination is time consuming. It requires a higher level of engagement than is normally given to any individual employee (whether this is right or wrong is perhaps fodder for another post) and it requires a higher level of sensitivity than we may otherwise choose to show.

At the end of the day if a terminated employee can walk out of the door acknowledging that they knew that it was coming, that they were treated respectfully and with the right level of support throughout the process and that they learned something along the way then you, as a leader, can look yourself in the mirror and say “I fired someone. And that was ok”


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Learning, leading and cultural change… the synergies.

This post definitely falls into the arena of “things that make you go hmmm”. 

Story telling has long been used to pass down wisdom, as a tool for learning and to entertain. A good story leads us down a path, it allows us to discover, at predetermined moments, little nuggets of wonder that make us want to follow the path to the end. At the end of the story we are left with a message that the author/or teller wants us to have but the experience we had in getting there was very much our own for we saw it through our eyes, our realities, our emotions…

Recently I had the distinct pleasure of preparing a story as part of an interview process.  The story, at its heart, is about people, it’s about massive change and it’s about learning to do things differently. It’s a story about human frailty and incredible human strength. It’s about the excitement of the possibilities.

In “business speak”  it is a story about selling myself as being the right person to help an organization implement and embed a new leadership framework, of supporting the creation and sustainment of a learning organization and of leading a diverse team to do great things.

The organization that I interviewed with has a clear vision and the change required to support that vision, on the surface, was massive. However as I built my story, as I reflected on what I had done in the past and researched what others had done in similar situations I had an “aha” moment that made my story a very easy one to tell.

A few facts first

  1.  the organization was in the process of moving from a heirachical leadership model to a distributed one.
  2. achieving the vision and the strategic imperatives was going to require a strong cultural change  – the way in which the work got done would have to change
  3. the organization was committed to creating a learning environment (this was not shared up front but it was an assumption I made given that I was applying for a role with “Learning” in the title

I developed my story by asking myself “what does effective/successful” <insert topic> look like. As I asked this question for leading, cultural change and learning it became very apparent that there in fact four key success drivers that are common to all.

Distributed Leadership Model
Cultural Change
Effective Learning
Clear roles and responsibilities. Vision.
Clear definition of end state.
Clear definition of end state
Clear performance measures
Clear performance measures
Clear performance measures
Resources and support to meet goals
Resources to support the change
Resources to support the application of learning
Feedback and adjustment
Cultural audits and adjustment
Feedback and adjustment


First and foremost we need to know where we are heading.  We need a vision or end state that we are driving towards. As leaders, as employees or as human beings we are then able to self manage our alignment to that end state.

Secondly we need to be able to measure our success. Are we moving in the right direction? Are we seeing the changes in the way that we expect? Are we driving the right things?

Thirdly, do we have the right resources and tools in place for people to be successful?

And lastly we need to ensure that we are collecting the feedback we need to ensure that we can make course corrections as we go. This is a critical step for all leaders. Things change, people are unpredictable,  stuff happens – we can not always plan for every possible outcome but we can certainly build in an agile feedback and correction methodology that will allow us to keep steering to the vision.

As I was writing my story it became apparent to me that if these four success drivers were effectively cared for the individual stories of leadership, cultural change and learning would naturally merge to create a rich tale that could drive towards the strategic changes that this, and any other, organization was driving towards.

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The gift of the mirror – self reflection as a learning tool for leaders.

When you walk into most call centre environments you will likely see a small personal mirror on the desk of every phone agent. While it can serve to stroke ones vanity or serve as a personal grooming tool the real purpose of the mirror is to remind people to smile. Your verbal tone is very different when you smile – and when you are on the phone tone is one of the few tools that you have at your disposal to build relationships.

The humble mirror is often also flouted as an insult or rebuke as in “she needs to look in the mirror” meaning that perhaps “she” should be looking at herself for the answers/issues/ problems rather than looking at others around her. While the usage is very different than the call centre example the end result is the same – it is about relationships and human connections.

The mirror serves as an intimate 360 feedback session – a session with our ourselves. Good leadership means different things to different people but at its core most of us agree that is defined by vision, personal integrity, respect and relationships. We may use different words and we may have a few other criteria that we use but on the whole our views are very similar.

As a leader, I like to use my mirror for two purposes.

The first is to assess  “how did I do”? The questions can relate to today, this week, this quarter, this year.

  • Did I share the vision. Have I communicated it well?
  • Have I used my time effectively? Efficiency is only part of the question, the other is am I spending my limited time on the things that matter most?
  • Did I provide and ask for feedback?
  • How have I grown? Did I learn something new?
  • What have I done differently?
  • Did I model our shared values?
  • Have I treated everyone with the respect?
  • Did I earn my salary?

The second is a more focused look into the mirror when dealing with an issue or crisis. The type of questions I have asked include:

  • Could I have done anything to avoid the crisis from happening
  • Did I ask the right questions to understand the root cause of the problem
  • Was my response appropriate for the problem? Did I over react? Under-react? Did my reaction support the vision.
  • What will I do differently next time?
  • Have I cared for the “people” element involved (coaching, supporting, communicating)
  • What did I learn? How do I need to disseminate that learning?

The strength of the mirror is that there is no need to lie or fool anyone. It’s an opportunity to take an honest look at “you”. The fact of the mirror is that it shows all – the good, the bad and the ugly. The gift is that it allows you to learn and grow as a leader. It allows you to develop a true level of self awareness so that perhaps next time the bad and the ugly can be countered in the moment and quite frankly that makes for much nicer conversations with “you”.

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