Talk about a horrible memory of tough-leadership: Todd stopped eating, after only a few bites of his breakfast. His devastation evidenced by the pale look on his face and his steaming breakfast that sat un-touched, growing cold as the impact of my words sank in. “I’m sorry, but I am terminating you,” I told him only moments earlier.
An otherwise upbeat guy, Todd seemed to drift off at that moment. Perhaps he was wondering how he would tell his wife or kids. Perhaps he was wondering how he would pay his mortgage or provide for his family.
That horrible breakfast was over 15 years ago and I now know that Todd landed on his feet, helped by our generous severance package, and later going on to succeed in another management role with another company. We corresponded recently and I delighted in learning that he still wants to keep in touch. Todd seems more resilient and capable of moving on than me. My gut still aches when I think about that morning and the awful responsibility I assumed in making the decision to terminate Todd.
At the time I did not appreciate the critical importance and necessity of assuming the responsibility of wielding the axe, for the sake of the organization. At that time, I had no idea that our business would grow to employ over 2,000 people, becoming one of the ten largest companies in our industry. At that moment, I simply wanted to leave the restaurant and escape the pain I felt after devastating Todd and his family.
To this day, terminating employees, at all levels, remains the most painful and difficult experience of my career. That pain was especially acute when it involved people like Todd, who worked hard, brought a good attitude and committed themselves to the company (and my vision as the CEO).
Fusion Leaders, which I aspire to be, understand that the welfare of the organization is more important than any individual. Fusion Leaders, as the phrase implies, emphasize behaviors that “fuse” their teams together around a shared Mission or purpose. Fusion Leaders know that it is essential to prioritize the “collective ego” (meaning the health of the organization) ahead of their own interests (the “selfish ego”).
Fusion Leaders know (or eventually learn as I did) when it’s tine to wield the axe!
As nice and well intending as he was, Todd was under-performing. His results lagged and began to stand out, when compared to other regions in our company. If I did not act, the future of our organization (literally) was at risk.
The leader must terminate others for obvious under-performance. The leader must terminate others for blatant violation of company policies. The leader must terminate others for continued efforts to work against the organization’s strategy or tactics. Human organizations are not democracies. They demand strong leadership and strong leaders must prioritize the interests of the organization over any one individual, even nice, well meaning people like Todd and especially the leader themselves.
Being the boss is tough. You cannot allow your friendships; your feelings of empathy and certainly not your need for acceptance or goodwill to undermine what is best for the organization. Sadly (or fortunately) we are all human and there are times when we don’t agree or don’t get along or don’t carry our weight. This is not about judgment or right and wrong or a measurement of one’s worth. It’s about demanding performance and adherence to the organization’s objectives and purpose. If one person, for whatever reason, becomes an obstacle to your organization’s purpose, they have to go. And it’s the leader’s job to make that happen.
A leader who fails to own this responsibility communicates the message that “it is ok” to chronically underperform; or that “it is ok” to violate company policies; or that “it is ok” to continually work against the organization’s strategy or tactics. The message you communicate by failing to act, when it’s necessary, will eventually devastate your organization, encouraging a culture of under-performance or a culture of dis-regard for company policies.
At the same time, being a tough leader does not mean that the leader needs to be cruel or evidence a lack of empathy. There is a right way and a wrong way to terminate under-performers. Unlike some famous celebrities or politicians who delight in pointing the finger and announcing “your fired,” this is not about the leader at all. It is about leadership and evidencing what is best for the organization.
At our company we sought to evidence our desire to be fair and even handed by supporting one of the most generous severance policies and outplacement programs in our industry. I remember challenges from my board, asserting that these programs were too generous. I fought hard, however, to defend these policies, advocating the view that I wanted everyone in the organization to know that they would be taken care of, provided they work hard and evidenced their commitment to our purpose, even if they or their job was terminated.
Many past blogs and articles about Fusion Leadership focused on leadership actions that tempt the selfish ego at the expense of the organization. For example, the question as to who is the smartest person in the room when the leader conducts a meeting; or the question as to how much the leader should pay himself or herself compared to the pay of others. The decision on when to wield the axe and terminate people is equally important, when done for the sake of the organization and when implemented properly.