Sometimes even good people have to be sacked
The March 2017 theme of the business thoughts newsletter is about staff, how to engage them and how to get the most out of them.
Staff management is one of the toughest topics for me to write about, because it was undoubtedly the area of business I found most confronting in my 20-odd years as an employer. Still, now, I am regularly challenged when managing various admin and marketing assistants in my coaching practice and I feel most unsure of myself when supporting my clients around their staff issues.
Managing people is always going to be the toughest thing you do in your small business, and, at the same time, in nearly all cases, it also offers the greatest opportunities to make money and make Business Fun.
In other words, there’s nothing more important than to get good at managing your people.
I’m going to illustrate how challenging it can be to be a great employer with a story about one of my favourite clients:
Employing a GM so you can step aside
Laura owns a design consultancy in Sydney in a specialised niche market. The business has functioned exceedingly well for over 10 years and is highly profitable and Laura is in the process of extracting herself from the day to day running of the business to allow her to focus more on her family and on a number of other interests. To be able to do so Laura promoted her chief designer Amanda to general manager of the business 2.5 years ago.
Amanda is a highly skilled designer, a good person, committed to the continued development of the business and to Laura personally. Laura and Amanda have enormous respect for each other. The perfect person to take on the GM role.
But it’s not working.
Slowly but surely the relationship between Amanda and Laura has soured over the past 2 years. Laura is entertaining the possibility that she and Amanda may have to part company. Amanda in her turn recently mentioned to Laura that she is considering her future with the company.
Amanda has for one reason or another never been able to get on top of the GM role and the business has suffered as a result.
Everyone is unhappy
Both of them are very unhappy and from my conversations with Laura I know her confidence has suffered. She’s feeling frustrated at the prospect of losing her best designer, and a friend, and that she may have to step back into the business full time again.
I think the unhappy story illustrates a few of the biggest challenges in managing staff in small business:
- Small business owners find it very difficult to step away from the business. They’re generally deeply invested in it, not unlike parents are in their children. It’s really hard to let your kids go off and do their own thing when they get to adulthood. It’s also very hard for Laura to let her business become independent.
- The old “Peter Principle”: People are promoted to one level above their ability. Just because Amanda is a great designer, doesn’t mean she has what it takes to be a great GM.
- Employing people, managing people, takes skill and experience. There are good reasons that larger organisations employ specialist HR staff to do a lot of the people management stuff. Creating roles and responsibilities documents, negotiating employee conditions, managing deliverables and accountabilities, coaching staff to get the best out of them. It all takes skill, experience and time. Laura’s training in design and consulting included none of those disciplines.
Having our time over
Two and a half years on from putting Amanda in the GM role, Laura has learnt from the many mistakes she’s made. If she were to have her time with Amanda over, I have no doubt the experience would be a very different one for both of them. But we can’t have our time over, all we can do is apply our learnings to the future.
Laura’s predicament is a common one. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve been involved in such a situation with my clients in the past 12 years of coaching small business owners.
There’s a question I often ask my clients when in the midst of these employee challenges:
“In your heart of hearts, deep deep down, if you were given the best possible advice and you were to carry out that advice to the letter, do you think it’s possible for you to remedy this situation with your staff member and turn him or her into the engaged, highly functioning team member you need?”
In some cases the answer is: Yes, I think it’s possible to do so for me. And if that’s the answer, I help my clients find the way and encourage them to give it everything they can to turn the situation around and more often than not, there’s a successful outcome.
It’s too far gone
But sometimes, the answer to that question is: No, I doubt it, the situation is too far gone at this stage and I can’t see myself turning the ship around, no matter how hard I try.
In that case, there’s only one thing to do and that’s take steps to have the staff member move on, before things get uglier, as they undoubtedly will.
Laura doesn’t believe she can fix it anymore and we’ve started talking about how to end the relationship. Laura is absolutely committed to be as respectful and considerate of Amanda as possible and she wants to give her every opportunity to find a great new job where she can shine and be happy. She’s going to give her long notice (as long as 6 months) and support her in finding a new role in any way she can.
But Amanda will be fired by Laura.
Once it’s clear that in all likelihood the situation is not going to be remedied whatever you do, the most responsible thing you as the business owner and employer can do is to grasp the nettle and deal with the pain, calmly, clearly and respectfully. Avoiding the issue, putting it off, dragging it out is not in the best interest of yourself, or your business, and especially not in the best interest of the employee in question. Keeping people on just because you feel bad and you want to avoid confrontation and nastiness is truly the most disrespectful thing you can do to any employee… I promise you.