I once had a boss who never fired anyone. Some people thought he should. I understand why. From the outside we probably looked exotic to say the least. On the paper we were not the smartest or sharpest managers in the industry.
I can serve as an example to illustrate this. I was trusted with the role of finance manager for the EMEA region. I was smart and hardworking, sure, but with a total of 3 years of work experience under my belt, I was like a bull in a china-shop, making one mistake after another. And to compare, my counterparts at the competitors were mature finance directors with 20 years’ experience. I was not the only odd ball though. While our competitor’s sales VPs were trained and groomed over decades in one of the highest performing sales organisations in the world, with slick suits and Italian leather shoes, our business managers were former engineers, some showing up in Bermudas at work and others barely knew the difference between profit and loss. We had chaotic meetings, disagreeing, interrupting each other, and engaging in “barn-fights” as one of my colleagues called it.
So why did our boss not fire anyone? He had reasons to, as individuals most of us failed in our delivery at some point in time, missed revenue target, missed forecasts, not able to hire talent fast enough, and so on. And our behavior did not help, I remember one afternoon, the whole team was in a deadlock for hours, because one manager in our team and our boss could not agree if we should use the evening to cook a nice meal together, or work on the business plan. As the discussing got more heated, hunger and frustration kicked into the point that our boss called our colleague “Honey” by accident, which bemused us all. However, after several hours of deadlock, “Honey” won the argument, there was no business plan made that evening. “Honey” is very persistent indeed. And male. The really funny point of this story is that this complete meltdown happened during a three-day training session on how to communicate efficiently and effectively. We had a highly skilled and accomplished communication coach in the room witnessing this. His super-powers did not work on us though.
So, why did our boss never fire anyone? When the topic of doing so came up, for performance reasons, subordination or general frustration, his answer was simple: “How do you know that the replacement will be better? It is not so easy to recruit, train and ramp up new talent.” It is worth highlighting that our boss was not a softy by any means. Ex elite athlete, and ex elite parachute trooper, he had no qualms about fighting and winning. Actually, the only time I thought someone would get fired was when one guy in our team cut him off in an unsportsmanlike manner in a go-cart race. He was furious indeed.
So why did he not fire anyone of us? I believe that the most important reason is that it was not needed, at all. As an organisation we grew 30%-40% every year, and beat our quota quarter after quarter, year after year. When one country missed target, another one blew off the roof. When a product got delayed, we sold something else. When we were late on hiring, everyone chipped in and worked harder. The team that looked exotic and unmanageable from the outside, consistently over-performed.
How was that possible? Our boss directed his fighting spirit and competitiveness at our competitors, not at his team. He made us work together. We were all involved in setting strategy. It made us take ownership. He listened to us. It gave us confidence. He allowed mistakes. It helped us learn. I learned a lot indeed, and I think my colleagues did too. He asked for help when it was needed. It made us trust him. He invested time, effort, and money to make us better. On the outside we looked perhaps a bit odd. On the inside, we were growing as leaders, maturing and becoming stronger by the day. Some of my fondest memories was from the early days in finance, where I was invited out to the countries to meet customers and partners. It gave me a perspective on business that my finance collègues in other organisations did not get. And the sales organisation picked up finance knowledge as if it was pop-corn at a James Bond movie
At the time I was not aware of all of the above, took most of it for granted, for good and bad. Reflecting back it was a real time experience of leadership and collaboration. I did spend several years full of energy, and did some amazing things. Not always happy, and it was not always pretty, but it was great. As our boss moved on to a new job, the energy gradually went down. And the amazing things were a bit less amazing, and a bit further apart. Until I realized one day it was time for me to move on too.
Our new boss fired people. Talked about “performance culture”. Prioritized and made decisions. Hired great people. Increased salaries. Sent people to trainings, spoke about being Agile, and wore Italian leather shoes. But the magic was gone. We did not collaborate in same way, and not nearly as well as we used to. And the performance was gone too, less profit, less growth, less celebrations.
I am immensely grateful to have been part of this adventure, which was a real-life case study on how to achieve great results, and what great leadership is all about. The lesson I learned is that collaboration is THE answer, the fastest and smartest way to creating a high-performance team and enabling people to collaborate is the essence of great leadership. How I used this lesson to help others collaborate and increase performance is a longer story, that I save for the next time. And then you will meet the “Consultant that never made a pitch”, who also played an instrumental role in the story above.
Call me for questions and comment