Management Unleashed – Article 5 – Hiring and firing
Management Unleashed Article 5
Hiring and firing
This article was first published in Business Times on 2 March 2019
by John Bittleston
While building Cerebos Pacific Ltd. I was networking at an exceptionally boring drinks party, networking, I suppose. I met an interesting man who worked in Malaysia, had a background of innovation, had made profits and was likeable. Like all seasoned managers, I was wary of my liking him. It can be a trap, but liking is also important. We chatted for about an hour. He asked intelligent questions. I asked him if he’d like to work with me and suggested he came round in the morning for a coffee to explore the possibility.
He did so, we chatted further, I asked him what he wanted to be paid, and how, and agreed his figures and terms. We shook hands. Then he asked an interesting question. “What am I going to do?” My reply: “I haven’t the faintest idea but I suggest you come round the business for a month or two and if you especially like one aspect of it you can do that.” He was the best hire I ever made.
Finding the right employees
As with buying a house, you should aim to get what you want, not who wants you. When you buy a house, I recommend driving around the area you’d like to live in. Spot the houses you’d like to buy and could afford. Ask the owners if they are considering selling (or get an estate agent to do so). You will be surprised at the number of people who will say yes. Try the same with employees. Look out for potential hires all the time. If you see someone you think is suitable, approach them. Use a head hunter if you are poaching from a friend!
Not all good employees are going to fall into your lap nor will you always be able to hire people simply because you think they would be good for the business. It is also important that you don’t hire people just because you like them. The best businesses thrive on cooperation and competition. However, we tend to fit people to a template of our business without considering whether it will work well – or even if the template is right. Some hires must fit in with what we are doing, of course. But the people who will build the business won’t be the round pegs in the round holes. Square pegs are more stimulating.
The advice ‘know who you want, then get them’ is sensible. Most people don’t do it that way. They say ‘know what you want, then get it’. There is sense in that, too, of course, but you must be careful not to build so coherent a business that it works only the way you want it to. The best approach is ‘know what product or service you want to provide, then equip your business to provide it’. Think hard about this statement.
I often hear ‘we just want to make money’. If that is all you want to do start a porn shop or casino. Good businesses are built on a specific product or service not acquiring wealth. Put it this way. Suppose you have a child who wants to play the violin. Not much wealth attached to that but a fulfilling career if you are successful. So you encourage your child, as you should do. Your child strives to become the next Itzhak Perlman. If s/he does so, s/he will become rich – as a consequence of being great. A violinist isn’t initially aiming to be rich.
Skip the interview
Don’t “interview” potential employees. It smacks of examinations at the police station prior to being charged with a crime. Chat to them about what you want to know. Their CV will tell you (hopefully honestly) what they have done. To the extent that experience is relevant – not nearly as relevant as most people think – you will gather it from that. What you need to know is attitude. Attitude to your business and its products and services. Attitude to work, attitude to other people, attitude to life, attitude to the world, attitude to making something of life not just muddling through.
You learn this by being informal, engaging with the person, asking them sensible questions in a sensible way. A rifle-full of questions fired off is useless. Discover what they want to ask you, too – the more questions the better. Make it a discussion. When a potential employee seems really interested in your business, hire them. They are what gold is made of.
And when you’ve got them nurture them. They are priceless and you are investing a lot of time, effort and money in them. Make sure it pays by keeping them growing, learning and developing. To be in touch later on with some of the people you helped develop is one of life’s greatest rewards.
Letting go employees (what a silly phrase!)
Firing people is not fun. Sometimes you have to do it. What is the judgment employees always make about their former bosses first. It is whether they were fair or not. People don’t mind if you are grouchy, occasionally bad tempered, melancholy or downright mean. They care about whether you are fair. Being fair is not easy. It means a balance between your needs and their abilities. Both of those are changing all the time. An employer must, when necessary, bend to meet an employee’s abilities. An employee must stretch to meet an employer’s needs. Both side have to understand this. It is the rule of give and take and it applies in most aspects of life.
Employees will fail. Sometimes they are dishonest. My rule about this is to call the police. Dishonesty condoned is a problem inflated. It is not my job to pass on dishonest people to others. Such a policy is disastrous. Having let the police do their job I always try to help those who have been charged or convicted by giving them another chance.
What about the incompetent. They have to be fired, too. Left in their jobs they may ruin your business. After warnings you may have to ‘let them go’. How do you do it?
Provided no dishonesty, I adopted the following regime. I called them in on a Friday afternoon, told them they were fired and why, gave them a chance to ask questions or vent or cry and then asked them to come and see me on Monday morning. I said I would offer them a job. I made it clear that it would not be on the level of the one they currently held.
They had an agonizing weekend telling the family, feeling hurt, coming to terms with what is a nasty business. On Monday I offered them a lower-paid, less responsible job and promised to keep it open for six months. None of them accepted the job but they all said it gave them confidence to go out and job hunt. They knew there was a fallback position. I also offered them a good mentor or coach to help them find the path for their next job.
I did something else that was unusual. I said ‘you are leaving the company but you are not leaving the family. You and your partner / spouse will be asked to our social parties and you will be expected to come’. After initial hesitation I found that they really appreciated being treated as family.
Firing someone is a nasty business. Let the process reflect the underlying values of the business – namely, that our people matter, even after they leave us.
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