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Who Would Jesus Fire?

July 5, 2009

I have to fire Todd.

His leadership performance has tanked for the past two years and I’ve had enough. Plus, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.

Todd has been running one of our smaller business units – the one we never really cared about because it was so insignificant, and it just kind of ran itself. Well, the truth is that Todd actually ran it, and he wasn’t doing such a bad job for a while. This business was in a small but growing niche, and it generated a nice cash flow. We at corporate were satisfied to just keep our hands off and mouths shut and let the little business do its thing.

Until his performance started to suck.

Todd kind of gave away his low SAT scores early on, when he would continually refer to the “fiscal year” (the timing of our financial year) as the “physical year.” That’s a pet peeve of mine, the public and frequent misuse of common words or phrases, like the way people say “it’s a mute point” instead of it’s a “moot” point. Or that they are “fustrated” instead of frustrated.

Brad, I’m so fustrated with the results from the last physical year, but I guess it’s a mute point now.

See how that would bother me? The thing is, people are so oblivious when they are using these stray terms so passionately in presentations and arguments, which makes it even worse. It just doesn’t sound right. And no one wants to say anything, because, well, it’s obvious that you should have learned the correct use of that simple word in, I don’t know, maybe 6th grade vocabulary?

I eventually corrected Todd on this minor but almost laughable-if-it-weren’t-so-pathetic-detail, if for no other reason than it was an embarrassment to hear him say “physical year” all the time. But sure enough, at the next Board meeting (at a Board meeting!) Todd launches into a presentation regarding projections for the upcoming year and he concludes by saying,

 “…so, I’m pretty sure we’ll achieve the EBITDA target for next physical year, no problem.”

He obviously didn’t take my advice on how not to sound like a dope in front of Very Important People.

At least he said EBITDA right. (Not that he knows what it means.)

Being the mature spiritual Christian guy that I am, I am going to try and help Todd. Perhaps God will teach me some important spiritual lessons through this experience.  Even though right now I am convinced that even Jesus would fire him.

No one likes to fire people. It’s awkward, it’s disturbing, and you can’t help but feel bad for the person on the other side of that conversation. Even if the employee has been a high-maintenance nightmare, when it comes right down to it, we still don’t want to have to look him in the eye and tell him it’s over. Even when we know that it is the right thing to do.

So we procrastinate. We hem and haw and give them second and third chances. We correct, we train, we develop, we sleep on it, and hope that the next day our problem employee will magically transform into the charming, high-performance manager that we had hoped for all along. But at the end of the day, many people just won’t, or can’t change.

That’s how it was with me and Todd for a while.

I decided that if I explain things to Todd very slowly, give him a little more guidance, and have some faith in him, perhaps together we could recover the business performance. Isn’t that what Jesus would want? Yes, I’ll give Todd the benefit of the doubt. Let’s get behind him and give him a chance!

But working through this turnaround with him turned out to be very irritating. I mean, he’s a decent fellow and has his positive qualities and all, but he resisted taking advice or ultimatums from me or from anyone else, and the situation just got worse.

A few weeks ago I met up with an acquaintance – an older, wiser gentleman named Howard, who had just come back from visiting a retired executive friend. He told me how they had spent time kind of looking back over their careers, reminiscing about life lessons learned.

“What is the one most important lesson that you have learned in your executive career?” Howard asked his friend. “I mean, if you had to give one piece of advice to business executives, based on all of your years of corporate leadership experience, what would it be?” His friend paused a moment, and said, “I would have fired more people.”

Well, fair enough. But that sounds harsh, doesn’t it?

Howard’s executive friend obviously knew that as a leader, you are only as good as the people you put in place around you. If you settle for mediocrity, or poor character, your entire business will suffer. And really, it’s not in the best interest of either party to perpetuate a bad situation. Plus, it’s poor stewardship of your company’s resources to invest in non-performing assets!

Howard was telling me this story because he knew I was struggling with the decision to fire Todd. He was really telling me what most of us as leaders already know. It’s OK to fire people — when they aren’t performing up to expectations, or if they’re in over their heads, or especially when they are destructive or demoralizing, as some employees turn out to be.

I wondered about Jesus, if he were in my shoes – would Jesus have fired Todd? If so, how would he break it to him? I couldn’t find any mention of a disciple layoff anywhere in the gospels. In fact, Jesus didn’t even fire Judas. Judas Iscariot, the evil betrayer! And Jesus knew about the horrible act he was planning! In that situation, the only thing Jesus did was to let Judas know that He knew: “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” (Matthew 26:23, NIV). Which you would think would have freaked out Judas enough to maybe think twice about his betrayal, right?

Although advice on firing people was not forthcoming from Jesus in the gospels, I have a much greater confidence that the Apostle Paul would definitely want me to fire Todd. Paul strikes me as a driven, demanding, intimidating, dictatorial leader who does not put up with poor performance from anyone. That’s why he had to write so many letters to the churches he started after he was gone, because he had to make sure they were getting it right. And in Acts chapter 15, didn’t Paul fire that dear, sweet, encouraging man, Barnabas, after working side by side with him for so many years? Yes, Paul disagreed sharply with Barnabas’ suggestion for bringing his friend Mark on their next mission road trip, and that was that. Paul had Mark pegged as a poor performer (seeing that Mark had ditched them during a previous mission trip. I guess that would qualify), and wouldn’t have anything to do with either of them. So much for encouragement.

I ended up firing Todd after giving him many, many chances to improve his business performance and make better decisions. But it just wasn’t meant to be. Todd knew it was coming, that he was in far over his head. And even though it was hard to hear, he seemed relieved in some ways, too. And the spiritual lesson I learned? I don’t really know. Maybe it was just in the act of being patient, trying to give him a chance, providing clear guidelines and criteria for him to work with. And to be fair, not jumping rashly into a harsh decision when peoples’ lives and livelihoods are at stake. Then, finally, when it came time to cut him loose, doing it in way that was compassionate and respectful and that somehow held his dignity in tact.

I heard that Todd has started his own business, and that it’s going pretty well. God has something great in store for him. I know He does.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2009 8:30 pm

    hey there,

    i am giving up the ole blog, facebook and twitt.

    but, in the handfull of people that i would like to stay in touch with from my two years of blogging…

    i count you in that handfull.

    if you are up to an email now and again let me know.

    it would be appreciated.

    nancygetsyourmail@yahoo.com

  2. July 10, 2009 2:13 pm

    Fantastic entry! What a pleasure to read this honestly miserable yet funny recount.

    I don’t know who Jesus would fire either, but I don’t think keeping Judas on the payroll indicated his infinite tolerance for poor performers. You probably wouldn’t have fired Todd either if you knew he’d soon leave on his own terms…and you were just a day or two away from enacting your org’s succession plan.

  3. shrinkingthecamel permalink*
    July 13, 2009 4:09 pm

    Kate, yeah you captured it: Honestly miserable.

    I love your own spin on the Jesus-Judas termination situation.

  4. nancy permalink
    July 19, 2009 11:28 am

    i am back.

    love this account of your thoughts that you went through in the process of evaluating todd’s performance with the company.

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