by Andy Hoffman
This blog entry is cross-posted on Harvard Business Review.
When I was 24, I quit an engineering job, declined offers to attend Harvard and Berkeley for grad school, and accepted a carpenter’s job in Nantucket. The house I worked on was being built for the CEO of a major multi-national corporation. Without knowing it, I had entered the world of high-end custom building and within two years, I was supervising the construction of a 29,000 square-foot mansion on a 180-acre estate in Fairfield County, Connecticut. In all, I spent nearly five years running a construction company, and in those five years, I learned how to manage.
This is the first of a series of posts on that education. I will relate salient experiences in construction with lessons I teach, and lessons that play out in the real world of leadership, every day.
Lesson #1: How to fire someone.
In B-school, we teach the concepts of selection and socialization. The goal, we say, is to create the right mix of people to work together in a common culture toward a common goal. We teach how to create a recruitment and retention program to make sure that the right mix and balance of talent is amassed. And that getting the balance right may sometimes require letting people go.
When I teach MBAs, we talk about firing people with the cold and academic clichés of “down-sizing,” “right-sizing,” “letting someone go.” But have you ever fired someone? As a construction superintendent, this was a major part of my job. These terms are bloodless and fail to capture the true intensity and anguish that goes with looking someone in the eyes and telling him he’s out of a job.
It wasn’t until I had fired fifteen people in 12 months that I began to see things differently. One carpenter had made a costly mistake on a master bedroom porch; it was one of many costly mistakes. I caught a second carpenter finishing the last of his whiskey nip. The third had been coming in late and his effort on the job was weak. Some of the carpenters had complained when they were teamed up with him.
Within 15 minutes, all three were given their final paychecks and told to leave. And yet, despite my clear justification in making the moves, I was still filled with doubts. I invited one of my trusted carpenters, Benjamin, for a beer after work.
With a full mug in front of me, I poured out my feelings. “Benjamin, I don’t know how many more times I can do this. I don’t even know if I did the right thing.”
“Andy, you had to do it. Those guys weren’t carrying their weight.”
“But now they’re out of work. I can’t help thinking about that.”
Benjamin agreed, “Yup, that’s true. Some people are out of work today. They’re not getting a paycheck. But this is happening at other job sites around the state too. It’s not your fault.”
“So you mean I have no choice in the matter? No say? I’m simply carrying out what needs to be carried out?”
“Well, sort of.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better. I made the decision to fire these people. If I decided not to, they’d still be employed. I wonder if the other guys live in fear that I’m going to fire them?”
“Now wait a minute, Andy,” cautioned Benjamin. “You’re making it sound like your decisions were arbitrary. Were they?”
“Right, you made these decisions for a reason. Don’t you think the guys that got fired know that? And,” he paused, “Don’t you think the guys that are still on the job know that too?”
“Yeah, I guess so. But I wonder what they see?”
“They see someone who’s trying to hold a high standard of work. Stop thinking about the guys you fired and start thinking about the guys you still employ. They’re the ones who deserve your attention.”
Benjamin’s lecture was a turning point, a watershed in my thinking about what I was doing and why. The pain of telling someone that he was fired would always be difficult, but the pain lingered less if I focused not on who left but on who stayed. My notions of building a crew took on new meaning. The idea of one stable and permanent crew was dispelled, replaced by the idea of a constantly evolving crew.
That’s not to say that it stopped being painful to let someone go. And in fact, that pain should never go away. You’re severing a relationship and creating hardship for someone. But you have to look at why you are doing it, how you are doing it, and what you are creating in the process.
In some cases, I learned that everyone knew a person had to go and they were waiting for me to do it. And by letting the person go, the people I left behind felt better about working for me. They saw that I had high standards and they were meeting them. They worked harder, with more pride, as long as I held the whole crew to the same high standard and did my job by weeding out those who didn’t meet it.
The key here is building a culture of quality and pride. And I, as the leader, was responsible for establishing that culture both by deciding on its membership and also determining the rules of maintaining that membership. This goes far beyond the formal processes of recruiting and training. This puts the human face on a human process.