February 2011


Upon visiting Barcelona years ago, I attended one of Spain’s most legendary and notorious sports undertakings, the Bullfight.  Open to the experience, I absorbed the cultural

The Bullfight

tradition, historical pageantry, and deadly tournament of man against beast.  I found my ethics deeply confounded between the incontrovertible proficiency of the Matador pitted against the vicious lethal conclusion for the Bull.  Once seen, no one can question the passionate dissension and controversy which surrounds the Spanish tradition.  But regardless of one’s viewpoint, I learned there is nothing which elevates a collective visceral disgust, even among the aficionados, more than a “bad kill”.  Finally the Bullfighter poses instants away from the “moment of truth”, cape and sword hand in hand, with a solitary clarifying resolve; to confront and kill the bull – courageously, skillfully, swiftly, and faithfully.  Mishandling the charge gives rise to a spectacle of superfluous agony and suffering that infuriates the crowd bringing dishonor and tragedy to the contest.  A matador incapable of executing his primordial obligation with decisive professionalism is hastily castigated by the crowd and jeopardizes ignominy.

Leaders face these critical moments when confronted with the task of terminating an employee.  In order to build an A-Team and perpetuate a climate of motivation and winning, underperforming and incapable employees must be removed.  Unfortunately, this means their employment must be terminated.  We can attempt to masquerade the rhetoric, but in reality this is a serious Leadership undertaking which severely impacts someone’s life.  Such a responsibility can never be taken lightly.

Termination is a testing shock to even the most hardened of employees.  It is also an enormously grim assignment to carry out for the person performing the termination.  It may appear effortless to those who have never headed the process and call out for another person to be fired or question why a particular employee remains.  But many agitators would quickly feint from their ostensible convictions if faced with actually personally terminating someone else.  Sitting across from a person and looking them “dead in the eye”

from the movie "Up in the Air"

while explaining they are going home today to their family with no job can weigh on the psyche of the toughest Leaders.  Regardless of how many times a Leader has performed the act, most still get a knot in their stomach in preparation for the final confrontation.

Once you determine an employee is incapable of contributing to you A-Team, whether purposeful or incapable, you must develop the essential plans to replace them.  You must possess the confidence in your skill of the termination process so as to prevent the uncomfortable actual act from creating anxiety which results in procrastination.  Although it may seem harsh, the ability to effectively terminate an employee is a required skill and performed well will prevent unnecessary pain and suffering of the individual facing the consequences.

It is important before terminating an individual that you comprehend and follow the policies and guidelines of your company.  They exist to prevent exploitation and limit exposure.  In most cases, you will want to provide the employee with reasonable warning and opportunity to correct their actions and avoid the termination.  There will be times however, when because of the seriousness of an infraction or threat posed to the organization, a warning becomes imprudent.  Or you may be faced with a person, who regardless of their best efforts, is just not up to the required commission.  Regardless of the policies followed or the situation at hand, as much as we wish they expected it, most people are utterly flabbergasted with the reality they are being fired.  And it is this element of disbelief that makes the confrontation so precarious.

HR will provide you with what to say, what not to say, and how to say it.  With this routine instruction most managers can remain out of trouble and get the job done.  Firing techniques are seldom discussed because they run the risk of “bad form”, but a messy termination confrontation can create collateral damage throughout your team causing a serious set-back to winning momentum.  If you want to be proficient and compassionate when terminating an employee, add these Street Smart Leader lessons to your HR repertoire.

Do Not Torment

The component of the bullfight which most often offends the sensibilities of onlookers is the perception of torturous acts being committed.  There is often a window of time

Tortured Bull - Disgraceful

between the decision to terminate an employee and the actual event.  Immature managers often use this time to berate and criticize the employee.  It is as if they plan to weaken the employee’s resistance and fight for the imminent meeting.  They would like to create a certain “resignation” in the employee’s demeanor as a way of weakening possible opposition.  While this may appear to be giving the employee a “heads up” it is a coward’s way out and should be avoided at all costs.  Make the decision, understand the time frame, and wait for the moment to perform the termination honorably.  You have other priorities to focus on in the meantime.

Care for the Living

Once you have honed your skills in this arena it will not be necessary to over-think and over-plot the actual termination meeting.  It will be on your calendar and you will handle it with the professionalism of any other appointment.  Before then, your priority should be focused on the Care of the Living.  You must understand this actions impact on the organization.  What will be the ramifications felt by fellow employees?  As a Leader, you need to ensure that regardless of one person’s failure the remainder of the team remains charged up and ready to go forward.  The impact possibilities must be clearly understood at the “people level” and plans should be prepared to maintain a positive environment for the remaining team members.  How will you keep you team intact, unaffected and moving forward during this transition?

Terminate without Discussion

When the appointed time comes, find a private place to have a conversation other than your office.  This is an important key not to be overlooked in efficiently handling the termination.  It is a rookie mistake to become trapped in your own office by someone who becomes argumentative or emotional.  By planning the meeting in a conference room or neutral place, you are able to have a brief conversation and then have the option to leave the room if you must.

Next, leave your emotions outside the door.  Chances are good that you are angry, happy, disappointed, sad, or regrettable about this person’s outcome.  Any of these emotions can be used to trip you up during the conversation and cause problems down the road.  Enter the room unemotional with a job to do.  Anything more is a liability.

Your meeting should be brief.  You want to make it clear individual why you are there.  Within the first two sentences you should let them know they are being fired.  “Sally, I am sorry this is going to be a difficult meeting because we have made the decision to let you go.  We are terminating your employment because we do not feel you are the right fit for our company any longer.”  It is a blunder to engage in any explanatory conversation regarding your reasoning.  If they ask why, or for specifics, you must answer that,” this decision has been carefully thought through and it is final.”  If they persist, you must become repetitive with your answer.  There is not anything you can say during an employee’s termination which is going to make the situation better for them and you will never convince them that you are right or a nice guy.   Some companies prefer to have another individual in the room as a witness.  If someone is with you make sure only one person does the talking.  Two people going back and forth create a conversation, which is exactly what you do not want to happen.  Your entire meeting should take less than 5 minutes.

It is difficult to envisage how an employee will react after hearing these words.  Some become quiet or upset or argumentative; they are in this moment dealing with a very difficult reality.  I believe they should be allowed their reaction, provided it is not violent.  It is your job to respect their reaction and stay calm and cool under any distress. Give them a quite unresponsive moment to absorb the gravity of the situation.  Once they realize they will not be able to argue the merits of their case they will typically shut down or break down.  Now clearly and quickly move them through your company’s exit process (typically clearing out their desk, receiving the termination paperwork, turning in company equipment).

Get Your Message Out Quickly

As soon as this process begins other employees will quickly determine what is happening.  Your key managers should be “on deck” ready to deal with other employee’s early reactions.  If you have planned correctly, with the termination concluded, you should be in a position to quickly and concisely communicate to your team.  You can explain what has happened and how you will be moving forward.  You cannot explain why it has happened.  “Trashing” the terminated employee is never a good idea.  Emotions run high for everyone when someone falls.  Be decisive and without sounding threatening make sure the team understands that we need A-Players in every position, all of the time, if we are going to win together.  Let them know how difficult these decisions are to make but they are necessary if the team is to stay strong and move forward towards its goals.  This is not a time for explanations as to why you terminated an employee but rather an excellent opportunity to reset expectations.

Lead a Unified Transition

Even the best termination decision will be quickly questioned if the team’s work begins to fall apart.  Any lapse in customer service, production, or any other important function will be considered your failure once the employee leaves the building.  You are responsible to make sure there is a seamless flow of work activity along with your decision to terminate the employee.  Do not expect relief or understanding from anyone including your boss as to the difficulties the termination has created.  You made the decision and you are responsible for the results.  Expect the key members of your team to pick up the slack and make sure to roll up your sleeves and jump in wherever necessary.  Your immediate goal is to make sure everyone perceives an improvement in the team’s overall performance immediately following the termination.

You cannot afford failure at this time.  Your boss, your peers, and your team will be very critical of any performance letdown.  This is a time to prove to everyone you were right

Difficult Job - Well Done

to remove the “dead weight” from the team.  More often than not, if you have built an A-Team, they will rise to the occasion and support the transition beautifully.  Being ready with a working plan and executing it flawlessly will keep the leverage of the situation on your side.  Moving forward, your team will understand that if they do not perform as individuals you are just as capable of replacing them.  It is a harsh reality, but you have just “raised the bar”.

Terminating an employee is a serious and difficult responsibility for any Leader.  And it should be!  A Leader should be on unshakable footing and possess the skills to correctly carry out his duty.  Culling the non-performers continues to sharpen and build the skills of your A-Team and unfortunately is a never ending requirement.   A good manager understands the employee handbook and how to carry out the termination policies.  A Street Smart Leader knows how to make a good, quick, clean, and efficient professional termination.  He knows how to treat the person with respect while conducting the difficult assignment inside his preset protective parameters.  Most importantly he understands the importance of Caring for the Living and moving forward with unquestionable grounding.  Messy and poorly executed terminations leave your team infuriated and disgraced.  Terminations will continue to be a somber and intimidating part of the Leadership job.  But with compassionate courage and thoughtful skill a Great Leader can bring honor to his team even during these difficult transitions.

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A craving developed deep inside my humanity as a fledgling teen; a potent yearning to distinguish myself.  My quest was not compelled towards extraordinary pursuits, but

MLK & RFK

rather evocative meaningful endeavors.  I was touched with a cognizance of my personal possession of an inner forte.    It was the era of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and emerging adults were challenged to be of consequence.  I was a typical boy, from a middling family, going to a normal school, living an ordinary “Wonder Years” life.  Then one

day as I altered my bicycle’s homeward route, my attention lurched to a spectacle which drew me in and tugged at my depth.  Quickly I jumped off, allowing my most prized possession to crash to the concrete, and with both hands clutched in the chain link fence I stared through the grid to witness an amazing exhibition.  There they were, “The Boys of Fall” – the High School Football Team engulfed in their practice session.  Mesmerized, I gazed as they executed drills with intense precision while smashing, grunting and roaring into each other.  They would take rise from heaps of calamity with yelps of exhilaration, high-fives, and a grander loftier persona…bursting with Pride!

The next season, after an effective plea with my mother, I “tried out” to join the game which I had become fascinated with.  “Hell Week” began, and swiftly eradicated the need for any explanation of the torturous designation. Practice was simply designed to “beat the hell out of you” physically, emotionally, and mentally.  The only football I encountered was the one I slept with.  Hell Week was an assault on your character and being.  It was exactly what I was searching for … a test of my mettle.  Following weeks of unforgiving regimentation, I was finally handed a football uniform.  Excitedly, I donned the apparatus while awkwardly comprehending how to regain mobility.  Not knowing what to expect, I was ready for my first “suited up” practice.  My Father took me aside, “Son there will come a point where the coaches will ask you to choose an opponent to go “head-to-head” against.  Be sure to choose the biggest and toughest boy on the team.”

As usual, practice began with us running and performing drills to the point of exhaustion.  The coaches then separated us into two lines and I watched my Father’s prediction unfold.  As players from one line began to choose equal or lessor players from the other lineup, I searched out my foe.  There he was, casually standing off to the side unchallenged, one of the team’s veteran brutes Hector Burrell.  We lined up against each other with the sole purpose of knocking down and running the other over into the ground.  My breath erratically shortened and my heart pounded barely allowing me to pick up Coach’s count off – “ready, set, one, two, three”.  In an instant I was flat on my back looking up at Hector’s silhouette surrounded by blue sky and painfully acquainted with the expression of “flattened by a freight train”.  After another hour of picking myself up off of the ground the grueling tribulation ended.  I limped, as straight-up as I could, to my Father standing at the edge of the field.  He looked at me and said, “Son, you did alright.  Anyone can win the easy battles.  It is more difficult ones that will make you stronger.”  I made the starting team, began winning my share of those “head to head” battles, made friends with Hector and we won the Championship that year.  I had set forth on my path to distinction!

Throughout those determinative years, the fierce competition of football provided framework for self-understanding, teamwork and leadership.  As a high school student, I became passionately engaged in coaching Youth Football soon becoming a Head Coach responsible for directing a coaching staff and leading the team.  These years were packed

Pop Warner - Father of Youth Football

with great coaching mentors who were smart, insightful, tough and inspiring.   These generous men not only enhanced my love of the game, but they demonstrated and taught me the skills necessary to out-think, out-play, and out-win your opponent.  Countless hours were spent with the chalkboards of strategy and tactics, but much more than the “brain work” they taught me how to build and lead a Championship Team.

In today’s multicultural, politically correct, oversensitive, and testosterone-free workplace, we are guarded as to the appropriate use of the sports analogy.  But if you will indulge me, I would like to share some of those life changing lessons about victory, passion, the battle, and the game which I learned over 20 years and continue to put to use every day as a Coach.

You Have To Be Tough

Business is an extremely tough game.  Companies put everything possible into a quintessential battle of strength and cunning against each other.  The game is scored and there are winners and losers – it is a zero-sum game.  Your team expects you to be a Tough Leader capable of competing and conquering the opposition.  They want discipline, structure, hard work, preparation, direction, recognition, purpose and success.  If you are able to provide these essential elements, they will follow you into the most difficult of challenges over and over again.  Business is full of disappointments and shortfalls.  You get knocked down.  You and your team need to be tough enough to get up, grab adversity by the throat, and strangle it until victory pops out.  Business is a severe game played by serious people who want to succeed at the peril of others.  Playing requires grit, perseverance, commitment, determination, and an unwillingness to fail.

Demand Unreasonable Excellence

Every member of your team has self-limiting barriers of what he can achieve firmly entrenched in his mind.  They believe they know when they are giving their best, working their hardest, thinking their brightest.  In reality, they are always capable of much more.  When they feel they have given 100%, they are nowhere near their potential.  As a Leader it is your job to push, cajole, drag, and inspire each player past their self-imposed limits.  The phrase “giving 110%” comes from knowing that everyone has more to give.  Be unreasonable and demand perfection until your team is unquestionably the best in the business.

Build a Great Team

Coaches must draft and select a great team if they are to win.  Building an A-Team is one of the most important responsibilities of a Leader.  You cannot consistently

Team Building

systematically win with a mediocre team.  Once you determine how you are going to win the game, you need to find the best person for each position on the team by matching up

your strategies and players to insure they possess the proper skills to execute your game plan.  The saying, “You are only as strong as your weakest link,” continues to be a reality for Leaders.  Your competition is always striving to improve.  You must diligently stay ahead of them by constantly rebuilding and strengthening your team.

Competition Makes You Stronger

Even if you have selected great talent, established flawless execution, and conditioned your players to be tough, they still are not ready to win.  To bring out the greatness of your players and truly determine their capabilities you must make them compete.  Every plan sounds like a winner until you take it from the Conference Room and put it into action.  Competition hones the skills of a player.  Only competition and adversity can truly reveal an individual’s character.  Players need to compete internally, against the pool of available players, and against your industry rivals.  Winners relish taking on tough competition.

Win as a Team or Lose

Once you have challenged a player on his individual capabilities and know they have “what it takes”, it is time to begin team building.  Coaches build teams by drilling into player’s heads that regardless of their personal abilities and achievements they are stronger as part of a team.  Without teamwork they are doomed to fail against an opposing force of gifted players.  They will only realize the “payoff” of their talents and efforts by joining forces with their teammates, who are successful in their own right.  Once players embrace the “need of others” for their own success they only require a common goal to rally towards.  And that goal is simply, “Winning”.  At the core level, Leaders must instill the necessity of personal sacrifice and extreme effort for a player to compete at the top of their game.  Teams flourish when players comprehend this effort is only rewarded with a “Win” when it is united with other individual’s superb performance.  The Coach’s mantra is, “Without the Team, Individuals Fail.”

Winning Matters

Why does “winning” work as a reward system?  Any person who has exerted to put themselves “on the line” 110% and is victorious touches something inside their core which tells them they have done well.  Whether reinforced with money or glory the result is the same.  People love winning and are drawn to winners. It is appreciated, revered, sought after and longed for.  “Trying your best” does not get you there.  “Second Place” comes close but leaves an empty hollow feeling.  I believe you can take the meekest, most humble person in the world and still see the smile that comes to their face when they have won.  It is a universal reinforcing statement confirming we are of value.  Winning, even for an instant, proliferates more winning – It creates the remarkable phenomenon of Momentum.  Winning is good!

Celebrate Victory

We have all witnessed the Thrill of Victory as seen in a championship locker room.  The inspiration, acknowledgement, and joy for a battle well fought ending in the successful winning of a Championship.  There is nothing like it.  The celebration represents the culmination of a job well done as well as establishes a thirst for future success in the dream of returning to the celebration next time.  Leaders encourage their teams to celebrate.  Although celebrations are often public events there is a very private bonding which exchanges among the actual team members who endured the struggle together when no one was watching.  This bond solidifies and strengthens a team going forward.

Even more personal is the feeling a Champion carries within, after the crowd and praise disperses and he walks off alone. I have not found anyone to describe this endurable feeling of self-worth and personal glory better than the ultimate coach, Vince Lombardi.

Vince Lombardi

I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause

and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious. Vince Lombardi

Those early days of coaching football provided me with a Leadership Foundation which has carried me forward throughout my career.  I would not exchange the lessons learned and experiences gained on those patches of chalked grass for any MBA Program.  Leaders lead people in challenging pursuits by building powerful teams who outperform their own expectations and create winning outcomes.  Street Smart Leaders choose and win the “hard battles” which distinguish them and their teams far beyond the competition.  Throughout my career I have progressed through many business card titles, each one slightly prouder than the last, but the one which has made all of the difference is the first one I ever earned…Coach.

All Leaders encounter a disheartening reality when they have built an A-Team of veracious proficient people, and then discover success continues to circumvent their preeminent efforts.  They have distinguished precise strategies, the “smartest” goals, and elaborate action plans, but their A-Team continues to spiral downward into an exasperating abyss.  Despite superlative attitudes, immense dedication, and soaring urgency, results plummet on a downward trend.  Such a perplexing Cycle of Un-Quality is sufficient to thrust any manager to the brink of anxiety and anger.

The resulting resolution is to stereotypically require more obligatory meetings, pursue and discover blame, pressure team members for perfection, and retire from the chamber, hopeful that the theatrics of the day will now make a difference.  Instead, the manager classically ends up with an awfully frustrated collection of individuals who, while committed to performing at their highest levels, are failing on a personal level.  An A-Team will receive this blow hard and conceive it as a “set-up”.  A-Team players who feel they are performing but failing can easily turn against the team and their manager as the reason for failure, instigating an implosion which essentially stops the team dead in the water.

Cycle of Un- Quality

An experienced Leader discovering his A-Team in this “drowning” condition will detect the manifestation of “root cause” issues which are holding down the team’s proficiency.  And before he runs off to find fault with the “Corporate” initiatives and directives, he will recognize there is one area which must be scrutinized first.  It is time to analyze if the right people are doing the right things, but in the wrong way.  A comprehensive examination of the current “Process” is essential.  The most adept A-Team will not reach their goals if they are not correctly synchronized.  And if they are out of sync over and over again, they are set-up for a frustrating failure which will become absolutely unacceptable to their personal sensibilities and Values.  A Leader must diagnose this condition and implement process analysis measures if he is to effectively guide his team back to striving for and attaining their goals.

Process Development and Improvement, once thought only to reside in the domain of Operations, has become a necessity for every function within an organization.  Whether it is Sales, Marketing, Customer Service, or Strategic Implementation an effectual process is a minimum requirement.  A Leader who can develop an exemplary process will not only create enhanced and faster deliverables, but he will gain a competitive advantage with which to win over the competition!

There are many disciplines to assist a Leader in Process Improvement.  They range from intricate and meticulous programs such as ISO Standards to “hands-on” team involved Kaizen events led by Six Sigma experts.  All of these programs work with the proper intelligence, discipline, feedback systems, and follow through.  But a Leader’s principal responsibility is to possess the skills and insights necessary to ascertain fundamental process pitfalls within their dominion.  Sitting in the back seat and turning one’s team over to a facilitator, who knows little about the objectives of their business unit, will result in a Leadership void guaranteed to negatively impact the implementation of any newly developed plans.   Even the best facilitator, will work a team towards consensus through collaboration running the risk of a watered-down plan lacking committed buy–in.  A Leader must retain charge of the Process Improvement analysis and initiative.  Leaders carry the definitive responsibility for their team’s turnaround and therefore, must look at an external facilitator only as a resource to their Leadership.

As a Leader, it is your responsibility to understand the basics of Process Improvement.  There is a great amount of information available regarding Six Sigma tools and the effectiveness of properly run Kaizen Events.  Gaining a strong personal foundation in these skills, allows you to identify process problems early on with your team.  Swift action with the proper tools can change a problematic course before your team’s failure and frustration sets-in.  A Leader should be able to provide the “first line of defense” for his A-Team before it becomes necessary to call in the lifeboats and await their arrival.

You will discover many accessible tools: fishbone charts, brainstorming methodologies, from/to diagraming exercises, and the like.  But when I sense a process may be off-track and requires evaluation I seize a modest tool called a Deployment Chart created by quality guru Dr. W. Edwards Deming.  The Deployment Chart is a flowcharting mechanism which allows you to inspect a process and apprehend the numerous relationships different people in the process have to the tasks and to each other.  It originates with a comprehensive understanding of the basic roles and responsibilities of each team player, but focuses deliberation on the separation of tasks due to an ineffective workflow.

The Deployment Chart moves past the typical linear examination of task sequence and examines a multi-dimensional formatting process from a “people perspective”.  Upon embarking on any new management assignment, I ask for a copy of the written processes.  Then I take them home and at night and plot the processes on a Deployment Chart to determine early on where my new team may be struggling.  Just because the process has defined the correct steps in the correct order, it does not qualify for effectiveness on the “people level”.  I once walked into a consulting assignment where the company had implemented a new company-wide process, just weeks before.  Although they spent six months creating the new process, they were frustrated with the lack of progress and were already conducting Un-Quality Meetings.  I took the procedures, locked myself in a conference room for one hour, and then headed to the owner’s office (Deployment Chart in hand) to graphically show him why their new process was doomed to failure.  We identified and resolved the systemic problems the next day and rolled out a new process which continued working for years.

Preparing a Deployment Chart is actually rather simple.  On the left side of the paper, proceeding down a vertical column, you list all of the tasks involved in a process in their current sequence.  Across the top of the paper you list each of the roles for people who are involved in the process.  With the tasks on the left side and the roles across the top of the paper a matrix has been formed which will help us identify the efficiency of the process flow.  For each task on the left side of this page, identify the role on the top of the page that is responsible for actually performing and completing the task and then make a mark in that box on the matrix.  Only one role or person can be truly responsible for any given task.  If a task is somehow shared by two or more people, you should attempt to break it out into two separate tasks.

Poor Process Flow - Doesn't Have a Chance

An examination of our completed Deployment Chart will show us whether we have a smooth flowing process that makes sense.  Often times the Deployment Chart will display a process containing multiple hand-offs back and forth between people, or worse, between departments.  The matrix will highlight where “the ball will be dropped” and where departmental walls have the potential to block and delay the process.  You will also be able to identify unfortunate scenarios where two people who are required to be associated and connected with a particular part of the process are entirely detached and removed from each other in the process structure.

Good Process Flow - Smooth Team Interaction

Accurate examination of your Deployment Chart combined with constructive A-Team meetings should result in revamping your process into a smooth flowing platform.  A new process which addresses and flows toward a people-centric solution will intensify productivity, advance communication, diminish stress and frustration, and create innovative benchmarks for higher results.

All Leaders must understand the importance of Process Improvement and the potential gains they can achieve regardless of their organizational function.  But a Street Smart Leader does not wait until his team is drowning in the Un-Quality Cycle before he takes action.  He arms himself with the fundamental tools to take early and swift action as soon as bottlenecks, dropped balls, and team frustration materializes.  Waiting for the Six Sigma Team to show up only delays improved results and sets you in the back seat waiting for rescue.  Read the books and attend the seminars necessary to become a Process Improvement expert in your own right.  It is a major component of any Leader’s Accountability.  When the Kaizen lifeboat finally surfaces to pull your team out of the water, they will find you have already accomplished your process work and are soaring towards new horizons of success!