Some of the toughest words you’ll ever have to say…

Posted March 4th, 2010 by Steve Alexander

“We’re going to have to let you go.”

I remember my first experience in my early 20s when I supervised a small crew and had to face an employee to let him know his employment was going to end.  As clear as it was that it was the right step, executing the decision was tough. It’s personal. To the person who hears those words. No matter what. So, a few key thoughts for your consideration and use.

1) Hire slow, fire fast! – The most important strategy is to make sure you have the right people in the first place. To borrow from Jim Collins in “Good to Great,” the most important decision a CEO/leader can make is to put the right people on the bus in the right seats, and to get the wrong people off the bus. Great companies with effective leaders, according to Collins, make these kinds of decisions early in their tenure and the benefits endure. No seat is expendable for other than fully committed, loyal, passionate people who are dedicated to the company’s mission and vision, and want to contribute to its success. Invest your time wisely finding them (that means days of interviews, not an hour!) and the pay-off will be exponential.

2) Compassionate, well-conducted exit interviews can actually be beneficial to both the organization and the departing individual. – I was called in once to assess a situation on behalf of a board executive committee who knew it had a problem with staff leadership and didn’t know how to proceed. After careful interviews with the entire staff, including the chief executive, selected board members and some external audiences, it was apparent there was a bad fit for the organization and its CEO, even though, on the surface, her qualifications, intelligence, enthusiasm and desire to succeed were remarkable. A decision was made that saved the organization (staff were beginning to leave, board members were disillusioned, etc.) and gave the departing CEO the opportunity to assess her own goals and identify opportunities that were a much better fit for ultimate success.

On a final note, if you’ve seen the movie, “Up in the Air,” one of this year’s Oscar nominees for George Clooney’s performance as the consummate “hatchet man,” you can understand the devastating impact the words, “We’re letting you go,” can have. (It’s hard to believe we popularize a TV show with the title, “You’re Fired!”) What most don’t know is that Jason Reitman, the film’s director, with whom we met during a Cinema Society of San Diego screening (a shout-out to Andy Friedenberg for running one of the great organizations!), explained that the interviews conducted at the opening and closing sequences were of real people (one notable exception) responding to their own employment termination. The filming of the movie started before the economic downturn, and yet becomes very timely given today’s challenges. According to Reitman, those same folks were given an opportunity to express themselves and what they would have liked to have said had they had a chance to do it again. You’ll see those scenes during the closing credits. It’s a real eye-opener and education for anyone who ever has to say those words.

Tough as is it sometimes, making the right decision (and taking the time) to hire the right people for the right positions in the first place, and then moving timely and compassionately when you have to move people off the bus, will serve your organization well. And guarantee enduring results.

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2 Responses to “Some of the toughest words you’ll ever have to say…”

  1. HG says:

    This is very true. The faster you get those people of the bus, the better it will be for both. Maybe this is why a good wine takes it’s time, so does choosing the right persons or person for the job.

  2. Gary Robertson says:

    Read both this and the brief you just sent out. They’re great; crucial insights and realities! Thanks.

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