I started this blog to share stories from my side of the desk. Doctors, attorneys, and accountants hear all the good stories. The insights I could provide my readers would prove valuable in their lives as they work toward financial independence. Reinventing the wheel is a poor use of time. Learning from the experiences of others is how we grow personally. Sharing stories and ideas were to help you, the reader. What I discovered is I am also learning a lot along the way.
Recent events highlight the difficulty business owner’s face on a regular basis. I see it with business clients all day long; now it was my turn. I screwed up bad. I handled an employee who went off the rails about as bad as any employer could. It is too easy to pass blame to my office manager or to assume the employee is bad. Sometimes the issues come out of the blue; this event festered for a month and a half before I took action—the wrong action.
Straight From the Gut
Jack Welch was the CEO of General Electric from 1981 to 2001. He was a business leader I admired in my formative years. During his tenure at GE the value of the company increased 4000%. When a business leader performs at that level for that long I tend to sit down, listen, and learn.
Welch wrote Straight from the Gut shortly after retiring from GE. Impressionable young man that I was I purchased a copy; it is still on my bookshelf. In the book Welch tells the story of his earlier days at GE where managers would be given a team of twenty people to accomplish a certain task or solve a problem. Welch explained how it was expected of the leader to fire at least one employee from the group each year. The mindset is that at least one person in twenty will not carry his weight. If a manager could not find one person to fire, it is the manager who should be fired. Brutal.
You can disagree with Welch’s methods, but you cannot argue his results. Even in a group of highly trained over achievers there are always a few laggards. Over the years I have held employees too long who did not perform. My idea of employee management focuses on creating superstar employees; a totally different approach from Jack Welch.
Near the end of John D. Rockefeller’s life he was interviewed by a reporter looking to find the secret of Rockefeller’s success. As the motivational speaker Zig Ziglar tells it, the interviewer asked Rockefeller how he came to have so many millionaires working for him. Remember, this is back at the turn of the 20th Century when a million dollars was serious cash. Rockefeller smiled and said, “They were not millionaires when they came to me. We took talented and intelligent men and trained them to be as great as any man can be. Then they became millionaires.” Rockefeller went on to explain that people are like a large stone in the artist’s studio. The sculpture spends hours chipping away all the pieces unnecessary until all that remains is a wonderful work of art. You see, the statue of David was always there, underneath all the extra stone. It takes an artist to remove unneeded material blocking the beauty beneath.
Rockefeller’s method of treating employees as valuable team members to be trained to be their best always appealed to me. My personal tendencies are toward finding intelligent and talented people and training them to be superstars. The flaw in my logic is many intelligent and talented people lack either ethics, morals, ambition, or refuse to see themselves as a winner so they continually self-sabotage. That is where my personal story begins.
An Unlikely Employee
Karen, my office manager, knew a young lady who cut hair. Karen’s husband is in the military and is particular about his military style haircut. This young lady had a wonderful personality working with her clients. Karen knew she would be a perfect fit for the office. Shortly thereafter she was hired as my administrative assistant.
Right out of the gate she took to the office like a duck to water. If I did not see it with my own eyes I would not have believed a beautician could move into the accounting profession so smoothly. She was a fast learner. Shown once, she knew what to do. She did wonderful with clients and her co-workers. I also knew she had personal issues which challenged her at home, but who doesn’t?
She rocked all the way through tax season. My management style is to give credit where due. I informed this employee she was a valuable member of my team. I also informed her I found her talented and intelligent, so much so that I saw a bright future for her as she was promoted in the company. There was no doubt in my mind she would be an account manager and ace tax professional in a few years.
It was the first sign of problems. The pat on the back and praise was met with a roll of the eyes. I never saw her do that before. Her self-esteem was so low she could not handle the pat on the back. Worse, I felt she earned a raise and gave her one, including a bonus, paid vacation, retirement plan with matching, and other benefits. It was too much. She earned it, but in her own mind she felt she was not worth something that good.
Within two week she started to falter. Problems from home spilled into work. She started complaining to employees and created drama. My heart sank as I watched her decline. By May 1st I told Karen what I saw and where I felt it would end. Karen disagreed, but I know people and my administrative assistant was collapsing in front of my eyes. At home her daycare situation turned critical. Mrs. Accountant offered to help as a stopgap until a replacement daycare provider could be found. My young employee turned it into a circus.
I was so busy with so many new clients I had no time to bring our young hero back from the precipice. And I saw she was accelerating downward. She started digging into the lives of other employees and me. She wanted to point fingers at any discretion anyone ever made in their life rather than manage her own issues. I confronted her. She said she has a history of putting herself in bad situations and she needed to stop. I told her she was in the process of creating one of those bad situations right now and she needed to stop. She promised she would.
The daycare and family issues continued to boil higher and I was due out of town at Camp Mustache III. The holiday weekend, I hoped, would allow her to reset by the time I returned. It was not meant to be.
The day I returned Karen started her vacation so I had no chance to speak with my office manager after a week’s absence. The morning I returned I said good morning to my administrative assistant and she barely grunted without looking away from her computer screen. I asked her to see me as soon as she could to help clean up some of my emails. She never acknowledged me, nor came to my office to do her job. Instead, she found a part-time employee, who comes in a day or two a week, who would listen to her problems and drama. She started digging into my life hard; I felt like I was at the proctologist.
The administrative assistant had totally collapsed. She was missing a lot of work and underperforming when she was at work. She crossed the line when she made my personal life her project. My life is pretty good and simple; take care of your own, is my opinion. Besides, there is only one thing you need to know about the boss: Does the check clear? Everything else is meaningless.
The same day she disappeared around noon without telling anyone she left. I later discovered she told the part-time employee she was leaving. She should have informed her supervisor, me. The next day she called in with an excuse. My entire staff started to fill me in on what my assistant was telling everyone. She had so many stories and dramas she could not keep them straight. I was done. I called her. She did not answer. I left a message I would not need her services anymore.
My Fault and Lesson Learned
We were all concerned for my assistant. She had melted down like I’ve never seen before. To go from such praise to utter destruction blew my mind. I attempted to call her again and she did not answer again. The next day her grandmother dropped off the key. She had no news. For the next month several people from the office attempted to contact her. No response. To say the least, we were worried.
Her unprofessional response validated my decision. Of course, she is responsible for her own behavior while on the job and after. If she would have pulled me over to the side and said, “Keith, I am uncomfortable with Mrs. Accountant babysitting my son and my home life is upside down. Please give me a chance.” I would have offered extended family leave on the spot. Her job would have been waiting for her when she was ready. My only condition would have been a weekly progress report so we could plan for her return and to satisfy everyone’s concerns in the office. As one client said, “She is a sweet girl.” And when she is on task she comes across as a very gentle, kind, and caring person.
After a month her head popped above water. She left the office hanging, but a message got to me saying: “There has been a lot of life changes, lots of ups and downs and many learning experiences. Looking forward to the future and seeing the silver lining in all we have experienced the good and the bad. Sometimes it is hard to stay positive but that's what we all have to do!”
I hope she reconsiders her position of ignoring people who once found her a valuable team member, talented, and intelligent. My guess is she told so many people different stories and lies, including family and friends, she is embarrassed to talk to anyone from the office or even reconsider her job which I officially list as unpaid family leave. More than ever she needs to reconsider that position. To run and hide would be damaging to her already fragile self-esteem. When you mess up as bad as she did you need to repair bridges.
Lessons are only learned if you go back and make it right, no matter how hard it is, or embarrassing. You may have said things to people who will now call you on it, but this is good because it allows you to “own up” to your behavior. You have to make it right to move forward or you keep repeating the same mistakes.
The chances of me hiring her back are slim after her reaction. I would listen to her and look for the “silver lining” she mentions. If she said the right words I would reconsider. By her own admission she is a self-destruction serial offender. She needs to break through her glass ceiling of low self esteem. The best thing for her would be to come back to work and face her own behavior and rise above it. Doing so would turn her into a professional, as well as, convince her psyche she is worth more. Serial emotional breakdowns are not healthy and from what I saw it was all self-inflicted, starting just when things were ready to look up for her. She had liftoff and then hit abort for no reason. Her home life was a challenge. It was winnable if she focused on her issues rather than everyone else.
There is an element of fault with me, too. If I were ever to take my administrative assistant and, as Rockefeller suggests, chip away the rough, unneeded stone to reveal a work of art people marvel at for ages, and make her a superstar, I needed to take a different approach. First, I should have addressed the issue sooner by demanding a family leave. A break from work would have allowed her time to fix problems at home. Any meltdown would have been a family issue instead of an embarrassing and public work meltdown. Life is tough enough without the world watching your weakest moment.
Second, I should have called her into my office. By speaking with her privately, things would have been different. She would have had an opportunity to respond to my desire to cut ties due to her performance. The impersonal touch was more devastating than I imagined. I expected a quick call from her and I would have offered the “family leave” option upfront, instead of delivering the message via email because she refused to return a call.
My management style is different from most. Micromanagement is out; it drives employees crazy and makes the boss look insane. I prefer to give my team the tools to get the job done and then get out of the way. I also enjoy helping my team realize their personal goals and build into the business budget funds to help my team do just that. Extensive training programs from third parties are a great way for employees to grow and the company covers the cost.
My administrative assistant complained I did nice things for her and she was concerned. Why would Mrs. Accountant help out as a temporary daycare until a permanent solution was found? Something devious is up! My team informed her I do nice things for all employees. I borrowed money to an employee once (it was serious matter), helped one buy a car so she could see her children, and provide financial advice when requested. Recently I gave free computers to four employees. Old office computers were wiped and software reinstalled by my IT team. Rather than paying to discard the good machines, I offered them for free to my employees. It was not me trying to manipulate you; I didn’t want to pay to dispose of electronics and the machines are business class computers, great for at home. Everybody wins! Sometimes it pays to be nice. It is okay to accept a gift. You deserve it. Or maybe, just maybe, I am up to something sinister. The boss does have shifty eyes.
There are many lessons I learned here; hopefully you also learned from my experience. I allowed a disintegrating situation to fester too long. Then it was too late. Not all employers are understanding. I would still recommend speaking with your employer if your life is upside down and you need leave time. My administrative assistant says the right words, but keeps repeating the mistakes. My wish is for her to find the courage to break through the self-doubt and self-pity. She really is a talented young lady and one of the most intelligent people I ever met. I wish I had the skills and talent to harness such awesome opportunity. If I did my name would be Rockefeller.
[Part Two will include lessons learned land lording, investing, running a business, marriage, farming, raising children with disabilities, public speaking, and solitude.]