Firing a Key Executive: Possible Outcomes

Below are the possible outcomes to the hypothetical situation I posed in my previous blog post, “Firing a Key Executive”.

I was fired from my first job as a programmer after college and I’ve always agonized over terminations ever since.  The day I was fired was one of the worst days of my life and no matter how it was presented, I felt like my world had collapsed.  The event had a profound impact on my career and my actions as a manager.  For me, there’s nothing easy about firing someone.

That said, I’ve had to fire many people in my years as a manager and CEO.  My worst days were when I knew I had to have “the conversation”.  While firing just anyone is hard enough, the most difficult terminations were people who I had also recruited and hired as a direct report.  I find it disappointing to see my “rock star” fail and having a vested interest in the person makes the decision quite difficult.  There is usually a long period where the decision process loops:  fire, coach, keep, fire, coach, keep, (repeat).  As a result, termination day often happens long after I’ve internally decided that the person needs to go.

Industry wisdom suggests that you fire someone immediately after recognizing that a person must be let go.  I agree with this and I’ve never looked back on a termination saying, “I should have waited longer to do something.”  Way easier said than done.

Earlier in my career, I always wanted to spend the time to work things out for my employees, especially the folks who I hired and managed directly.  Unfortunately, it was rarely the case where I was able to change the outcome and I would often waste precious time not moving forward with the termination and subsequent re-hire.  Furthermore, the impact on the organization and the reflection of me as a manager all took its toll as I tried to work things out (and inevitably put off the decision).  All things considered, I’ve since learned that moving forward quickly is the best overall approach.  Firing someone still sucks.

Let’s look at the SpiderNet case and break down some of the pros and cons of each choice.

  1. Find a different job in the company.  It is very rare in a startup that you will actually have a job opening for another role that can be filled by a person with a different skill set who you also want to terminate.  This may be easier in larger companies, but not at a startup.  You need to be brutally honest with yourself before making a lateral move and ask, “Is the new position needed and is this person best for that job?”  If yes, then move the person.  Otherwise terminate.  In the SpiderNet case, you are dealing with a person who is lazy and, in my experience, character flaws cannot be corrected, regardless of where you put the person.  Once lazy, always lazy.  There are additional negatives by creating a new position: how does the rest of the team feel when you “protect” a non-performer?  Are you seen as wasting money creating a “non-job”?  Are you not stepping up to deal with the problem?
  2. Put on a performance plan.  Performance plans are generally useless for executives.  These plans are nothing more than negotiated action items that are a problem to manage and never get at the core of the issue.  My philosophy is that a senior executive is expected to bring a level of expertise and job performance to where you don’t need to hand-hold them with a list of negotiated action items.  Do the job or leave.  At the end of the three-month plan, the executive usually makes most of the pre-negotiated goals, but you’ve not made the person less lazy or any more competent.  They’ve simply made it through a set of hoops and you still want to get rid of them.  Human Resource directors in larger companies always want to put people on plans but I have never seen a three-month plan change the long-term outcome for an executive.  Plans only prevent you from making an important change today.
  3. Fire and re-hire.  As you might imagine, this is my preferred outcome.  Do it and move on.  Get the new hire process going and don’t screw around.  Always treat the person you are terminating with dignity, put together a respectable termination package, and never make the termination personal.  In the SpiderNet case, I might ask the co-founder to step back in to run engineering on an interim basis while I searched for a new VP.

When running a software company, hiring is one of the most leveraged activities we can do.  The higher the position, the more impact and importance that hire has on the success of the company.  At an executive level, hiring the wrong person can result in months or years of delay and hiring the right person can help to accelerate the business to entirely new levels.

When a critical hire needs to be made, I have often made the mistake of focusing on managing the department that has the opening, rather than focusing on making the right hire.  I have since learned that prioritizing hiring first and managing the department second yields a much more successful hire.

Finally, and I’ll say it again: Firing someone sucks, so take the time to hire correctly and you’ll never have to be in a position to have “the conversation”.  Let me know the secret when you achieve 100% success.

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