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Gentry (not his real name) was complaining to me how he hated his business life. It was ruining his personal life. He hadn’t considered how we really just have one life, intertwined into a variety of roles. Marci Alboher calls them “slashes” – as in those slashes behind our name.
He started his business about 30 years ago. Those initial years were hard, but he put in the necessary work to build a business that put over eight figures on his net worth. Now he’s lamenting about all the people who have let him down through the years. The conversation drones on and on. I remain silent, knowing that it’s part of the process to let him fully express every frustration he’s got. Besides, what he says will be used against him later. For his own good.
Gentry has hired one manager after another. None have survived much longer than a couple of years. He’s never terminated any of them. They’ve simply taken advantage of his good graces, then moved on. Thankless scoundrels! Well, that’s how Gentry sees it. The reality is he’s impossible to work for – or with.
Through the years he’s been quick to hire people based on the stuff he’d rather not be stuck doing. He’s neglected to properly vet candidates to hire the one most capable of helping him build his business. Like a guy looking for a specific kind of girl, Gentry has always gone searching for the most compliant person. The person he could manipulate the easiest. They didn’t at first see it for what it was, but in time – they figured it out. That’s when they’d quit. Sometimes without notice. Just walk away…so they could escape Gentry. Every time he saw it as the absolute lowest form of loyalty and a gross betrayal.
Rinse and repeat. It’s how Gentry’s entire career went, as a manager or leader of people.
The tenacity and pigheadedness necessary to build a successful business had more often than not bit him in the butt when it came to creating a thriving organization. He often complained that people were his biggest headache.
I did my homework. I knew the history of Gentry’s business. I dug into the details. It was not easy. People were quite reluctant to talk or discuss Gentry’s leadership. Fear ran rampant throughout the company. Stories began to unfold of a man who would quickly and openly “dress people down.” But it wasn’t too hard to piece together what was happening.
People were intimidated and manipulated. All who were willing to talk expressed it in one way or another. Some were more vocal about it than others, but you could sense the despair in each of them.
Two different groups. Both miserable. For their own reasons. And I was left to wonder why people behave as they do, and why they tolerate the behavior they do.
Conclusion? Until people get fed up, nothing changes. For Gentry, or his employees. Both groups were miserable. Both were miserable because of the conduct of one man. Gentry’s misery was the result of his own poor management skills. His people were miserable because he was a terrible leader.
Day after day they all remained exactly where they were because they were not yet fed up with their situation. When employees got fed up, they simply walked away without notice. It was the safest course of action to avoid confrontation with Gentry. When Gentry got fed up he blew up, cussed a blue streak and humiliated somebody – or made the entire staff pay with extra work, added hours to a schedule or some other exercise of control over their lives.
Everybody resented how things were. It was quite clear to me that this was not a situation I could change. Only one man had that ability. Gentry. And I was not convinced he would. I certainly wasn’t confident that anything I’d say would overcome years of autocratic behavior.
I had nothing to lose by shelling it down. I just had to be careful so there’d be no dead bodies when I left. I had to protect the employees from Gentry’s wrath.
The message was simple, but complex. “Until you’re fed up with how things are, things will continue as they always have,” I told Gentry. “You’ve created the business you want. I have to conclude that it works for you – at some level.”
Yes, there was lots of prior conversation. Consulting is like being a bad reporter. You have to sometimes bury the lead. Otherwise you risk failure. Possibly a bloody nose.
Gentry bristled. “I’m here to help,” I told him. “The world is full of people who will tell you what you want to hear. You’ve managed to surround yourself with those people. If that worked, you wouldn’t need somebody like me. But unlike all these other people who have to consider their own welfare – and how things will go with you, their boss – I don’t have that burden. I’m here to help you get better results. That’s all I care about.”
I took out my white towel and began to wave it after a few sessions of straight-talk and a few glimmers of hope that Gentry would “see the light.” It’s a white hand towel I use to wipe clean whiteboards. At last, I’d had enough.
“I surrender to your determination that you’ve created exactly the life you want – which is why you’re never going to experience anything other than what you’ve got.”
“So, you’re gonna quit, too?” asked Gentry.
“No, I’m not quitting, you are. There’s simply nothing left here for me to do. You’re determined to have things your way. Nobody can help you. Until you’re fed up with how things are, things will continue as they have. You’ll keep feeling like you invest in people. People will continue to disappoint you. You’ll never build an organization that can work effectively because you micro-manage everything. And I rather suspect that’s exactly how you want it. You love being the dictator of your business. But it comes with a high price tag. So you moan and groan about how the minions are letting you down, but you’re all powerful around here. Only you have the power to change things.”
“I don’t agree with that at all. I’ve done everything I can to help these people. I’m into everything because these idiots can’t seem to do it right unless I’m involved. That’s exactly what I want to get away from. I just want competent people who will do the job right.”
You can’t fight delusion. You simply hope to help people see things clearly so they can find their way out of the maze. Sadly, the fact was, this business owner was not yet fed up with how things were – and didn’t seem likely to get fed up any time soon. I firmly, but respectfully worked hard to teach him that the things most needed in his company would likely only happen when he reached a point where he simply couldn’t stand it anymore. A point where he was fed up with how things were. A point where he would finally assume some responsibility that HE was the problem.
He wasn’t there yet. His current employees weren’t there yet. They would likely get their before he would. And they’d walk. Leaving him behind to feel reinforced in his sad belief that “these people” were ungrateful and full of betrayal. Everybody would eventually let him down. Nobody could be trusted to do good work unless he was breathing down their neck, threatening them openly in front of their co-workers and reminding them of his supreme authority.
Graham (not his real name) is a mid-level manager in a production outfit that produces and warehouses paper products. It’s a high volume enterprise with lots of blue collar workers, including some shift supervisors. Graham has been in the company for a long time, far longer than any of the shift supervisors who report to him. That seems important because Graham wears that fact proudly. His longevity is an indicator of his superiority over his direct reports. They’re reminded of it constantly.
Like Gentry, he’s an obsessed micro manager who can’t or won’t delegate without lots of interference. But his most endearing quality is a trigger temper. He’ll rail on people with very little provocation. Mostly, anybody who challenges him, no matter how respectful they are. He demands complete and utter subordination. When he doesn’t get it, he views it as a personal affront. Direct reports will endure a public brow beating if they so much as ask a question he feels should not be asked.
At first blush, Graham is super sensitive about his position and authority. But after some visits with his staff – and with him – it’s clear he’s a man living under the cloud of daily threats. Everything seems to threaten him. If it weren’t for my experience, I’d think he might have a drug problem because he has a Jekyll and Hyde personality that can turn on a dime…and he’s very paranoid. His direct reports are out to get him. He’s fairly convinced they intentionally do their best to make him look bad.
The supervisors seems quite dedicated. They keep their head down and go about their business with little or no fanfare. It’s rather obvious they’re constantly aware of Graham’s prying eyes and listening ears. They do their best to not catch his wrath. Like the student in class fearful of being called on, they prefer to not make eye contact – or any other kind – if they can help it. But it doesn’t work. Graham is always prowling for people to blame, problems to be pointed out and people who need to ripped. I can’t help but think, “At least he’s soaring with his strengths.” It’s just sad that his strengths are those of a world-class jerk.
My first sign of trouble is Graham’s lack of introspection. I ask for an overview of the challenges in his daily work. “I know every job here better than anybody else. If these people would just do what I say, then things would be so much nicer.”
Graham, like many autocratic managers, has multiple leadership challenges. I don’t go in guns ablaze trying to “fix” people. You can’t fix people, but you can help people. That’s my intention with Graham, just like any client. But Graham’s situation is different because he didn’t hire me. In the coaching world, it’s often called a “sponsor.” That’s just a polite way of saying, a boss or superior. Sometimes a boss will see such value in a person they want to do something to help that person elevate their performance, or find solutions to poor behaviors. Graham’s boss wants to see if Graham can be saved.
Graham is in trouble, but he has no clue. He’s a kick-butt-take-names kind of manager. That’s worked for him for over 15 years. It’s all he knows. But the boss isn’t happy because he’s grown tired of hearing Graham blame his supervisors and others for every single problem. Some months ago the boss had an epiphany. Maybe Graham has outlived his usefulness. It’s time to do things differently. My task is to help Graham figure it out.
The elephant in the room is that Graham isn’t self-reflective. He doesn’t see himself as he truly is. When I ask him what he thinks on the way home from a day’s work, he nonchalantly says in our first meeting, “I don’t think anything. I just go home.” I probe a bit asking him if he ever replays how he handled things, or does he ever wonder if he might have been able to handle something better. “No, not really,” he says. Graham is doomed.
As badly as I’d like to be hero and save Graham, I’m not that good. Nobody is. Graham just does what he does because it’s worked for him for 15 years. When the ax falls – and it will – he’s going to be blindsided. He’ll never understand what happened. The behavior that got him there isn’t going to take him any further. Like a bus ride that only goes to Phoenix when you want to get to L.A. — Graham is at the end of the line. It’s time to board another bus that can take him further, but he’ll end up sitting alone on a bus parked in Phoenix bewildered why it’s no longer moving.
I won’t tell you how Graham’s story ends, but I’ll tell you that with his boss’ permission I was candid with Graham. I uttered a phrase I’ve said far too often in my career when trying to help a manager who is at risk.
“You’re in trouble.”
By this point I had realized without such candor Graham was never going to comprehend the urgency of his situation. The boss was happy to let me do the dirty work. I was happy to do it because I felt it gave Graham the best chance to see his circumstance more clearly.
I’d love to tell you that Graham responded positively. That he opened up and displayed a high level of willingness to do the work necessary to become a spectacular leader. But that didn’t happen.
Instead, he was puzzled. Bewildered. And he lacked the ability to examine himself accurately. Or to listen to staff who were capable and willing to help him better understand what he was doing wrong. Supervisors reported how often they had tried to express how he made them feel, but it always ended poorly. Each time they regretted saying anything. Overtime, each was conditioned to shut up, endure it as long as you can, and work feverishly to find a better job where leadership wasn’t abusive.
Graham never saw it as abusive. He saw it as “hard charging.” He used words and phrases like “demanding” and “high expectation.” It’s common for me to ask staff about their leader, “Is he a hindrance or a catalyst for high performance?” I don’t care how low level the employee may be, they will always quickly respond with one or the other (of course, only after I’ve earned their trust). Without hesitation we all know if our leaders are serving us well, or not. Graham’s direct reports were no different. Graham was THE problem. Graham was stifling higher human performance. To a man, they were convinced, that if Graham were gone, they’d all be able to do more, do better and have more fun in the process.
I had a few more sessions with Graham after the “you’re in trouble” conversation. My goal was to rattle him enough to cause some self-reflection. I had hoped to help him tire of his miserable existence where his staff were constantly creating issues for him. I told him, “Your success is my success. Don’t you understand that if I can help you, then it makes me look good. I’m completely invested in YOU. In helping you.”
I thought he believed me. And I think he did. Sorta. As much as he could. His boss has concluded – before ever engaging me – that Graham had likely just gone as far as he could go. He hoped he was wrong, but I could see in his eyes when we first met to discuss this “intervention” that I was going to be Graham’s last hope.
I shook his hand after our final session – some months after it all began – and wished him well. All along he had been a very reluctant “client.” He never called. He never texted me. He never emailed me. He only responded when I reached out first. Those are barometers for me of how interested clients are in my help. The good ones – most of them are good – are so interested in elevating their performance they can’t wait to get on with the next step in the process. Ideas are flooding their minds. That never happened with Graham because he never got fed up with himself or with what he might do better. Instead, he devoted himself to being fed up with all the people surrounding him. Never considering that they all had one thing in common – he was their boss.
Question: Are you fed up enough to make the changes necessary so your success can reach the next level?
When are you going to get so sick and tired of it that you actually do something about it?
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