“Coming from the Marine Corps, I always felt that you had to be hard charging and no nonsense to get results,” says Johnson in an article I read earlier today on Inc.com. “But many of my employees withered under the pressure. I didn’t give them a chance to grow. I fired them.”
Ironically, Johnson’s company advised federal agencies and other companies on how to train and nurture employees. “I had been running a human resource company for more than a decade, and I’d written a book about career management,” she said. “I would help my clients’ employees identify why they weren’t getting promoted and develop more skills. But I wasn’t doing those things for my own staff.”
This wouldn’t be the first CEO to realize that they weren’t “eating their own dog food.” Fortunately for her, her company, and her employees, things are different now.
I’ve worked for several people over the years who seemed to think that their employees were stupid and anyone they fired likely deserved it. I’ve also worked for a few “drill sergeants” over the years who didn’t realize they were driving good people away as Johnson did.
“I had blamed the people I fired,” she said. “But no one is going to come to your company perfect. If you look at the common thread, it was me. It wasn’t our hiring practice, because we vetted people really well. But once they were here, I didn’t help them flourish.”
At the beginning of my career I worked with a guy who used to say, “If you don’t like it, don’t let the door hit you in the…” You get the point. Every employee that left the company was an idiot. In another company, after seven or eight months with a new department head, 11 out of 15 employees had left the company—all but one or two of them voluntarily. In an organization that “claimed” to have a great company culture, the first five or six employees that left didn’t even throw up a red flag as talented (and senior) people jumped ship because of the “great company culture.”
What did Johnson do?
“More than anything, I had to allow people to utilize their strengths,” she said. “I had focused on weaknesses. If you weren’t good at something, I would try to get you to correct it. But you can’t change who people are. All you can do is give them an environment where their positive attributes will expand.”
A few years ago I was in a performance review with the VP who oversaw our group. It was a very positive review. It was so positive that as the meeting drew to a close, I had to ask what I could work on to improve my performance. His answer surprised me. He said, “What you do well, you do really well. I couldn’t be happier with your performance. I’m not really worried about the things you don’t do well. They really aren’t that important.”
I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but rather suggest, that after some digging, he shared a couple of legitimate things I could work on, but I left feeling like I was making a meaningful contribution to the organization and doing a good job. He was focusing on my strengths. This falls right in line with what Johnson discovered and what I have always believed. People are a collection of their individual strengths and weaknesses. Focusing on strengths makes if possible for people to succeed as they work on their shortcomings. A dogged focus on weaknesses leads to high attrition (both voluntary and involuntary).
Here are three questions to ask yourself to gain insight into whether or not you are the problem:
- Am I always right? If you take a “My way or the highway” attitude about things generally, you might be the problem. The best leaders I’ve ever worked with were able to objectively look at other opinions, see the different point of view, and sometimes change a course of action. My Dad, who was a great person and a pretty good small business leader, liked to say that he was “the King” of his little organization. Even if he was wrong, doing what he directed was the best course of action. That may have worked 30 or 40 years ago (he hadn’t been a Marine, but had served in the Navy and had that same attitude Johnson had), but it doesn’t work today. What’s more, he wasn’t the only small business leader I’ve known that felt that way. If you’re always the smartest guy in the room, either you have an incredibly inflated ego or you’ve made some very poor hiring decisions. If you’re always right—you’re likely wrong.
- Does my company seem to have a revolving door? I’ve observed (and the proponderance of the research seems to bare this out), that most people leave because of their relationship with their boss. If you have a steady stream of people joining and then leaving your firm, whether it’s voluntary or involuntary, you likely have a problem. Attrition is a fact of life, however if you are always replacing key people, you might need to take a good look in the mirror.
- Am I having a hard time filling key positions? If you’re difficult to work with, it doesn’t really take too long for word to get around. I once had a recruiter call me because he noticed a lot of people leaving the company and wanted to find out if it was a difficult place to work. Of course, like any business, there were challenges, but it wasn’t as bad as it appeared looking from the outside in. Nobody wants to work with someone who has a reputation for being a jerk. If you have a problem keeping people, word get’s around and it will be more difficult to fill key positions. Sometimes, even making an offer that can’t be refused—is refused.
Johnson says, “I haven’t fired anyone in more than a year, and we’ve tripled our number of employees. That’s huge. One of my employees just had her one-year anniversary at the company. At a recent team-building event, she said, ‘The life I had a year ago is not the same life I have today.’ That let’s me know that I’m on the right path.”
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
Small business evangelist and veteran of over 30 years in the trenches of Main Street business, Ty makes small business best practices, tips and advice accessible by weaving personal experiences, historical references and other anecdotes into relevant discussions about leading people, managing a business and what it takes to be successful. Ty also shares his passion for small business every week on Forbes.com.