Journey into leadership: Tough decisions

New leaderThis post is part of a series that follows A.M. Starkin, a young manager taking his first major steps into leadership. Starkin writes here to share his experiences and to get input from others, so please share with him your thoughts and ideas.

If you have forgotten me completely – or if this is the first post of mine you read, I have recently been given my first profit/loss responsibility – in the task of turning a round a badly managed, loss-giving, small company with low morale. You can find the back story here.

I started by giving away my authority to each individual employee – a thing which paid off very well on the motivation scale – and I was and am still hoping for the rest to follow. My personal problem is time constraints – I am allowed only 1 day per week on this task as I have plenty of other priorities.

The whole of December I did not post – here is what happened:
I usually don’t agree with people who make the manager’s job difficult. I tend to believe that managing is only difficult if you are an authoritarian control-freak, because in that case you more or less have to do all the thinking of your whole team – which is really difficult.

Normally I think the really difficult thing in a manager’s job is everything that does not pertain to being a people manager, but which pertains to business mechanics, operational processes, building client relations etc.

But December has been tough. Luckily I just began following some martial arts training which gives me quite a morale and energy boost – otherwise this post would have featured a worn out Starkin ready to be thrown on the scrap heap. The manager is often an employee himself, and this employee here became sick and tired of working for other than myself.

My boss disallowed me more time for the small company I am trying to save – the subject of this series – and I felt so unable to help, since most of the urgencies I simply have to leave as they are with the time I have available. It might be a wise decision for some greater good, but having to leave a house burning because I am trying to build another is a strange feeling.

+ I tried to get help from the mother company on HR, Finance and legal issues but got nothing but trouble out of that.

And our new malfunctioning IT system created a vicious spiral of frustration which made our recent success seem vanished. [insert ad-lib whining here].

Then I remembered: This is the environment in which I have to create my successes! To me that is a golden thought when motivation is low. Last month definitely showed me that a manager has to manage himself too and take some important inner decisions in order to stay motivated about his job.

January began with two things:
Number one: A nice graph showing me that we modestly surpassed our budget, with our sales surging the last few months of the year. I would like to think that it is due to what we did during the fall.

In order to make that curve keep rising I need to begin doing some manual sales myself – as mentioned before our corporate sales will not deliver. I don’t have any time though, so luckily I have been able to hire a trainee from this month, and time will show whether she is woman enough to run fast enough to help me there.

Number two: A report that my deputy reported sick while I was away on holiday – a report which implied that she was cheating. As you might recall, she has been strongly disloyal but greatly improving since last. My superiors are regularly asking me whether we should fire her.

This will be my call, and there is both business and ego at stake here: I have invested a lot of time in her and seen results, so I want to keep believing that I am doing the right thing by coaching her. But I seem to be the only person on the planet who believe in her, and how much can my credibility afford to suffer here?

A third thing I need to work with is my ops manager. After we recently took a session to define his job, he has been holding my hand tightly, and I have been pushing him to gradually begin taking decisions, analyzing and coming up with new ideas. I am sure and certain that he has the potential, but he is simply brought up in the company with a handicapping respect for authorities.

I will have a meeting with him this week to see how far he has advanced a plan we made to trim the workflow a little, use our systems in a better way, etc.

So: Should I keep believing in my unpopular deputy? Will I be able to sell anything? Never tried. And will my operations manager finally begin taking initiative?

This is what I am looking forward to finding out after my well-deserved Christmas vacation. Do you have some advice for me? Write a comment here.

AM Starkin

Previous posts by A.M. Starkin.

8 thoughts on “Journey into leadership: Tough decisions”

  1. Starkin – thank you for sharing your experience. I have a few thoughts about the deputy. First, I think your approach has been admirable; it’s best to keep an employee who is willing to change. However, IF she has been dishonest, you are at a turning point. Questions: Is the evidence of cheating real? Who is the “accuser” and what is his/her motivation? What action would you take if it were some other employee, one for whom you have neutral feelings? What is the accepted practice within the company: reprimand, sacking . . .? Does her actual work (results) justify her continued employment today, or are you hoping that she will become effective more quickly than the time required to find/train a replacement?

    If I believed the cheating was real, even though my knowledge might not be absolute, I would proceed. I would determine the appropriate action (let’s say sacking). Then I would present this to her calmly, effectively saying “I am sacking you for cheating.” If she is not guilty, she may respond with righteous indignation. But I think you will find out all you need to know from her response – not just whether or not she is guilty, but also whether or not she really wants to keep her job. (You also must consider any legal issues around taking disciplinary actions, as well as company policy. I obviously don’t know what these might be.) If you know that she has been dishonest, be certain that other people know it, too. Their loyalty will be affected by how fairly you handle the situation.

    If you don’t believe she cheated, or don’t have enough evidence, ask yourself: are her work results okay – is she is “pulling her weight” right now? If so, I think your credibility is reasonably immune to criticism. But if her net effect on the company is actually negative, then sacking (even if she didn’t cheat) becomes a real consideration.

    Finally, remember that your deputy may have many other things that affect her work. Your best efforts, and even her personal wish to change, may not be enough. A change of work, even though involuntary, could be the only solution.

    I won’t say “keep your emotions out of it” — obviously you care about the people as well as the work. I think you know the right answers. Perhaps the comments will give you some ideas about how to proceed.

  2. I’m not sure I fully understand what you mean by cheating? You were away on holiday, and she called in sick or something when she wasn’t supposed to? I don’t follow.

    It sounds like you’ve really got your hands tied, but that also has a way of forcing people to get creative. Reward the good progress with at least a “Good job, so and so” and keep doing what you can do encourage that while discouraging any bad behavior. Very general, I know, but sometimes that can help.

  3. I think the fact that you and your superiors don’t trust your deputy says enough.

    This is not about whether or not your deputy has cheated. This is about how much you trust this person whom you work with. If you have evidence of her doing something she is not supposed to, then you would have already fired her.

    Ask yourself this: Can I continue working with her in the current capacity knowing that my superiors and I can not trust her not to “cheat”? (We still don’t know exactly what you meant by “cheating” – the complexity of the ethical dilemma is currently ambiguous)

  4. AM: I think you need to find out what’s been going on. Even if your deputy called in sick without being so, there may have been a good reason for it.

    That being said, if there is not a really good reason for her absence, then you must consider firing her.

    Sales can be a lot of fun – I’ve certainly enjoyed it. But only if you go about it the right way. Here’s some inspiration about sales:
    Selling by giving

    Also go here, and click on the chapter called “redefining work”. The last story is about a sales team.

  5. That cheating deputy should probably worry me more – if Lisa, Matt, Mike and Alexander are right. My intuition – which quite often wins the arguments with my reason – holds that I shouldn’t even begin investigating it. Even though it is my boss who told me that he found her absence ‘suspicious’, I consider it hearsay.

    Reason supports this – because all the good things I am building in this office might well be completely ruined if I stop having confidence in the person who is going to make it all happen for me (as mentioned I am away 2-3 days per week).

    I am forgetting about that day on sickleave, whether my deputy was in cramps or not – but I also sense that this is one of my weak points.

    Am I arguing as I do because I fear the consequences of a necessary conflict? Interesting!!!

  6. AM: Aha, that is a very different situation. If it’s just a matter of someone’s (baseless) suspicion over one sick day, I’d say don’t let that undermine your faith in your deputy. That doesn’t even warrant investigation.

    I support your intuition on thise one :o)

  7. ++ on Alexander’s comment. One sick day is nothing.

    A friend of mine had a woman working for him who would frequently call in sick on Mondays. It was pretty obvious that she was just hung over from parties on Sunday, and he eventually told her she needed to be more responsible and stop taking Mondays off, or at least use personal or vacation days for something like being hung over. She was a great employee, and this was the only thing souring the relationship. She’s not doing that anymore, and she’s still a great employee (and always fun to hang out with).

    Misusing sick leave is a misdemeanor on the scale of things, and unless there is a pattern and the person isn’t doing a good job hiding it, there isn’t much you can do because you’ll never really know unless you become a monger on the issue. Focus on the results and the person’s at work personality. Fire her for something big like continued disloyalty, whatever that is in today’s corporate culture. Loyalty comes from both ends and if she’s improving then maybe she deserves some loyalty from you, as it seems you want to give her. Kudos on that. However, if it really really bothers you after a time, then voice the concern with her instead of letting it fester into a grade school grudge.

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