We were trying to grow up and do what other businesses do. I don’t remember whose suggestion it was, but we started doing quarterly reviews. In a fluid, growing business it was hard to know where you stood. Hard to tell what you were supposed to be doing and if you were doing it well. Everyone needed clarity.
The logistics were a challenge. There was a two-foot gap between the top of the conference room walls and the ceiling. That doesn’t sound like much, but it could be frustrating if you were in a private meeting and there was a ping-pong match happening on the other side.
It also meant that if there was a delicate discussion that needed to stay in the conference room (for example, a quarterly review) and it was quiet in the office, everyone heard everything–not exactly conducive to these conversations.
There was a cinder block garage behind us that was unoccupied during the day. It later became our office, but at that time it was used by a hacker collective. There were 3D printers, rows of servers, dozens of computers in various stages of disassembly, and discarded caffeinated beverages. It was our best option.
I sat on a squalid reproduction Victorian couch saved from a neighbor’s porch. One person at a time came down to talk. We tried to keep it simple. The reviews were framed around what we should start, stop, and continue doing. They were going well, but I was putting off the hardest one for last.
He came down and sat in the chair opposite me. The last review of the day. I said, “I want to come right out with it. I don’t think this is going well.” He agreed and was glad there were so many things to work on. I said, “I am not being clear. This isn’t going to work. It has already been too much time.”
His eyes got big. Then they narrowed. He started to cry. “I thought this was the place we were going to grow together. What happened to all that stuff you said?”
I was looking at my shoes and the oil-stained concrete floor nodding. I thought about all the things I said. And, most importantly, the things I didn’t say.
I felt terrible. I wanted to take it back and say that it was my fault. That we could put a plan together. That we would figure it out. But I knew that we couldn’t.
I also knew that it was my fault. I should never have hired him. We were in a bind and needed someone, so I made the call. His skill set was not what we needed. In reality, there wasn’t time for training. It was a bad cultural fit. At that time we hadn’t articulated our values, so it was a vague feeling of unease rather than a clear decision.
The biggest problem was that he hadn’t seen it coming. If you manage people, you owe it to them to let them know if they are meeting your expectations. There was no process to get someone back on track, so I thought firing him was the only way. That meeting should have been the place to set clear plan for the next couple of weeks. We should have set the guideposts to either get back on track or part ways.
I didn’t do that. I regret it.
Here is what I wish I had known.
It feels like you are in a bind, but it will be worse with the wrong people.
If things aren’t going well, say it. Being positive is sometimes a disservice.
If something isn’t working, set a clear path to get on track or part ways.
People deserve the dignity of knowing where they stand and why.
Ultimately, it was your mistake. Fess up to it.